The season of Lent, as I first learned about it, was a sack-cloth-and-ashes season when we church people felt sorry, maybe even ashamed, for how we had been living and the bad things we had done; we repented and tried to get back into God’s good graces; and we deprived ourselves of something we liked by taking on some onerous discipline. All of this was to prepare us for a proper celebration of Easter. We were like the fellow who, when asked why he kept hitting his head against a wall, said he did so because he felt so good when he stopped.
Now I think of Lent more like spring cleaning. William Blake, the English poet (1757-1827), wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to [us] as it is, Infinite.” We’ve closed ourselves up, he wrote, until all we can see of life is what we see through the “narrow chinks” of the cave we’ve dug for ourselves. Lent for me now is about recognizing that I usually look at life through dirty lenses, missing most of what life is really about, and deciding I want to see it differently. So I open the door and clean the windows.
Blake was right about needing to cleanse our perception, but seeing things clearly requires more than cleaning windows. It requires that we see things differently, so we live less in regret for the past, less in hope for an imagined future, and more in gratitude for what we have in this present moment. “The kingdom of God is spread upon the earth,” Jesus said, “and people don’t see it” (Gospel of Thomas 113). The wealth of heaven is spread under our feet, and Lent is about opening ourselves to look differently at the life we’re living today.
According to Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of comparative mythology and religion, if you want to change the world, you don’t do it by trying to change the world; you do it by changing the way you look at the world, by changing the way you think of it. And it was Albert Einstein, I believe, who said you can’t fix a problem with the same way of thinking that got you into the problem to begin with; you have to think in a new way. To see the kingdom of God that is spread upon the earth, you have to change the way you think.
St. Paul wrote, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will know what God wants you to do, and you will know how good and pleasing and perfect his will really is” (Rom. 12:2). Nothing else in your life may change, but changing the way you think, changing the way you see it, will make all things new. Apprehending God’s will and knowing the abundant life God has given us requires that we cleanse the doors of our perception and think in a new way, so we can see the gift that’s been right under our feet all along.
Of course, changing the way we think is not as simple as deciding to do so. We don’t change how we think; God does, our experiences in life do, opening ourselves to deep encounters with other people does, especially deep, receptive encounters with people who are very different from us, with different backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints. Moments of quiet, solitary prayer through each day help us do that. Remembering the shortness of life, remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return does that. So does a regularly observed Sabbath.
Here’s a poem for what Lent is about. It’s by Lutheran pastor and poet Gerhard Frost (“These Rude Feet,” Blessed Is the Ordinary, by Gerhard E. Frost, Winston Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 1980):
It isn’t my story,
but let me tell it:
In the Scottish highlands
a man of science knelt,
crouched in the morning dew,
the better to hold a microscope
over a heather bell.
Lost in blue traceries of exquisite design,
he saw a sun-drawn figure,
the shadow of a man.
Gazing up into a shepherd’s face,
he quickly bade him look.
One long moment
the old man stood, beholding,
pierced by microscopic patterns
in the flower.
Then he spoke: “I wish
you’d never shown me that!”
“But, why?” was the surprised response.
“Because,” the old man said,
gazing at two worn boots,
“these rude feet have crushed
so many of them.”
These rude feet,
and this God’s day,
this most resplendent hour!
Father of mercies,
give me eyes,
make me aware:
I walk in gift today.
“The night is far gone,” Paul wrote, “the day is near,” so let’s stop living as if we’re blind to the reign of God that is spread all around us, right under our feet (Rom. 13:12). Remember, we walk in gift today.