The beginning of Lent seems like an appropriate time to take a moment and reflect on the prayer journals I used to keep, which I mentioned once before. These were tiny green notebooks in which I started writing in the summer of 1994, when I was 17. The first entry is dated ambiguously July 10-15, and I was at church camp when I wrote it. I proceeded to keep these journals through my senior year of high school and right on into college, though at some point there is a decided shift from a penitent, prayerful, supplicating tone to a more cynical, curious, suspicious one. They were decidedly not prayer journals by the end, last entry January 9, 1999.
But what do I mean by prayer journal? What was it, exactly? At the time it was a conversation with God. Some people had them out loud, I had mine on the page. That was then. Looking at them now they are miniature pages filled with angsty requests about things I did and did not want: to acquire, to happen, to discover and, eventually, to admit. What strikes me most about them now is my astonishing deference to this God into whose hands I committed so much joy and fear and desire. There’s a lot of “I praise your holy name,” “Thy will be done,” and “Please be with me, dear sweet Lord.” (Upon close inspection it turns out I was writing mostly about boys I had unacknowledged crushes on!) Reading back through them, it was all so simple-minded and selfish, immature, whiney even. But at the time it seemed really important. I think part of what I liked was the practice, the tradition, the continuous writing. At the end of each entry I would write, dramatically, “I close.” Terrible! And as I approached the last page of each little notebook I would wax lyrical about the “end of an era.” (I’ve said too much.)
The absurdity of the language combined with the earnestness of the sentiments reminds me of emails I receive periodically from distant friends or extended relatives, in which the language of the valedictions consistently baffles. For example, I’ve received messages signed variously:
In His Grip (or, I’ve also seen, In His Mighty Grip)
Seeking His Beautiful Face
Or, hands down my favorite: Under the Span of His Loving Wing
Some of these make about as much sense as the fact that in the front of each of my prayer journals I assiduously taped the pithy prophecies I received from Chinese fortune cookies that said obnoxious things like “Long life is in store for you,” or “This is your lucky day!” or, another favorite, “You’re the greatest in the world.” Apparently my faith at the time was intertwined with Chinese dessert divinations which, considering the overall theological sophistication of both, makes sense.
So language is on my mind this year as Mardi Gras comes to a close and Lent begins. The language I used in the journals, the language in the emails I receive from time to time, and especially the language that is so common this time of year, the language of giving something up — it all just seems so absurd. Giving something up for Lent seems to have lost its meaning entirely, sort of like new year’s resolutions, or Republicans. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of penitence and fasting — where giving something up is supposed to represent a sense of sacrifice that allows for greater focus on God, that encourages people to be more reflective and intentional in their meditation, service, and prayer. Does giving up beer do that? Or masturbation? Or the perennial favorite, chocolate? Two of these things just sound like diets, and the other unfathomable, Jesus or no! It seems to me like it becomes a sort of self-deprivation that gives you a) an answer when somebody asks, and b) something to bitch about (albeit sanctimoniously) for forty-odd days. Perhaps the beauty lies in setting a goal, and achieving it. I can see that. And truth to tell, I am better able to understand the shallow divestitures of Lent than I am to understand my previous tendency to treat God like a cosmic ebay, or certainly my aunt’s seeming penchant for turning God into some kind of giant benevolent man-bird.
Poor theologies abound, which is one reason I try to stay away from them. But sometimes it’s hard, especially when they’re your own! People keep asking me what I’m giving up for Lent. But much like every other year, I’ve decided to forgo it altogether, which means I get to keep doing all of my truly favorite things: drinking, making merry, and eating these: