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Slowing Down for Lent

Writer Karen Stiller finds in a sign near her house a spiritual admonition to slow down and pay attention to God.

4 minute read
Topics: Faith
Slowing Down for Lent February 14, 2018  |  By Karen Stiller
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Twice a week, I walk right over the word Lent. It is painted on the road, in large white letters, on the route I take to and from a neighbourhood retirement home with Dewey, my doodle. I spend an hour there every Wednesday morning, visiting on the second and then the third floor with old ladies, because that is who is mostly left when you get to that age. Dewey kisses their hands, and they scratch his ears and speak to him in cooing, encouraging voices.

The word Lent is painted on Neepawa Road because in French, of course, it means slow – which it took me a couple of walks to realize. It is an admonition to the cars and their drivers. But I read it as a reminder to me, because I do find the hour I spend with the ladies to be sometimes boring and very, very slow. And slow can be good.

The visiting is a small, short thing I do, but it feels like it takes a long time. Each week I reintroduce Dewey to the group. I tell them he is nine years old at least 10 times, and I repeat his name until I don’t care and they call him Spewey and Louis and Huey as much as they want. He certainly doesn’t care. I walk around the circle, nudging walkers out of the way so Dewey can get right in there, taking care not to startle anyone awake with my dog’s big hairy self, because we did that once, and that was horrible. Some weeks, the hour inches by on its hands and knees. Then I walk back home, always glad I went. Hard things can be good things.

Lent. It is so hard to slow down. Painful to crawl and not run. It is so difficult to be attentive, to pay attention. To pay with attention.

Lent is made slow with sacrifice and yearning. It is faith with hard edges and sharp corners. We’re all supposed to be a little bit miserable, giving up our jujubes and our Facebook, as we do in these long 40 days, before Easter with its daffodils burst back into our life.

I’ve never been good at sacrifice. I begin, fail big and feel badly. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and I can’t live without red licorice? Or, perhaps even worse, I choose things I can easily live without, like insipid milk chocolate, or kale. Fake sacrifices.

Now I more often take on something new and, for me, demanding. Like a focussed time of reading of a theological book my dogged husband has tried to convince me to read for years. Or consciously trying to pray every day with less speed and more attentiveness, when sometimes my prayers can be more, well, hysterical. My heart does turn toward God when I pay this kind of slow attention, when I lent like this. Maybe that is some kind of sacrifice? It is time given I would place elsewhere, on my dog, or a novel.

And of course, the slowness of Lent always must begin with the sadness of Ash Wednesday, which puts everything and everybody in its proper place once and for all. It is the set up for all that will follow, in our liturgies and in our lives.  

I remember the first time I managed to get all three kids to that mournful, quiet service, so achingly beautiful, full of poetry and true things. “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…”

The church, dark and somber, everything different because of the cold night outside. The request in the bulletin to abstain from the usual gabbing and remain as silent as you can, for Pete’s sake. There’s always someone who can’t manage it. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.”

And then lining up my wobbly, sleepy children at the railing at the front of the church. Their Dad who was also their priest tracing the smoky cross of ash on those soft, beloved foreheads, right on the spot where mothers daily kiss. He will come home tired but still read them Goodnight Moon, way back then. But in that moment, on that night, he was telling them this awful truth: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And even then – especially then – those three and us all knowing we are loved, right through the slowness of Lent and out the other side.

Karen Stiller is a writer and editor who lives in Ottawa. She is working on a spiritual memoir.

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