Frigid Weather, Lenten Fasts, and Buried Joy

What a rush. My New England homeland tunnels through snow in sub-zero temperatures and I'm loving it. And I'm loving that I love it -- which sounds like I'm whupping it up over the gloomiest Lent since the Dark Ages.

I honestly pray for the homeless and sympathize with officials pondering costs and safety; still, I feel like a kid playing pond hockey with his rediscovered skates. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fabled New England winter, the type that annually buried my family in New Hampshire before we moved back to Connecticut and found Jersey-like slush. I know the deep freeze stems from skewed climate patterns (the February 22 high for Nome, Alaska: 37 degrees; Nome's average high on that date: 17 degrees), but I'll enjoy it even while I try to stem the tide on three environmental boards.

Why am I relishing this dangerous, Dakota-like weather? After all, I was awarded my sulk license when my car died -- just after I tumbled down icy steps and partially separated my shoulder. I should be the first of talk radio's call-in squealers: "It's Obama's fault! I can feel it! He hates America so much he's slung us into a freezer!" Perhaps I'm experiencing a forgotten brand of gratification drawn from the test, or the trial, or the challenge. Human history testifies to a spark that rattles us out of mere comfort and pushes us into arctic adventures. It drives athletes as they sweat through brutal training regimens. Our religious forbears felt it and wove it into their liturgical years: Muslims fast during Ramadan; Buddhists and Hindus gear their fasts around lunar cycles; Jews fast on Yom Kippur and other holidays. We Christians just began our plod along our 46-day Lenten trail, often a somber season of self-denial laced with the smell of stale fish.

I think of this liturgical season: Maybe my Lent can be like my winter. Maybe I'll feel that unsettling spark and expand my spiritual horizons if I open myself to its challenges.

Soft in my spiritual middle?

My joy in this winter allows me to laugh off a festering fear: I've been worried that the blood of my Viking ancestors was slowing to a sloppy ooze. Perhaps I visited my formerly snowbird parents in Florida once too often; perhaps the little boy within mutated into a grumpy old man and burned his sled. Tell no one -- not a soul -- but I was secretly scolding television meteorologists for not predicting those warm breezes that fan pot-bellied middle-agers chained to their lawn chairs. Worst of all, I was seriously thinking of taking up golf. Golf! I gave that up when I was 14!

Of course summer is more fun, but that doesn't render all winters "bad." Winter blesses children with snow days and gives us snow balls, snowmen, ice fishing, dog sled teams, cross country skiing and hot chocolate. And yet, here I was, dreaming of putting greens. What's next? Will I wheeze about "kids these days" and chase 8-year-olds off my precious lawn?

But then Canada sneezed and, this time, I found myself savoring the crisp air and the crunching snow beneath my Sorrels. I've said nuts to the pain in my left shoulder and enjoyed the labor of shoveling. My recent Connecticut winters were not too cold; they weren't cold enough and they brought too little snow.

Is our Lent too small?

Maybe we've warmed Lent into sludge and robbed it of its power. An intentionally rugged season -- a season of discipline, confession, repentance and fasting -- becomes a pale reflection of its former self: monastic asceticism shrivels into abstinence from Monday-morning oatmeal cookies. We're like football players calling it quits after practicing finger exercises. We visualize ourselves as the politest team on the field; we repeat, over and over again: "if we're lucky, we may win."


This drift toward ease seems inexorable because ease draws our energy: Our inventions bring ease (my snow-plowing neighbors snicker as I wield my ancient shovel); commercials advertise ease. Our high-speed drive toward ease can veer into absurdity ("I can't ba-lieve my television has no remote!") and numb us to that spark. Ease, which has its place in life's rhythms, becomes an obligation. It shrinks our horizons until we're summoning the FBI because someone broke a fondue fork.

Lent's disciplines can expand our horizons once more. We intentionally abstain from certain pleasures so we'll feel that spark and explore satisfactions beyond simple ease. It seems the Apostle James felt it: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4, NIV).

I can view Lent through the eyes of James and face my trials. Meanwhile, meteorologists are predicting more storms for New England, so I'll throw on my coat, grab my shovel and brave the wind.