Lent Lifts Us Up Where We Belong

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These 40 days of self-denial might seem painful during a pandemic. But the habits of “tedious love” are just what we need right now.

After the world shuttered last March, I turned to my kitchen. I made cinnamon rolls and blueberry muffins. I fried doughnuts and braided Finnish coffee bread. For many, bread-baking was our collective, cloistered privilege. We had time to watch something rise.

But those days, dusted in flour, now seem remote. Hundreds of thousands have since died. Businesses have closed, never to reopen. Many children have never returned to school. Many churches, including my own, have never re-opened for corporate worship. Our pandemic year, while experienced differently, has whittled all of us down and apprenticed us in losses of many forms.

It begs the question: How can we rouse the will to practice Lent—its deprivations, its renunciations—after a long Lenten year?

On the surface, these 40 days of self-denial might seem like the very last thing we need. And yet I would argue the opposite. Our pandemic lives have brought us face to face with the same temptation that plagued the monks centuries ago—the sin of acedia. It’s the inability to “rouse yourself to give a damn” as Kathleen Norris writes in Acedia & Me. In that context, the structure of Lent offers us not a millstone but a lifeline. It provides a way out of the dark waters of acedia.

During the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus identified the first formal list of eight deadly vices that were common to the desert hermetic. Among that list of recognizable sins—gluttony, lust, greed, pride—Evagrius also included sadness and sloth, which centuries later came to be understood together as acedia.

Rebecca DeYoung explains in Glittering Vices that acedia is not laziness as we might traditionally conceive of it. It comes in twin forms. It’s …

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