Unraveling Lent

Jane Patterson is the Assistant Professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest.  In addition to teaching Bible courses at the seminary, Jane serves as co-director of The Workshop, a ministry that guides laity in using the Bible to discern how to live faithfully.

Lately I’ve noticed that what I thought was an elite club of which I was the only member turns out to be a very popular club, with each member assuming he or she is the only one. This is the club of people for whom Lent is their favorite liturgical season. In whispers and asides, we are beginning to locate one another and to proclaim our allegiance: “I don’t mean to sound weird or anything, but really, Lent is my favorite season.”

In central Texas, Lent is a heady mixture of the sweet, grape-y scent of Mountain Laurel any time you’re walking outdoors, combined with the spirit-intensifying practices of, say, finally making good on your promise to rise at dawn every day for prayer or read a Gospel slowly enough to climb into the story. On the seminary campus, many of us are using the daily reflections of the monastic Society of Saint John the Evangelist and gathering once a week to talk them over, to pray, to share the ways in which our hearts are slowly opening to the processes of God’s love.

But what of the “R” word – repentance? Isn’t that kind of a downer? I’ve described elsewhere an incident that has become emblematic to me of repentance and reconciliation, but today I want to take the same story and turn it in a different direction.

Every fall, I help to lead a knitting retreat, not because I’m a good knitter, but because I said I would lead the first one, and then I got hooked on the ways in which that quiet practice not only results in sweaters and scarves and socks and hats, but also knits together a community of people. A couple of years ago, one of the women brought with her the softest gray yarn of baby alpaca, and knitted her husband a sweater with a beautiful basket weave. It was basically a knitted hug. And yet – it never quite fit him, and to make matters worse, the joins weren’t holding. The ill-fitting sweater was falling apart.

She brought the sweater back this year, and spent the first evening unraveling it until she had a huge pile of something that looked more or less like a medium-sized dog by the side of her chair. In the previous telling of her story, I talk about how the yarn got untangled and rolled back into neat balls for re-knitting. But that’s another story.

Today, I’m thinking about how the practices of repentance and prayer and attention during Lent help us to see the people around us more clearly, to take their more precise measurements. There comes a time in most of our closest relationships – our relationship with a spouse, with a sibling, or parent, or friend – when, if we’re paying attention, we notice that our image of them doesn’t fit them any more. And perhaps our view of them has even started to come apart at the seams. But it’s hard work to unravel our previous sense of someone, and it’s even harder still to muster the energy to re-knit our perceptions into something that actually fits.

But the gift of the practices of self-inventory that characterize Lent (such as the Great Litany) is that they don’t finally leave us with ourselves. They help us get over ourselves, so that we can receive the presence of others more simply and truly. This Lent, while I may appear to be praying, what I’m actually doing is unraveling constructions that were about to fall apart anyway, and re-knitting them by the light of Christ. It’s hard work and good work, and I’m so thankful for this tender, purple season of fragrant Mountain Laurels to do it in.