Not a literal death.
I attended my first Ash Wednesday service this year. The Rev, who I have come to love quite well, bestowed upon me the sacred ashy cross and I sat back down to ruminate on the end of things, the end of myself, vanity, vexation, and vapor.
And then I went to study for my Civil War midterm because when it comes to a metaphorical death brought by symbolic ritual, life literally goes on.
How awkward it is to observe death, vapor, and the absence of things in the middle of one of the most turbulent times in my life. I gave up social media, curse words, four of the five rings I usually wear on my fingers (it just makes for an easy reminder of the season and it’s very easy not to fail at this one), and it looks like I’m giving up part-time work too.
Next month I am presenting research at a national professional conference, participating in a service learning campaign involving campus food insecurity, writing term papers, and taking finals. I am also gearing up for graduation, completing paper work to finish undergraduate and begin graduate school, building a resume, looking for internships, and somehow eating and breathing. I have been driven to turn in a two-weeks notice at the job I’ve held for two and a half years (I was given, and accepted, the option to take leave instead.) I’ve also been driven to a lot of other less pleasant things like crying in church bathrooms and crying in my mom’s living room and crying at work. Just a lot of crying.
And in the middle of this, I am also expecting of myself that I will pause and remember that I am dust and that to dust I will return along with my degrees, my resume, and my term papers. Lent presents a difficult problem in that it asks me to bury the personal ambitions that fuel my temporal life. When you run off a mixed bag of ambition and neurotic perfectionism, finding the space in your mind to meditate on finality and otherworldly objectives is the real challenge of Lent.
Lent isn’t just a penitential exercise. It’s a readjustment. It’s the bump in the night that wakes you from that dream in which you were running a race you can’t win. Our temporal lives are, in fact, races we cannot win. The finish line is vapor.
But the beauty of the season is exactly that feeling when you are roused out of a nightmare. It’s dark. It’s quiet. You’re thankful that you have, in fact, been given another day. It’s 3:00 or 5:00 in the morning and there are more important tasks than resumes and term papers.