Radical Lent—A Poetic Approach to 40 Days in the Wilderness

So it’s Lent.  If you’re Christian, that is. Lent spans 40 weekdays, beginning on Ash Wednesday (today) and ending the Saturday before Easter.  I grew up Catholic, which I consider a privilege, mostly because grounding in any faith tradition gives you something to work with.  Whether you practice it or not as an adult, a childhood spent in a strong religious tradition means you are never homeless.  I may be wrong, but leaving home, while difficult, may be easier than never having had the feeling that you belonged somewhere.

Lent has some beautiful theological significance, which you can read about if you are so inclined.  But one of Catholicism’s (Catholic school, specifically) greatest weaknesses is the inability to translate deeper spiritual practices into meaningful experiences for children, so what I remember about Lent is that you either give up something you like or do something that you don’t like.  Forgive me, but the spiritual gap between Jesus’ self-sacrifice and giving up chocolate (or, as my son Jacob decided when he was 8, beer) for 40 days is so enormous as to be absurd almost beyond words.

This year I have decided on a radical approach to Lent—I am going to do more of something I love and less of things I do not love. Specifically, I have committed to the discipline of reading one poem each day for 40 days, and writing about what it reveals.  This is not really radical, because my belief is that unlike the giving up beer approach to Lent, which treats us as if we are spiritual babies, this approach will bring me more into an adult-adult dialogue with myself and the world, which I believe is what God would prefer anyway.

Yesterday my husband and I had a meeting with our oldest son’s teacher, who, like my mother, is one of the teaching profession’s best of the best.  Our kids go to a Catholic school and this has also been a privilege, though not without some significant cost to us all, both literally and figuratively.  Our son Noah is, in his own words (of which he has plenty), a rebellious free-thinker, a weighty mantle for someone not quite 14.  This, combined with a frequently abrasive manner of speaking and an underdeveloped sense of initiative, has not endeared him to some of his teachers.

One of the decisions he has struggled with over the last year was whether or not to get confirmed.  At yesterday’s meeting, his teacher showed us a letter to a priest that he had written as an assignment for religion class.  In it, Noah asked for some advice on the confirmation issue.  His questions were well-stated and honestly meant, but his teacher didn’t send the letter because Noah had also written this: “Do you ever get bored?  I get bored before I even walk into church.  But that’s probably my fault because I don’t really even try to like it.”

She said didn’t send the letter because she didn’t want to offend the priest, whom she did not know. She was showing it to us as an example of Noah’s ability to express himself, and to take responsibility when he is wrong (wrong in this case being the failure to try to like going to Mass).  I understand her decision not to mail the letter.  I really do.  It’s not only that she worried about offending a priest, but she also didn’t want to risk making the school look bad, as if they were secretly churning out disrespectful, rebellious free-thinkers here in this little corner of the Diocese.  But I think it was wrong for two reasons: 1) she did not give the priest enough credit by assuming that he would take offense.  Frankly, any priest worth his salt should be able to answer the questions of an 8th-grader without undue distress, and if he can’t, well, how seriously do we take him? And 2) she demonstrated to Noah that asking questions makes you conspicuous, and that being conspicuous is dangerous.

This is quite true—being conspicuous is dangerous.  And the desire to protect children from attracting negative attention is not misplaced.  Noah’s teacher wants to help him “play the game,” to work the system to his advantage, because he is smart enough to do so.  A year ago, I would have agreed with her, and even now I love her for loving him enough to see him for who he is, and more importantly, who he can be.  But one thing I know for sure (in case Oprah ever asks me) is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are—if you get even a whiff of the message that who you really are is not okay with the world, if you hear even in a whisper that you have to play a game in order to make it through, your head will get it, but something in your heart will be bruised, and something in your soul will close its eyes and go to sleep.  And this a far more dangerous message to send to young people who need all the fierceness and courage they can get if they are going to forge real lives for themselves in this world of ours.

So Noah decided not to get confirmed this year, and we decided to find a priest to whom we can send his letter who can help him answer some of his questions.  Confirmation in the Catholic Church is about choice, and in the end it seemed absurd for me to force him to make the choice I wanted him to make.  The poem that I have chosen to offer today is an old stand-by, Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”  Everyone should know this poem.  And Noah, this one goes out especially to you.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986

10 thoughts on “Radical Lent—A Poetic Approach to 40 Days in the Wilderness

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  1. I like your approach to Lent! That is so cool that you are going to do more of what you love. Are you going to share your writings on this blog?

    Thanks also for sharing your son’s struggles. He reminds me a bit of our Isaac. You pray for me and I will pray for you. We need wisdom in raising our boys.

    Love ya!


    1. Hi Becca! Yes, I am going to share my writings on the blog (if people can stand it for 40 days!). Thank you for your thoughts and prayers, and yes, I will pray for you and Issac as well. We DO need wisdom!


  2. I finished your piece on Lent with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. And survived several rounds of goosebumps. It’s so beautiful. And, although I have not “given up” something for Lent before, this year I am going to act on the inspiration of your writing and create something each day in a journal.

    And, btw…Oprah should ask you. Profound. Thanks for sharing it.


      1. Leslie,

        The tears are flowing and I just do not know what to say! I so much want to be a part of this Lenten activity. Your two posts are absolutely enlightening and touch my soul. Am I only able to comment or am I able to respond with a post of my own? Please pardon my ignorance. I am ashamed to admit that I have never participated in a blog before!


      2. Hi Marilyn,

        Thank you! You ARE part of this activity by reading and commenting, if you feel moved to. You can consider the comment option as your way to “post a response” because others will be able to see the comments. Love you, L.


  3. I love this post. We’ve chosen to raise our kids Catholic despite many misgivings, reading your posts helps to remind me that I’m not alone in the conflict that this decision illicts internally and externally, at times. I had a great deal of ambivalence about my oldest (a girl) making her First Reconciliation last year. After reading this post, I’m reminded that it is precisely because these issues are/were not easy that makes the process richer. Good luck to Noah as he find his own way.


  4. Dearest Leslie,
    Thanks so much for posting this blog. I love Mary Oliver’s poem and I am right there with you in your two responses to the teacher not sending Noah’s letter. When you love Jesus and your walk with Christ is so important to you, it is so difficult to realize that you cannot pass that love directly on to your children. It is a fearsome thing indeed to realize that you have no choice but to let your dear children find their own love of Christ, to find their own way. If we–and they–cannot doubt, cannot ask questions, cannot express despair, then there is nothing real about our lives at all. Nothing. Perhaps this trembling hope that our children will love Jesus on their own is part of the weight of the cross we share with Jesus. I do know that I want to be loved, just for my own self, and not for any “goodness,” or consumate role, or silence I might perfect. I’m pretty sure everyone else wants this same thing too. Blessings to you, dear, as you find your way in this journey we call motherhood, and yes, pray, pray, pray.


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