Lent is definitely not a sprint. For many, it is a marathon, and for some of us, it is an Ironman Triathlon. I don’t know if sprinters have enough time to question why they are doing what they are doing, but those who run mile after mile certainly do. The adrenaline rush that accompanies the start of a race wears off, and the grind of putting one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again, can wear on the mind as well as the body.
At this, the midpoint of the Lenten season, it is not uncommon for the initial fervor of Ash Wednesday to have been replaced by a sense of defeat. The race along the road of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, has been abandoned and replaced by the same old practices that Lent was supposed to supplant. When pondering whether I am the only person to actually gain weight during Lent, to spend more time on my phone, or to have received a thank you email from Amazon for increasing my spontaneous purchases, I want to tap into my Cleveland roots and declare: “Wait until next year!”
But the race is only half over. There is still time to recommit myself to a Lent well-spent. Maybe recalibration is in order; maybe I tried to imitate one of the desert monks from the early days of the Church. Maybe I have only convinced myself that I was “taking Lent too seriously,” and I simply need to pull my collar up and walk into the wind for the next couple of weeks. Whatever the case, there is still a lot of, as St. Paul says, “time to redeem.”
In Act V, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Richard II, the eponymous ex-king states “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” Even if this were the only line still extant from that famous play, it is easily understood why the Bard originally named this work The Tragedy of King Richard II. Richard has tragically gone from total control - “I wasted time” - to total helplessness - “time waste[s] me.” This Lent we still have the choice that has passed Richard by - we are still in control of how we will spend our time between now and Easter.
There are an almost infinite number of ways that we can recharge our Lenten batteries. A favorite of my wife Ann’s and mine is to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art. The belief, expressed so perfectly by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that “beauty will save the world” is embodied on wall after wall and in room after room at the art museum. There, one can begin to see the blurring of the line between religious art and secular art. All art is religious. Everything else on the walls of the museum is, to be blunt, not art.
Behind each work of art is the artist, and in case after case is an artist who suffered for that art. Works of art may be bought and sold at auction for millions today, and they may be prominently displayed in the greatest museums in the world. Still, the stories are a legion of artists dying alone, in poverty, and broken by their apparent failure.
And that is our entry point back into the Lenten marathon: apparent failure. Even if one stops to look thoughtfully and prayerfully at only a handful of works, maybe by only one artist, in one particular room, the lessons taught by the art and the artist can bring to mind the importance of finishing what we start, even if we struggle along the way.
Renewed by immersing oneself into the physical representation of Dostoyevsky’s words, the art lover can not only return home with the memory of beautiful images (and possibly a few photos on the phone) but also the spiritual strength needed to see the Lenten marathon to its completion at Easter.