Trench Digging: a Journey through Lent, Part 1
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.
“At start of spring I open a trench in the ground.” I happened across this poem by Wendell Berry three years ago around the beginning of Lent. It was also the beginning of my journey to the Anglican Faith. I was reading a collection of Berry’s work and, as often happens in meditative life, God is a weaver and was working several strands of the tapestry at once. I came back to it this year for several reasons: one of the strongest being that at the beginning of Lent I did not know where to begin—yet again. On Ash Wednesday most in College Station awakened to no power, water, or a combination of both. A particularly “Lentish” distraction from Lent. Also, the 365-day Covid Lent of March 2020 to March 2021 has left us depleted and starting another season hinting at self-denial seems unnecessary. What was this supposed to look like this year? So back to the start of things I went, and found this poem a poignant focus.
Depending on your background, Lent awakens pictures of fish fries, Popes who own fishing boats, Monty Python style head thumping with large books, listening to dirges (I do love a good dirge), giving up on your give up—or really any number of failures and confusions. Forty days of concentrated effort feels like something better left to the professionals. And, on the flip side, it can sometimes feel trivial to designate a self-denial amid the extravagances of our modern life. Add to this that Lent is long and there is the sting of it purposefully focusing us on our personal sin. Other penitential seasons like Advent focus on a communal need for cleansing and the entire world’s need for a Savior; but here in Lent we are asked to drill down into the particular baddies—us. Perhaps it’s supposed to feel a little lonely and undirected.
Beginning the lifelong process of repeating liturgical seasons, I need the concrete in the midst of the abstract. These seasons happen in the midst of life; the life of my children walking their muddy feet across my floor and endless cycles of potty-training toddlers. There are no ideal beginnings. In my search for something tangible I am drawn to this Berry poem because it reminds me of a café wall rendering of the Great Litany.
At the start of spring, you prepare for planting by digging up the earth and turning it over; you fertilize it. I love Berry’s picture of fertilizing the ground; his compost is the winter’s useless words, fragments and errors. A thirty second hot take of social media shows how desperately we need to take stock of the winter’s useless words. Removing the compost from my house to the garden I picture what this looks like emotionally. The imagery awakens one of the powerful goals of the season—letting things go for the purpose of renewal.
After the trench is dug and the fertilizer added, Berry confesses. We confess routinely within our faith, but the concentrated effort of a season of repentance aiming at purification is daunting. Again, how lovely to view the confessional to be the open air of the garden. Usually the idea of the confessional evokes scenes from the movie Godfather; it feels sinister and foreign. It feels strangely calming to confess to the sky and wind. The wind carries the words away and it reminds me of the fresh breeze blowing through the house during spring cleaning. (As I’ve edited this largely outside, I’ve had the pages blown round my yard rather cinematically several times; life imitating art and confession.)
I abhor how in this modern world we know so much but wonder so little.
Here is where Berry reminds me most of the Lenten readings in the Book of Common Prayer; he confesses that has not been happy enough, has listened to too much noise and has lusted after praise. We are all overwhelmed by noise on a daily basis, but I usually blame the noise and not myself for listening. I’m adding lusting after praise to the trench even as I write these words. This year I decided to keep a bullet journal of what I was putting into my trench; nothing fancy and fairly inscrutable if you saw it. There are some names, charred idealisms, fractured hopes, many ignorances, repeated weaknesses, and a shadow self I clung to. The trench starts to mimic the size of a grave as I drop the shadow in and I realize it was going that way all along.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of Berry’s litany of failures is the inattention to wonders. To live on the dim side of the glass yet claim we are illumined. I abhor how in this modern world we know so much but wonder so little. I love the picture of Scrooge’s transformation after he wakes up from the long night and the three ghosts’ visit; he is radically, fully, completely aware of every common miracle of life. With the scales pulled off his eyes he is completely ridiculous to everyone and as his laughter rings out, he embraces it. An awareness of wonder will have a cost associated to it, but as the earth springs to life around me the cost of ignoring it seems higher.