I find that I have a real zest for Lent this year.
I realize that some of you may be surprised to hear me say something like that. Some may even find it alarming. It certainly is different from the usual sort of remark you hear about Lent, which is more like the noises made by someone about to undertake an arduous and not very pleasant task.
But there it is. I have been looking forward to Lent this year and have given an unusual amount of attention to planning for it.
That indicates that I'm as puzzled about this as you. Or I was, until I had to think about Lent for an Ash Wednesday sermon. And it began to unfold then, and that process has continued gradually in the days since.
It begins with one of my favorite antiphons for this season, which we sing at Vespers during Lent on Mondays and Thursdays. I've always loved this text, and this year it seized me with a particular power.
It begins: "Use the present opportunity to the full". I think what's going on in me has a lot to do with the years I've spent in a meditation practice and how that has developed in me a subsidiary practice of careful attention to whatever moment I happen to find myself in. You may recognize this from posts I have made about the things I notice and the relationship of that noticing to my spiritual path.
This has led to the discovery of a conviction that The Present Opportunity is available in any moment. It's here. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, whatever my mood, this moment of time is the present opportunity. What I need to do is see this moment as an opportunity waiting to unfold. Cannot I just stop and ask myself the question: "What is the present opportunity" and ask it with expectation? Can I ask that with the conviction that an answer will arise, and that it will usually be obvious from the situation I find myself in, whether that is in church, or at a meal, or in a conversation about to begin, or while stirring the latest batch of incense, or whatever? Whatever is, there's an opportunity there. What could it be? What exploration will make it clear? I find real excitement in orientating myself this way.
So my primary Lenten practice this year is going to be to take the antiphon as a mantra. I'll repeat it whenever it comes to mind, wherever I may be, however many times a time I can manage to think of it. "Use the present opportunity to the full." And when I think of it I'll know that there is an opportunity there, and I just have to think of how to use it fully. It might be that I need to be really attentive to how I'm stirring the incense. It might be that the conversation in front of me needs real attention and skill. It might be that the mysterious headache that's been following me around needs to be considered to see whether it has anything to say to me. It might even be that I need to stop what I'm doing and be still for a short time (or even a long time).
Of course it might be ever larger than that. This practice might bring up a change in my future direction, or the discussion of a future direction for the community. It might mean that my attention is being drawn to a really important decision. Who knows what each moment may reveal as an opportunity. And that's what is exciting. The open-endedness of my life is asking to be recognized and taken seriously. I'm just being directed into seeing much more of what is there to be seen.
And all I have to do is ask the question: "What is the present opportunity? Right here. Right now. How do I use it to the full?"
I'm not going to be obsessive about this. (Well, any more than I can avoid, actually.) I'm not going to worry if I don't think of this phrase very often. I know I'm going to get reminded of it regularly when I see it in my breviary, which will be once a day, minimum. I expect that I'll vary a lot in how often it comes up. I'm just going to make myself a little promise that when it does come up I'm going to ask myself the question and pay attention to any answer that manifests.
In addition - the antiphon is longer than just that one phrase. The whole thing is: "Use the present opportunity to the full, for these are evil days. Try to understand what the will of the Lord is."
Now I know there is opportunity there to get completely thrown - the business of 'evil days' is troublesome. I'll analyze all that sometime else. I'm not going to let the whole process get bogged down. What I do recognize is that any time I see an opportunity I know that there are things that are waiting to get in the way, and that's as good a definition of 'evil days' as I need right now. When I recognize the present opportunity, I'm also going to take seriously what might stand in the way of my using it to the full. I'm going to go into this being as conscious as I can that I'm not going to be getting an easy trip down a smooth path. The present opportunity may be something difficult. It may require a lot of work or some significant change. There are going to be things standing in the way That's part of the Lenten path that I'm going to be investigating. There's a beckoning opportunity, and there's the roadblocks that are going to be there ('evil days').
What's being held out is the need for a dialogue - a dialogue between opportunity that I see, and the forces that try to get in the way of my taking advantage of that opportunity. And it's in this dialogue that the will of the Lord will emerge. I believe this, and I'm going to take my stand on this belief. If I look for God's will in this moment, I'm going to find it. Yes, I might be mistakened. I might be seeing wrongly. All kinds of things can happen. But I believe that in the dialogue that I undertake is bigger than just me. I also have to take into account the vision of the people and what they think about the 'present opportunity'. That often provides the steady, correcting guidance that everyone needs.
I'm also not going to obsess about the size of this project. It may end up being tiny. The opportunity might be something that would seem utterly insignificant to most people. It might also be big. It might be the need for a real life change. Probably it will be somewhere in the middle, but you never know. I'm just going to start out on an adventure and see where the path leads.
And of course this adventure has the possibility of being what any really good Lenten discipline is. It may be something that will still be going on for me when Lent has gone, and we're in Easter. Or in "ordinary time".
I hope this makes some sense out of the zest that I'm feeling for the Lenten journey this year. It really does feel like a journey, and I love a good trip! We'll see what happens now.