LENT: Final Sanity, by Phyllis Tickle

Final Sanity Phyllis Tickle

From: Wisdom in the Waiting: Spring’s Sacred Days

The forty penitential weekdays and six Sundays that follow Mardi Gras and precede Easter are the days of greatest calm in the church’s year.  Since by long centuries of custom the date of Easter is annually determined from the first Sunday after the full moon on or after March 21, the intertwining of physical and spiritual seasons is virtually inevitable.  The resulting union of deep winter and holy preparation makes reflection, even penitence, a natural activity.

One night years ago, toward the end of winter, there was a storm, a cold front shifting suddenly and dropping onto us with ferocity and winds that bent down the pine trees along the fence line.  Sometime after I went to bed, it tore open the pasture gate.  We awoke the next morning to bitter cold and a scattered herd: two pregnant heifers in the front yard, six more in the garden eating up what was left of the turnip greens, and seven others, mostly yearlings, playing at some kind of heifer tag in the windy orchard.

The mud from the previous month’s snow was three inches thick.  Even frozen, it came laughing up to suck off our boots.  We slipped and fell and prodded swollen bellies until, ourselves covered with ooze, we fell onto the broken gate and laughed out loud to the gray dawn skies and the startled blackbirds.  We drove the last cows through finally, my son John and I, and repaired the gate right enough, coming in out of the cold with feet so wet and frozen that we couldn’t feel them, our nightclothes covered in the half-thawed manure.  We stank up the kitchen with the good stench of late winter and of the earth when it is resisting one last cold front with the heat of coming fertility.

Later I stood at the spigot and washed the mud from our boots and felt again, as I do every year at this season, a grief for the passing cold.  Looking across the pastures to the pond below, I knew it had indeed been the last storm before the spring, and I wanted to run backward toward the early morning, toward the winds and breaking limbs of the previous night.

Lenzin, our German ancestors used to call this season, and since then we have called it “Lent.”  It is a time when Christians decorate stone churches with the sea’s color and wrap their priests in the mollusk’s purple.  It was once a time when all things passed through the natural depression of seclusion, short food supplies, and inactivity, a time when body and land both rested.  It is still, in the country, a final sanity before the absurd wastefulness of spring.

Each year at this time it is harder for me to desire butterflies and lilies, even to wish for resurrection.  Each year I come a little closer to needing the dullness of the sky and the rarity of a single redheaded woodpecker knocking for grubs in the pine bark.  Each year also I come a little closer to the single-mindedness of the drake who, muddy underside showing, waddles now across the ice to the cold center water to wash himself for his mate, all in the hope of ducklings later on.

That year, through the thin, sharp air I could hear the younger children in the barn.  They were building tunnels again, making forts from the dried bales of hay.  From the yapping I knew that even the dogs had joined in the intricacies that the children’s imaginations had contrived.  Five-year-old Rebecca chased field mice as her brothers built forts.  She would catch another soon and drown it in the water trough with unsullied sadism, feeling only the accomplishment that came from having helped to keep her part of the world in balance.

In the summer, the mice would leave, going back to the fields again, and she would take to pulling everything that bloomed instead, bringing them all in to me indiscriminately.  The tin-roofed barn would be stifling, and the hay forts would have all been eaten.  The boys would be picking beans and complaining of the itch from the okra leaves, being themselves too hot and tired to desire anything except nightfall and bed.  The drake would have a family, which he would abandon to the mate he had so much desired, and the woodpecker’s carmine head would burn out to tired tan.

The farm in the summer becomes like the city is all year: too much color, too much noise, too much growing, too much hurry to stave off loss and destruction, too little natural death and gentle ending, too little time for play, too little pointless imagination.

I can remember many summers now; it is the singular advantage of years that one can do so.  And I remember that once summer comes, I spend it wallowing in the easiness of it – the excess of its fruits and vegetables, the companionship of summer’s constant sounds as the hum of the insects and of the rototillers give way in the evening to the croaking of the frogs and the raucousness of the katydids.  I remember also how I would begin early, in that green time of Ordinary Time, to dread the stillness of the coming cold, to fear the weariness of winter menus, the bitterness of breaking open pond water for thirsty cattle, and the packing of lunches – interminable lunches – for reluctant children on their way to school.

But now, years later, it is Lent once again, and for one more snow I can luxuriate in the isolation of the cold, attend laconically to who I am, what I value, and why I’m here.  Religion has always kept earth time.  Liturgy only gives sanction to what the heart already knows.

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