Lent, Finitude, and the Ebb of Life

Image result for low tide public domain

Slowing down is not easy for me. There is always something I want to do or something that seems to be looming over me to get done. We live in one of the busiest societies ever despite all our technological progress to help us be more efficient. It is a strange irony that given the tools to do our tasks more quickly, we have found ourselves with even less time than we did before.

Somewhere along the way we’ve convinced ourselves that greater efficiency would give us space to slow down, but instead, all it has given us is the time to be more efficient with other things. The problem is not that we don’t have enough time. The problem is that we are finite creatures operating as though we are not.

Whether it’s my third cup of coffee to keep me going or the generous pour of whiskey to force me to stop, our lives have been robbed of a natural ebb & flow. A characteristic mark of a mortal creature is one of up’s and down’s. Times of real joy and real sorrow. Moments of deep rest and painful labor. Feelings of love and loneliness. Satisfaction and disappointment. Give and take. Life and death.

Life can feel like a constant, breathless flow. We work incessantly. We are constantly connected. We listen to the radio to keep our moods up. And we numb out with whatever we can so that we can finally go to bed. We live like creatures that will never die, but hurry is foreign to what’s eternal.

Lent season has forced me to ebb and exhale. It starts with Ash Wednesday’s existential reminder that “we are dust and to dust shall we return” and involves the conscious deprivation of something that will leave a noticeable hole in our day-to-day lives. As someone new to these past seasons of Lent, it feels like a disruption to my own delusions of independence and infinite limits.

It has punctured holes in my routines and forced me to meet with God in the gaps and exposed to me my own deeper longings. Where I would normally distract myself, I am forced to engage with myself. I am forced to pray in these areas of lack. St. Augustine once wrote that “the continuance of your longings is the continuance of your prayer” and that’s probably why prayer is often hard for me.[1] I’d rather fill the gaps of my life than have to sit in my own emptiness and experience my own longings. In other words, it’s too hard for me to pray when I’m too busy to desire anything.

Desire is another mark of a finite creature. We eat, we get full, we get hungry, repeat. We see friends, we need solitude, we feel lonely, repeat. All of us have routines of longings which ebb & flow. The delusional creature is always full and always connected: we overdesire and do what we can to prevent the ebb. But the consciously finite creature can stick out his or her hands in desirous prayer to makes space to receive what she knows she needs.

It is with empty hands that we come to see the love and grace perennially extended to us. As my friend Wes recently wrote, “Unclench your fists. Breathe deeply. Let your heart rate decrease. Know that you’re already bathed in the Father’s love, and ask simply for what you need, in the assurance that the One to whom you’re speaking is already cupping His ear in your direction.”[2] Like the prodigal son with his empty pockets stumbling on home only to be met by a full embrace and a full feast, it’s in the ebb of our lives that we come to see the great provisional grace of Another’s flow towards us.

 

[1] St. Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 37:13.

[2] Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer, 3. You can buy his book here.