One sunny Sunday morning in September 1983, when I was struggling in my late twenties with serious financial problems, a failing marriage, and a general malaise both spiritual and physical, I wandered into a service at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming. In a rush of emotional response to the beautiful organ, the stately procession of choir, crucifer, deacon and priest, and the overwhelming expressions of welcome from dozens of strangers, I felt that I had stumbled into a home whose existence I had not been aware of but for which I had been longing my whole life.
Over the succeeding weeks and months, Saint Matthew’s became a life-preserver in more ways than one. I jumped into all things Episcopalian with the energy and abandon of a true convert. My enthusiasm and commitment deepened as I experienced Advent for the first time, as Christmas liturgies framed the holidays, and as Epiphany revealed Jesus’ coming out party and early ministry in new ways.
I washed the ashes off my forehead as soon as I got home, convinced that I was never going to do that again.
Then Ash Wednesday happened. I remember it well. I regularly attended the 7 AM morning prayer service run by lay people, but this morning the Dean was there. We went to a place in the prayer book I had never seen before and proceeded through the most depressing liturgy ever. I found myself in the aisle queuing up to receive ashes. As Dean Mobley traced a cross with his ash-covered finger on my forehead and said, “Vance, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I thought “This time you’ve gone too far, Morgan. This is just too weird.” I washed the ashes off my forehead as soon as I got home, convinced that I was never going to do that again.
More than three decades later, as a far more mature person who embraces his Episcopal identity, I still struggle with Lent. Every year on Ash Wednesday I post a blog essay titled Why Lent is a Bad Idea. But this year I’m committed to a less petulant and more open attitude concerning Lent—an attitude shaped in large part by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
What might Lent without religion look like?
Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian martyred in 1945 by the Nazis, spent the last two years of his life in prison before his execution. We learn from letters exchanged from prison with his friend Eberhard Bethge that in his final months, Bonhoeffer rethought and reimagined his Christian faith in striking ways. Bonhoeffer writes:
“So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God . . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.”
Bonhoeffer calls for us to cast doctrinal and religious crutches away in exchange for a “religionless Christianity,” a faith lived in this world with no consolation or story to ease the suffering and pain that will invariably come.
“One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman, a righteous person or an unrighteous one, a sick person or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.”
What if Lent were observed in such a key of “this-worldliness,” reflecting on, struggling with, focusing in a centered way on “life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities,” with “no consolation” to ease such a time of attention? What, in other words, might Lent without religion look like?
It might reflect some of the themes of the profound meditation on humanity that Albert Camus’ offered in his 1948 novel The Plague. Although it is a multifaceted allegory on many levels, the novel’s basic story is simple. The Algerian city of Oran is beset by a plague, a disease carried by rats that progresses in an increasingly unpredictable and incurable fashion. The city is quarantined in order to keep the plague isolated within its walls. Some citizens ignore the plague for as long as possible, working and living as they always have. Some isolate themselves from others, even their families, in a desperate attempt to avoid infection. Alcohol, drugs, crime, sex—all of these and more are ways in which people seek to escape the plague.
Each person’s motivation is different, but they share one conviction in common: they do not consider what they are doing to be “heroic” or morally exceptional.
But some—and these are the central figures in the novel—behave differently. Individuals from diverse walks of life, including a doctor, a journalist, a civil servant, a priest, a career criminal, and an unemployed carpenter, form “sanitation squads,” groups of people who tend to the dying, help dispose of bodies, try to keep public areas as sanitary as possible, and put themselves directly in harm’s way in a basic, human attempt to “do what they can.” Each person’s motivation is different, but they share one conviction in common: they do not consider what they are doing to be “heroic” or morally exceptional. They, whether priest or doctor, are simply acting in solidarity with their fellow human beings.
Camus makes it clear in The Plague that this is not just a story about a quarantined city suffering from an inexplicable and incurable plague. This is an allegory for the human condition. We are the citizens of Oran, grappling as best we can with the absurd situation in which we find ourselves. And despite all of our schemes and efforts to get a handle on who and what we are, as well as to understand the reality in which we find ourselves, we end up face to face with pain, suffering, and death. Our attempts to find or construct meaning evaporate. Might this story be characterized as an allegory of Lenten existence—the kind of struggle Jesus endured during his time in the wilderness—the struggle we imitate in the 40 days leading up to Easter?
Paneloux reaches across the ideological divide and says to Rieux, “Yes, you too are working for man’s salvation.”
Toward the end of The Plague, two sanitary squad members—Rieux and Paneloux—an atheist physician and a Jesuit priest, are at the bedside of a dying child who is suffering terribly. The child dies despite the priest’s fervent prayers. Rieux, upset by the priest’s prayers and the hopelessness of the situation snaps, “That child was innocent, and you know it as well as I do!” After a few moments Rieux apologizes, and Paneloux responds with a religious platitude: “I understand. That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.” The inappropriateness of Paneloux’s words hangs in the air as soon as they leave his mouth. After some silence, Rieux replies. “No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” Paneloux, to his credit, is silent.
After an extended silence, Paneloux reaches across the ideological divide and says to Rieux, “Yes, you too are working for man’s salvation.”
“Salvation’s much too big a word for me,” Rieux replies. “I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health; and for me his health comes first.” Paneloux expresses regrets that he has never been able to talk Rieux out of his atheism. Rieux then asks, “What does it matter? What I hate is death and disease, as you well know. And whether you wish it or not, we’re allies, facing them and fighting them together. So you see—God Himself can’t part us now.”
Lent is a time to embrace the mystery of being human in its depth of interconnectedness and apparent absurdity, without, as Bonhoeffer wrote, a consoling story surrounding it. A person of faith observing a “this-worldly” Lent, finds solidarity with her or his fellow humans that cannot be overcome by doctrinal or religious differences. It is a solidarity that, once established, “God Himself can’t part.”