I feel awkward; gauche, even. I'm unqualified for my task: I'm calling for an old-fashioned Lent, a Lent gone viral, a mother of all Lents, a nation-wide Lent in which we marinate in mind-bending guilt and covenant in a vow of silence punctuated with mournful wails. Viking-besieged abbots will view us from the past and envy us.
But that weight of ineligibility: I can feel it. I've rarely observed a genuine Lent.
It's my parents' fault. They practiced the season with mischievous austerity. There was the pervasive aura of dank fish, of course -- and the obligatory Lenten suppers, and the faded purple altar cloths, and the penitence and the remorse -- but it was all needled with giggles and snickers. We just couldn't feel bad. Maybe it was the cheery Southern California weather; maybe it was my mother's wit (imagine your own mother whispering jokes, then telling you not to laugh in church); or maybe it was my family's mere Episcopalianism: We were the "almost Catholics," inept at the high art of pre-Vatican II guilt. We snuck Hershey kisses during our fasts. I was totally ruined when I became a teenaged born-again Christian and a Baptist. Lenten asceticism dwindled into the ethereal past of chalices, robed priests, acolytes and a teasing Mom.
And yet, here I am, begging us to soak in extravagant gloom. No one can talk. Not one word but for those doleful wails.
The need for silence is obvious. Listen to the words of Senator James. M. Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who has been braying unsubstantiated charges ever since 2003: "Climate alarmists see an opportunity here to tax the American people" ... "It's also important to question whether global warming is even a problem for human existence. Thus far no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global warming temperatures would lead to catastrophes predicted by alarmists. In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives." And on he rants. Hear him in 2010: "I don't think anyone disagrees with the fact that we actually are in a cold period that started about nine years ago."
Silence, Senator. Silence the accusations. Silence the evasiveness. Silence the blaming, the denunciations and the verbal indictments. Stop ignoring the reams of evidence. Stop the circular arguments. Join your fellow Americans in their nation-wide, old-style Lent, the Lent of shadows and gloom and of sprawled, tonsured monks and nuns on stone-cold slabs. Nothing less will do. We want it all. And bring U.S. Rep. John Shimkus with you. The Illinois Republican said this in 2009: "Today we have about 388 parts per million [of carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere. I think in the age of the dinosaurs, when we had most flora and fauna, we were probably at 4,000 parts per million. There is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet, not too much carbon." Remind the Congressman that much of North America was under water when the dinosaurs roamed.
Wail, weep and ponder such passages as Proverbs 15:18, "A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel," and Proverbs 20:3, "It is to a man's honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel," and Proverbs 26:1, "As charcoal to embers as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife."
Please make room for presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The enforced silence will mute his indictments: climate-change theory is "an absolute travesty of scientific research that was motivated by those who, in my opinion, saw this as an opportunity to create a panic and a crisis for government to be able to step in and even more greatly control your life." Can Santorum, a Catholic, row in the flow of his own logic? His own pope and bishops agree that climate change is dangerous, which means their eminences are in cahoots with the conspiratorial clique.
Silence, former Senator. Just stop and be quiet. Join your fellow Americans on the stone-cold slabs. Don't worry. You won't be alone. Your friends at the Cornwall Alliance will be wailing and repenting of their climate-denying "Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming," which contradicts statements from bona-fide evangelical leaders. They'll be silent except for their cries.
Who knows? Maybe your erstwhile opponents will witness your example, feel regret and sign up. Picture Bill Maher, Keith Obermann and Richard Dawkins muting their prejudicial generalizations about people of faith. They want to wail. They've jettisoned the modern, watered-down Lent, where contrition is so 14th-century. They crave the unadulterated guilt trip and the wracking conscience. False guilt is destructive, to be sure, but genuine remorse over true guilt makes sense: we should feel guilty when we're guilty. We've sinned. The old, dark Lent embraced guilt -- always with an eye toward Easter's redemptive light.
But Christians must begin where they want skeptics to go. So root in it like hogs, Senators and Congressmen. Lead us into full-throttled remorse. Fall on the floor like our forbears. Be the first to silently to spread your hands in the mother of all Lents -- and open your mouths only to howl.