I confess that I am no longer the what-can-I-give-up kind of “lent-er” (is that a word? It is now). This is the time of year when friends bid adieu to their daily Facebook posts and coworkers cut their Diet Cokes cold turkey. Few live to tell stories of conquest… [insert social media icon pumping their fists in victory].
I have given up commercialized Lent. No judgment here, just a confession. My cessation is thanks to retreat stints across the globe. There, accompanied by a French priest, a Nun and Trappist Monk, I learned the gift of stillness.
The Painful Pause
At a retreat, I was instructed to read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and follow him there. “Don’t leave Jesus to face his temptation alone,” the Nun said. Easy enough, right? Wrong. It took this protestant, ordained, seminary graduate half of the retreat to join Christ in the wilderness! I loved Christ’s glorious baptism—preferred the refreshing waters of the Jordan to the dry heat of the tempter’s Judean desert. I struggled and rationalized to the retreat leader that I thought Christ’s temptation was a private affair. I would wait for him at the edge where green grass turned brown; plant my still wet feet where the desert sand began, and watch his silhouette become smaller and smaller on the cracked red clay. He could face his foe alone.
I was afraid to pause with Christ.
After several attempts to imagine myself with him, I broke down in tears. There, broken, feeling the sting of failing him, I learned the painful pause. I faced the tempter’s taunts. Breakthrough at last. I faced my inadequacy, my inability, and there Christ was, beckoning me to join him again. It is never too late to come with him where we most fear to go. To experience hunger pangs and thirst that are beyond our comfort. In fact, it makes giving-up social media the smaller, easier sacrifice.
Pausing on Purpose
I’ve since made this practice of pausing how I live Lent, my “waiting for Christ”. I pull away from my noisy life, my noisy church, my noisy me, to be with him. Now my dilemma is less about giving up sweets, soda or social media but how to faithfully lean into the pause: to still my soul long enough to gaze upon the one who has given all for me. To stay with him wherever he goes.
There is a deeper, stronger longing for pause. Christ doesn’t call us to put life on hold, but pause to notice the life that is calling. I’m reminded during Lent to slow down enough to keep up with Christ. To wait upon the one who leads the way forward. In the waiting, I am found. In the stillness, my spiritual ears pop open and my eyes lose their scales. There, I meet God in God’s territory. Isn’t that what Lent is all about? To encounter the living, suffering, dying, resurrected one? For this encounter to take place, we intentionally create space, readying ourselves to journey with him.
Preparing to Pause
My retreat leader can attest, this practice of pause, for many, is uncomfortable and awkward at first, in a world where noise—in all its forms—tends to muddle the voice of the one we most long to hear. When I prepare to make possible this 40-day pause with Christ, I expect (in the nature of spiritual warfare) the noise to get louder and distract me from moving to that inward place where Christ awaits. I welcome these distractions; they serve their purpose as I strain to get still. The distractions, too, are prayers: concerns that scream for God’s attention. I wait in discomfort as Christ engages the noise in my head, the clutter in my heart. I am always pardoned, always welcome. I await greater words than all the competing voices combined.
The pause enables God to break the noise in me, demolish my assumptions and love me into surrender. In the pause, I am still enough to see who I am meant to become. Christ reawakens my sensibilities, and there, silences the pain of the past, the anxieties of the present and fear of the future. Bad habits can be unlearned, the spiritually deaf ears hear again, my blind eyes can see.
Trusting the Process
I have learned this stillness has no special magic in itself. Though I wish it did. In stillness, we are not guaranteed to hear what our busy lives distract us from: but we are guaranteed to be distracted if we are never still. The pause is a welcome. It makes room for inhabiting, and being inhabited—it requires a strange and mystical waiting for something, someone bigger to appear, to fill us.
Lent is long enough to allow for missteps and resetting. But the hope is always to see Christ, to hear him: to hold this space and to be held by it. In the void, when my western, noisy Christianity seeks for detailed direction, control and safety, I see myself again standing at the threshold, refusing to go further into the desert.
Lent is a sacred pause before Easter morn, to be captured away by Christ, and to stay with him. To be still with Christ in this way is to be broken, and this breaking therein saves us. Onward we walk the dusty road up the treacherous hill to the cross: to suffer, to die, to rise in him. Christ knows the way.
Brenda Bertrand's eclectic 20-year career spans work as a news anchor, a political appointee in Washington D.C., university chaplaincy, and consulting at leading global firms. With master’s degrees from the University of Texas and Princeton Theological Seminary, Brenda recently spent a year teaching in the People’s Republic of China. A native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, she is a lifelong pilgrim, traveling the globe to find its most beautiful beaches and sacred spaces. Not a typical Lent-er, Brenda is learning to keep in step with Christ wherever he leads...away from sugar or toward something much sweeter.