Yosemite Park Photo/Wikimedia Commons via Johan Viirok (CC BY 2.0)

Why we bother with Lent

  • January 29, 2015

How do you climb a sheer rock face, 900 metres tall (that’s almost two CN Towers), with one difficult section stacked on another all the way up? Why would you climb it? And with whom?

Free-climbing the rugged Dawn Wall of Yosemite Park was thought impossible. Recently, the famous wall was climbed by two men — perhaps because of the impossibility. They did it together, with support of family and others.  

How do we enter into Lent? Why, and with whom?  

Some of us are likelier to be facing this question than the Dawn Wall, but maybe these amazing climbers can help.    

Why bother with Lent? It might be habit or obedience. Perhaps we’re tired of being asleep so much of the time or want to follow that glimpse of light or colour, that strain of sweet music — like the poet: “All night long I could not sleep, because of the moonlight on my bed.” Lent asks us to wake up. Literally, we’re supposed to pray more, spend less time indulging or even feeding ourselves. Get emptier.  

To wait, as night falls and time grows late, for the bridegroom to arrive. Will we fall asleep again or will our lanterns fade out as we wait? Will he come? If not, we’ll be the most forlorn, as well as the most foolish, of mortals. That’s the risk we take.

Some of us, like the rock climbers, relish a challenge. It’s high adventure.

Some need comfort, or company. We might take on Lent because, like the disciples, we want to go with Christ wherever He goes. Or because our fellow Christians are going. Or maybe we’re just stubborn enough to abandon the wide, crowded path and seek out the narrow one that few are taking.

We might prefer to go by ourselves, but there’s really no way to do Lent alone. Even if nobody we know goes with us, the climb is already jam-packed with those who have gone before.

So once we do decide to go through Lent towards Easter, how do we get there?

Accounts of the two men’s preparation and climb up the Dawn Wall show that training and discipline were part of their package. So was the taping of torn fingertips, bloody from clinging to tiny crevices, and waiting till they healed before starting again. And finding ways to provide for physical needs, like eating and sleeping.

Recently, chatting with one of my brothers, I asked what he finds hardest about life. Without pause, he replied:  “Self-discipline. Isn’t that always the hardest?” I’m sure self-discipline was a major tool in the climbers’ tool-kit. Certainly it’s one of the most-needed tools for Lent, and one of the most daunting.

More surprising, in the climbers’ story, was to find that their method included falling and starting over again, as needed, repeating each section until it was accomplished (as many as 11 times, on one pitch). Could falling be part of our Lenten game plan? If we fall, will we try the section again?
Patience, perseverance and fire. Complemented by humility.

In these days, with violence and brutality apparently eyeballing us wherever we turn — openly taunting us or insidiously beating us down, at the office or at home — does it really make any difference to stand at the foot of the long Lenten rock-cliff and start that climb? Wouldn’t we be better to get fighting and violent ourselves? It’s tempting. So is the apathetic route, or the hiding-in-fear option. I’ve tried them all and can’t say any of them are particularly successful.  

Instead, the gateway to the Lenten climb adorns us with ashes and takes us to the desert. We go by way of death, emptiness, temptation and sin. It’s not surprising, because that’s where we are. Deep within us, we know the anguish of our own souls. Like the songwriter: “So many hearts I find ... torn by what we’ve done and can’t undo.”   

We know the rhythm of sorrow, suffering and sin. The purpose of Lent is not so much to acquaint us with these, though we go by way of them. Deeper within, we know another rhythm. It’s harder to hear and remember, harder to set our feet to and cling to with our wounded fingertips. That’s why Lent asks us to set other things aside and learn again, like the songwriter, “that there are sorrows to be healed, and mercy, mercy in this world.”

As my flamenco teacher tells us, we have to have our “inner compás,” our inner rhythm, beating all the time, if we want to be in the dance. On this climb, mercy is our “inner compás,” the rhythm our hearts beat out.  

I don’t know if the free-climbers brought mercy along in their packs, but I know it’s what the Lenten climb is made of. “All the paths of the Lord are mercy” (Psalm 25). Let’s get to know better its taste, its smell and sight, its sound and touch.

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca.)