In Advent, the trees were naked. The path was sometimes bare, sometimes covered with snow. After storms wreaked havoc across Scotland, the path was strewn with twigs. After Christmas and through Epiphany, the air was clear and cold. It didn’t rain very often here on the east coast, at least not on Sundays. And the truly miraculous event for Canadian me was that the flowers begin to appear in January: little white snowdrops, first singly here and there, then in bunches and finally, by mid-February, in great drifts.
But that is not all. Two Sundays ago — Sexagesima by the old liturgical reckoning — green sheaths of daffodils began to sprout. This past Sunday — Quinquagesima — one daff had just begun to bloom, nodding gently over the rushing water. In the water, absent for many weeks, were two great white swans and a colony of ducks and drakes, quacking amiably together as they swam in the sun. But for all that it was a cold day. There were only hints of the crocuses to come until we came to the bridge. There, unimpeded by tree, house or gorse, the sun shone down upon an orange-tongued blaze of purple.
No, it wasn’t spring, but it was a promise of spring. How odd, then, to think that Lent began on Ash Wednesday. We often speak and think of Lent as a desert, and yet it comes as the earliest flowers are beginning to bloom. If you think of a desert as being all sand or all snow, then it really doesn’t make much sense. But if you think of a desert as merely the place out there, away from (or despite) the city, where flowers bloom, then the imagery begins to have real meaning.
A desert, or a quiet place where the natural world holds sway, is a place where you can pay attention. And Lent is a time for paying attention. It is a time of penance, of sorrow for sin, which leads to the question “What sins?” It doesn’t seem good enough simply to admit with the rest of the crowd at Mass that one has sinned, or to somehow come up with something to say before confession in Holy Week. We know we are sinners, yes, yes, but how? How are we sinners?
One of my theology professors once remarked that people very often do not know what their real sins are. They think their bosom sin is this or that, and conscientiously confess it, but they cannot see what bad habits really bedevil them. What they are can be very hard to see, and even harder to admit. For this we often need help, preferably of a confessor, a spiritual director or a therapist. I don’t recommend asking it of the people with whom you live.
We can help our spiritual helpers assist us by paying attention to what we habitually do and think and feel. There is an old Jesuit discipline of reviewing the whole day’s events before going to bed at night. This might include every interaction with a human being, and a reflection on what was said and how. This need not — and should not — be entirely negative, of course. Alongside a careless crop of vices, a careful search may bring to light also the unfurling leaves of tiny virtues.
The great Canadian Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan wrote about how difficult it can be to grasp uncomfortable realities. He called this the “flight from understanding.” Lent, during which we are encouraged to reflect on the realities of our lives, could be our flight to the desert, our flight to understanding.