Part 2 of Trench Digging: a Journey through Lent
At start of spring I open a trench In the ground. I put into it The winter’s accumulation of paper, Pages I do not want to read Again, useless words, fragments, errors. And I put into it the contents of the outhouse: light of the suns, growth of the ground, Finished with one of their journeys. To the sky, to the wind, then, and to the faithful trees, I confess my sins: that I have not been happy enough, considering my good luck; have listened to too much noise, have been inattentive to wonders, have lusted after praise. And then upon the gathered refuse, of mind and body, I close the trench folding shut again the dark, the deathless earth. Beneath that seal the old escapes into the new.
We begin Lent with the ashes on our foreheads; the visual representation to each other of our shared destiny of returning to dust. And in this journey of trench digging, I ended in the dirt with a very large hole that began to take the shape of a grave. With the intensity of Holy Week directly in front of us, the emphasis clearly shifts to grave digging. Now with the refuse of mind and body filling the trench it is time to close it.
Berry describes the earth as dark and deathless and it awakens simultaneously the tomb imagery imbedded in this act along with the immortality of the earth. Eschatologically speaking, someday the earth will pass away, but there is the cruel reality in front of us all that we die and the earth continues. That moment after the loved one passes when the minutes tick on and we realize the universe takes no notice of our life and pain is profoundly disturbing and humbling. And so, we take these fragments, failures, inattentions and put them in the tomb with Christ because this is our path to immortality. Facing our “dustness” on this side of the divide is intensely real and healthy.
Finishing the trench is called sealing it, and again the imagery invokes the sealing of the sepulcher of Christ. Relationships, idealisms, conversations—sealing them in the earth to rot and to be converted to new energy. The old escaping into the new. The imagery of seasons coming and going and years stretching connected but distinct in themselves is helpful as we put flesh on these abstract parts of liturgical living. Awaiting to re-emerge in freshly renewed baptismal life once again, raised to newness of life—we are standing in the dirt.
You, O Lord, are the God of those who repent, and in me you will show forth your goodness.
Recently I read Voyage of the Dawn Treader with my children, and the part where Eustace has his dragon scales ripped from him by Aslan particularly struck me. The very mention of Eustace Scrubb’s name is an expletive to any die-hard Narnia fan. He is the classic schoolyard bully who delights in stealing joy. When he has reached a point of complete brokenness, and complete dragon-ness, he meets Aslan. Aslan has to tear into him with his claws in deep cuts for the toughest layer of scales to peel, and Eustace describes the feeling as the most painful thing he has ever experienced. The inner layers come off in long folds and the skin is flayed and tender as Aslan throws him into a well for cleansing.
I love the understated violence in how Aslan deals with these dragon scales. Even tossing him into the water; everything about the process is beyond Eustace’s control. At first the water stings but after a time it feels refreshing and healthy for the first time. The concentrated effort of confession feels like this to me. How deep does the trench have to be? How many layers do you have to rip off? How many deaths do I need to die? And the answer we all know is as many as are needed and this is not the last time.
Later, near the end of the chapter, Lewis closes this part of Eustace’s journey by telling us that the removal of the scales did not make Eustace into a new boy overnight; but it was the beginning of his change. It reminds me that character transformation is a necessary part of Christian life and that it is ongoing and always incomplete. “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
There are many reasons to feel exhausted and unfocused right now, and there is much to walk away from in this past year. I found a strong draw to putting a physical picture to Lent—the spring ritual of digging in the garden for the first time after winter. As the earth has burst to life around me during this Lenten season of trench digging, again I find it a fitting reminder that what I’ve just planted will grow this year and die in its appointed succession.
As we near the end of Lent I’m reminded formation happens as we submit to the process season after season whether we are feeling it or not. It is a continual development and commitment to reordering life around the church calendar in the midst of interruptions, sickness, and with the new shine wearing off. There are many fragments and there will always be fragments—pieces of a whole that we don’t understand and might never understand. Here in the middle of trench digging there aren’t answers to those questions specifically but there is a place to put the pieces.
And now, O Lord, I bend the knee of my heart, and make my appeal, sure of your gracious goodness. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I know my wickedness only too well. Therefore I make this prayer to you: forgive me, Lord, forgive me. Don’t let me perish in my sin, nor condemn me to the depths of the earth. For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent, and in me you will show forth your goodness.
(Kyrie Pantokrator, A Song of Penitence, 2019 BCP, p.81)