I’ve had several conversations with folks who are wrestling with how to get into the right spiritual “head space” for Lent this year. More than one of you has said to me, “I feel like we’ve been in Lent for a year!” I’m still thinking about our Ash Wednesday service at St. John’s, of the care packages of dark chocolate, incense, and ashes that came with an invitation to personal discernment: “To grow close to God this Lent, I give myself permission to _______.”
I’ll take this opportunity to publicly fill in the Lenten blank and say, “I give myself permission to be sad.” As odd as that may sound, it’s actually a very difficult thing for me to do. In the Enneagram personality profile, I am type 7, sometimes called “the epicure” or “the enthusiast.” I live with FOMO (fear of missing out), I avoid pain and negativity whenever possible, and I seek beauty, adventure and fun pretty much all the time. In health, I can be centered while conveying cheerfulness and hope, but sometimes I’m prone to excess and escapism.
But 2020 broke me, and 2021 isn’t much better yet. Like many of you, I’m grieving all that we’ve lost and the unimaginable things we have witnessed. So, I’m reading spiritual writers who have the ability to help me with sit with sadness, lament what I cannot change, and lean into a more sober hope.
One writer I recommend is Fr. Alexander Schmemann, an influential Orthodox Christian priest and theologian. Born in Estonia, he taught for most of his career in the United States, though for 30 years he preached radio sermons in Russian that were broadcast by Radio Liberty into the Soviet Union. I’ve been revisiting one of his classic works, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (1969; revised ed. 1974), and I’m struck by a term he uses throughout the book, “bright sadness.” This is the sadness, he says, comes “as I face and accept the waste I have made of my life.” But Schmemann emphasizes that this spiritual sadness is meant to be experienced with the “brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of recovered desire for God” and “the peace of recovered home.”
It’s hard for a 7 to bury the alleluias, but when I do, and when I allow a different liturgy to shape me, I’m able to tap into something richer than surface positivity. I’m finding that I can experience joy in the presence of pain, the mercy of God in the presence of disillusionment. The sadness, so far, is bright.
I came across another inspiring phrase after watching Pope Francis’s Ash Wednesday homily on YouTube this week. I was helped by his pastoral insight that this season is designed to bring us back to the basic good news of the gospel: Lent is “a journey of return to God… which is possible only because [God] first journeyed to us.” Because Jesus embraced our sin and death, our journey, the Holy Father explained, “is about letting him take us by the hand.”
My prayer for you is that you would find creative ways to let God to take you by the hand. Some may need to sit and lament; others drop to your knees in thanksgiving. You may need to find new ways to be outdoors and reconnect with creation, or make time to repair a broken relationship. You may need to catch up on much needed sleep, or take a break from social media and doom scrolling. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but some of you may wake up on a Lenten Sunday and decide you need to skip the worship service and find another way to take care of yourself. Give yourself permission.
One thing I’m making time for is to dwell in stories of bright sadness. If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend you make time to watch the PBS series “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song” written and hosted by Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, a source for survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, solidarity and speaking truth to power. There’s special attention paid to the story of Blessed Absalom Jones, the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. The online description says is well: “The documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage.”
The soundtrack is haunting and moving, especially the spirituals. They exude bright sadness, but sadness in this case was brought about because of the wreck the lie of white supremacy brought upon their lives. The song I keep hearing in my mind, and now on my spotify playlist, is the incomparable Mahalia Jackson singing the hymn I’m making my personal Lenten prayer:
Precious Lord, take my hand Lead me on, let me stand I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone Through the storm, through the night Lead me on to the light Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
May you experience God’s hand in yours and the peace of recovered home.
The Rev. Dr. Scot Sherman