Monday, March 25, 2013

an acceptable fast: Lenten Morning Sickness

Gracious and merciful God,
you see into the secret places of our hearts,
where we mourn our sins.
As we turn again to your grace, receive our prayers.

Look with mercy on our contrite hearts,
wash from us the stain of iniquity,
and create a new and right spirit in us,
that we may declare your praise
and offer an acceptable sacrifice in these Lenten days;
through Christ Jesus, who bore our sins on the cross. Amen.
(from the Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for Ash Wednesday)
I discovered Lent in adulthood. I was struck by the strange beauty of fasting for forty days; of living through the theo-drama of Christ in the desert; of submitting myself, body and soul; of learning to trust in God's provision and comfort rather than the distractions that usually calm (and claim) me. I looked forward to the lean days, the pared-down days of prayer and penance that gave meaning to the bleak late winter and prepared me more fully for the joy of Easter.

In the years since finding Lent as a life-giving discipline (rather than the grace-fogging superstition I suspected in my youth), I have been challenged through fasting from various pleasures: chocolate, refined sugars, meat, blogs, online videos. I have found deep goodness in developing new habits of prayer and study.

This year, however, my fast chose me. I have given up many of the delights that normally shape my life: coffee, tea, most vegetables, chocolate, eggs, apples, cooking, social gatherings. If you know me in the slightest, you know the weight of this asceticism: I have not been drinking tea. I have not been eating salads. I have not been working in my kitchen. But before you praise me for my discipline, for the rigor of my fasting, know that these normal delights hold out no pleasure to me. I have no twinges of longing. It is hardly a sacrifice.

And know: I ate donuts (plural) on Ash Wednesday. I ate french fries on the way to the evening service. I played music during the imposition of the ashes with a glass of Sprite stashed under the piano.  Toward the end, Josh approached me with sincere eyes, formed a cross on my forehead with his ashy thumb, whispered, "Cindy, take up your cross and follow Jesus." I nodded, turned back to the piano, took up my glass and swallowed sweet fizz.

I greet these Lenten mornings with a mixed-berry smoothie. Later: oatmeal muffins slathered in butter, whole wheat bagels thick with cream cheese, bananas, cinnamon applesauce, salted almonds. Every two hours, these days of Lent, I eat. I tuck into fast-food chicken sandwiches. I fill my pockets with peppermints. I end each day with frozen yogurt.

This is not the feminist fast of facing down a terror of food (though I do commend such a fast). This is not a Lenten discipline of abundance. The hollows under my eyes and fog in my brain hint otherwise.

My discipline is sleep. My discipline is trust that the bland foods I put into my belly will calm its quailing. My discipline is hope that the weeks--the months--of feeling like a wrung-out version of myself are for some greater good, invisible to me now but evidenced by the aches and toilet-hugging and exhaustion. These days, my thickening middle presents a little more evidence, but still I must remind myself: faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

And here is the object of my faith: in the secret places of my body, God is creating a new spirit. The Brooding Dove is at work renewing my spirit, as well, but what I mean here is a new person.

The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus recommending secret fasts, and in the secret places of my heart I have held this Lenten devotion close and quiet. Not so much for the spiritual benefit of secrecy (after all, I am telling you now), but for the pragmatics of waiting to see if this little one plans to stick around. We have known loss before, Josh and I. We've welcome this Stranger with extravagant hospitality, sitting on the edges of our seats, begging, "Please, make yourself comfortable. We're so glad you're here. Stay a while?"

We heard the little peach's heartbeat last week, strong and quick and submerged-sounding. We are feeling more confident our Guest is feeling cozy in the deep-down place of me.

The terror of learning to love a possibly fleeting visitor, an Other suspended in paradox, longed for but also surprising, an Other who, tiny bud of cells, spins me out into a realm where I have become strange even to myself--leaning into this terror has been my Lenten lesson. Praying the Psalms each morning, asking to be seen, to be heard, to be preserved, not just for my sake but for the sake of this new spirit within me--asking to be renewed, to be purged of the sins that beset me because this tiny person will nestle into my heart and arms and breast and gain and learn life from me--oh, what a mystery. Oh, what a joy. And oh, what a commonplace reality for women all over, this desire to be better for the sake of  the coming child.

My Lenten fast is most profound in that it is not so special, not so unique. (How many have watched with knowing eyes as I sneak a saltine between tasks? How many message boards have I read with everyday women around the world pausing from their everyday lives to offer support and tips--ginger, lemon, carbohydrates, peppermint, acupressure bands?) This morning  all-day sickness is a usual fast, but it is one doubtless acceptable to the Most High whose wings overshadow, whose creation knows the pangs of labor, whose Spirit comforts and challenges and ushers us through the canals of a new birth.

Perhaps I will be feeling better by Easter? One can only hope. In any case, I will celebrate Resurrection, praise Jesus for life springing up from where no life seemed to be. Even if snows still blanket the ground. Even if I'm dropping crumbs between the piano keys.


  1. Congratulations Cindy! I know that you two will be covering this little one daily (hourly too) in prayer and love. Let's add our prayers to the list too. Love you!

    Leah Mulder

    1. Oh, thank you, Leah. :o) Love to you and Grant!

  2. Cindy, this is a beautiful thing you've created, and a fitting mirror of the creation blossoming inside of you. I find myself wishing I could just wrap my arms around you (both!) in celebration, and share tears of delight and wonder. Happy, happy days!

    1. K, wish we could have a cracker date to celebrate your birthday. Love!

    2. I would love nothing more. Maybe also fizzy drinks?

  3. Lots of love, Cindy! I'll be keeping you in my prayers! Ania

    1. Thank you, Ania. I miss you! So glad you blazed motherhood-academic trails ahead of me.

  4. Thanks for sharing your happy news and in such a beautiful way. It was a timely reminder of the blessing of motherhood, one I needed today. Praying for you and Josh and baby Wallace.

    1. Oh, thank you, B. I appreciate the prayers and love catching glimpses into your own mothering journey.

  5. This is a beautiful piece of writing bearing such good news! I'm so happy with you and Josh and full of prayer with you.

    Keep eatin' those carbs. Yum! :)