This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on February 16th, 2016.
I’ve sat around many a campfire, watching bright flames subside into winking orange coals half smothered in ash, stars blazing high above. Companions head off to their respective tents, and there you are alone with your thoughts and the cold night air; the best portion of any camping trip.
Hearth fires are next best. When something like winter does visit us in Southern California, and the oak logs in the fireplace burn down and you switch off the house lamps before bed, it can be a fine thing to pull up a chair and steal a half-hour in the glowering light.
Lent begins with the cruciform mark of ashes on the forehead. The ashes are imposed as a reminder of mortality in the midst of our fast-paced days. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those are hard words to say to a child and just as hard to say to those who have sat a little longer around the fire ring. There are a campfire’s worth of ashes in any life. Everyone knows loss and trouble. Live long enough and you will know illness and bereavement and what it is to be sad. Fires go out, and ashes bind all who have ever lived and all who ever will. These forty days of Lent make for a gloomy season.
Or do they? Socrates told us a long time ago that the unexamined life is not worth living, and nothing gets our attention as certainly as signs of mortality. The old Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving are a summons to mindfulness aided by simple duties. Fasting may entail forgoing food for a period of time. A gnawing stomach brings to mind the social web in which we dwell, and our ultimate dependence on One in whom we live and move and have our being. Many choose to “give up” something they especially enjoy for the entirety of the Lenten Season, and that can be useful to non-theists as surely as for spiritual pilgrims.
Prayer, the second discipline, can take many forms. Prayer is not so much about words as it is establishing habits of the heart which look beyond the self…habits training us to think of God, and to look more deeply at other people. “Pray without ceasing,” counseled St. Paul; stride the world in an alert state.
Almsgiving…sharing from one’s abundance with those who have less, receives special priority during the Forty Days. Those of us who have so much more than almost anyone else on the planet do well to take that summons to heart.
Often, coming out of my tent in the chill morning at the edge of a river, I would blow on the ash in the campfire ring and see new flame spring to life. Feeding kindling to the fire, there was soon a blaze sufficient to boil coffee and heat the griddle. Venture Lent and fan the coals…daub your forehead with a bit of ash from your own hearth and make a go of the tried and true disciplines of the season, that new fire may rise from your ashes.