If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
From Ash Wednesday, by T.S. Eliot
Today is Ash Wednesday, and I am thinking about this blog post written by Dr. Amy Laura Hall two years ago. She writes:
I was lecturing years ago on Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of virtue as the mean between two extremes, and on the various penitential practices for graced habituation. Some of the precious students looking back at me had told me during office hours that they were struggling with self-cutting and/or anorexia, and a few of them were also in abusive relationships with young men who were not only not worth these women’s beautiful time, but who also had no interest in truly loving these women in their gorgeous vulnerability.
I might have stuck my nose back into my notes, and plowed forward, but I just couldn’t. I stopped the planned lecture and improvised.
I suggested, totally off the cuff, that women who struggle with anorexia should eat chocolate covered strawberries every day of Lent. People laughed a bit, but I warmed to the idea. As a Lenten practice, in order to habituate toward the mean of temperance, some women, and perhaps some men too, might need to eat exactly what they fear, but should love, in order to open themselves to God’s blessing in their student kitchenettes.I personally am not eating chocolate covered strawberries for Lent this year. My relationship to food has changed over the years thanks in part to wise women like Amy Laura, and I am a long way from the girl who went on a diet for the first time in 7th grade (7th grade!). This is not my struggle, but it is a struggle for so many women that I know. The self-emptying of Lent is tricky territory for women who have been, as Amy Laura points out in her essay, “schooled in self-emptying” and “habituated to submit.” If virtue really is the mean between two extremes, we must think about Lenten practices differently.
For me, this has been a call in recent years to be honest with myself and others about where I am living in extremes. For much of my life, this has meant I remain silent when I ought to speak, or that I keep myself busy with many (albeit worthwhile) tasks when I ought to slow down, pay attention, and write. I tend to be a Martha, and I am learning to be a Mary – more so, I am learning not to feel guilty about being a Mary.
Inspired by Amy Laura to get outside of common Lenten practices, a couple years ago I wrote a poem every day during Lent. Simone Weil wrote that prayer consists in paying attention, and this practice made me pay attention to the world around me, and to myself in it. Poetry made me do this more than other writing, because I am not a poet. It pushed me outside of the usual ways I use words, and I noticed things I would not have otherwise noticed. I found beauty in the the wilderness. I found it, because I was looking for it.
This year I am trying to think creatively again about where and how Lent can be a time of challenging my oh-so-human way of leaning to extremes, and I landed on a practice that may not have an immediately obvious connection. I am writing letters – real, old fashioned paper, envelope, and stamp letters – for Lent.
“Ok, Meghan,” you might say. “You’re a writer, though. And kind of a nostalgic hipster type. So what does this have to do with Lent?”
Only this: For many reasons that I don’t need to get into here, I’ve found myself very alone lately. Not necessarily lonely, although sometimes that, too. As an introvert who really needs alone time to recharge and be able to bring good energy to my community, to be able to worship and serve the church out of the best God has given me, this is not a bad thing. Yet I have found myself in a season when, if I start to feel lonely, my reaction has been to fold in on myself instead of reaching out. The challenge of safeguarding my writing time has left me floundering around by myself when I am not working. In my quest for solitude, which is such a huge challenge in a world of busyness and group activity, I am struggling to make space for holy friendships. Add to this the fact that many of my beloved friends live far away, and that I am not much of a phone talker, and I’m like a nun without her monastery. Insofar as the writing life requires a certain monastic discipline from me, I know that I need community. I can tell myself I want or need to be a hermit, but in times like these I can see how that spirals into loneliness and despair.
I’m writing letters, because it reminds me that writing isn’t just about what I do by myself. Letters have a very specific audience – usually a particular loved one. “Letters mingle souls,” John Donne wrote. Though I value the monastic discipline of showing up at my desk and prayerfully putting words on the page each day, I also write in hope that somewhere in my words we can hear the Word. I write because I love the world – or because I am learning to love the world – God’s world.
When I send and receive letters I know that “where two or three are gathered” can cross states and continents.