The Work of Lent: Learning with Emily Dickinson

I didn’t grow up celebrating Lent. I came to it later in life. My first Ash Wednesday came late winter, only months after burying our firstborn son.

Ashes; all was ashes.

Dust; all was dust.

In the dimly lit sanctuary, I found dried palms, ashes and words about loss. I discovered words to voice what was seething in my heart: words of honesty in Lent, however unsavory they might have been.

How does one sing the songs of Easter when some part of your heart is dead? Emily Dickinson is no poster child of resurrection rhetoric. She writes of death, loneliness and unfulfilled desire. But she voices it. In her own search for meaning and contentment, she does not deny her experience or cloak it. Straining for contentment, Dickinson writes, “It always felt to me – a wrong.” This first line of her poem by the same title is Lent’s work: acknowledging and finding words. For Dickinson, any contentment worth having comes not from avoiding but by facing the questions, struggles and seeming injustices of one’s life and emotional experience. How can we celebrate the cross and resurrection unless we face the questions, the struggles, the ashes?

We live much of life like Moses, looking from Nebo, short of the Promised Land. Dickinson protests such a fate: the tease and the unfulfilled longings. She questions God’s justice, gives voice to her own unfulfi lled longings and desires. Dickinson elicits a sense of God’s cruelty. Moses is barred, but to come so far and to see, if only the edge, of what he might not enter: “To let him see – the Canaan – / Without the entering – .” She compares the fates of Stephen and Paul. Theirs was more merciful, in her eyes. Yes, Stephen and Paul were “only put to death – / While God’s adroiter will / On Moses – seemed to fasten.” These lines are Job-like. Moses has caught God’s testing and tormenting eye. God is depicted as a playground bully, dangling before Moses what he cannot have: “As Boy – should deal with lesser Boy – / To prove ability – .” Moses will die, but not a sudden or peaceful passing, in Dickinson’s eyes: rather, one plagued with “tantalizing Play.” The poet ends with a type of courtroom closing argument, though too late to change anything: “My justice bleeds – for Thee!”

Dickinson’s protest bears much in common with the biblical laments. These voices of lament include Job, who demands a hearing with God and who even casts God as his enemy; the psalms of lament, which plead “why have you forgotten me?”; the confessions of Jeremiah, who protests being led “like a lamb to the slaughter.” These voices, from Dickinson to Jeremiah, might help us fi nd our own voices of lament in this season of Lent around the symbols of palms and ashes. We bring the high hopes and expectations of the prior year, which once showed green with hope, and we surrender this now brown and crackled symbol to the reduction of the flames.

It is impossible to live with God without hopes or expectations of how God will work or come through or execute order and justice in the world. It is a life ripe for disappointment and rupture, even as it was for the disciples. And stuffed or undealt-with grief and disappointment cannot truly sing. Like Dickinson, like Job, like the psalmist, like Jeremiah, and like my wife and me in the years following one fateful December, we have to find words to voice the protest, to speak of the ashes:

The cruel, tantalizing play.
The sadness.
The longing.
The guilt.
The confusion.
And the persistence.

Though a whole generation will die before the Promised Land, Dickinson speaks only for Moses, a lone figure who poured his soul in the course of his journey. He stands alone on Nebo, watching others cross in the valley below. In the season of our grief, I remember seeing babies everywhere, the emptiness of our arms like a constant weight. Moses watched others realize what he had lived every day anticipating. Dickinson lived it too. “And tho’ in soberer moments,” she writes, “No Moses there can be / I’m satisfied – the Romance.” It is a short and sober moment crowded by and mingling with the language of the injury. This moment of satisfaction does not short-circuit the lament or the need to proclaim the truth as she feels it or sees it.

Lent is our annual return to Nebo. We look upon the broad possession, knowing that the life we live in this frail world is full of grief and disappointment and unfi lled expectations. For us who have walked through grief, we know that life can resurge out of the ashes. But, at least for me, it has only been in acknowledging the ashes that I could embrace and find hope again in a crucifi ed savior. And furthermore, only then could I sing of an empty tomb with some hope that new life is possible, not just life somewhere beyond the grave or upon some broad possession, but new life growing out of the ashes and dust of a disappointed heart. Dickinson might not be a voice of resurrection singing, but she is a voice of honesty. And honesty with words and symbols can stir the ashes to find a coal, and a new voice can breathe upon that coal, and in doing so we might sing again of hope, of new life, of a stone finally …
Finally.
Rolled.
Away.


David Pettit is a minister in the Reformed Church in America. He is a doctoral student preaching at Calvary Presbyterian Church, Denver.