Grief, fasting, and community

My friend Christine writes with great beauty and depth about journeying with pain and loss as ever-present companions. Christine lost her beloved son one year ago, and she wrote the following reflection on how her grieving mother’s heart will journey through Lent this year:

Last year at this time, I had a strong sense that I ought to abstain from meat for 40 days. It was odd because I only tolerate meat in minuscule amounts. I’m partial rather to shellfish and dessert. Hence, the high cholesterol.

I wrote something then about abstaining from the stuff of life rather than the fluff of life. It was a prophecy uttered unknown to myself for now until forever in this mortal habitation we call time. For what is the stuff of life more than children? They are evidence that one isn’t just going through the motions “long after the thrill of livin’ is gone,” to quote John, not the Cougar, Mellencamp.

This is how I know that God was not absent last March 28th at nine-o-something in the evening. It was his Spirit who inspired me to abstain from the stuff of life—the blood and muscle and sinew of my days—instead of chocolate, too ordinary a Lenten abstention, but one much more challenging for a frivolous fool like me.

The Almighty was preparing me for who knows how many years of abstention, of hope deferred, of evidence unseen…

So what this year? Am I excused from abstention because I do without already. Every day. Every hour. Every heartbeat and break. From the stuff of life, by half.

No. I think not, because life does in fact go on in this interminable Eternal Now. The flesh still needs its training in abstention. Abstention from excessive grief. Abstention from wallowing in the bitter cup. Abstention from fear and morosity…

Perhaps I’ll feast on joy for 40 days…

This past week she offered this comment on a spiritual retreat she had just attended:

Here’s the verse I brought home to meditate on through Lent:

He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

(Psalm 126:6, ESV)

Our speaker reminded us not to surrender to our wilderness experiences, but to God in them. When we surrender to God in our difficult circumstances, we gather seeds to sow for the nourishment of others.

I had the privilege yesterday of sitting for a bit with a woman who, with her family, has walked through a simply life-shattering experience as a result of the actions of Christian sisters and brothers. She is on a journey of healing from the events that injured her and her loved ones, and I do trust that God is with her as she passes through this place of abandonment and affliction. But it is that: a dark place with more questions than answers.

I am reminded today how many of us need Lent to remind us to consider places of pain, sobriety, and grief. We need the ashy mark on our forehead because it is not our heart’s inclination to mourn and weep. But there are others in our midst who are already living among the ashes.

In the earlier centuries of church life, the forty days of Lent were the season when new believers prepared to be baptized into the church community. The members of the faith community joined these new believers in this special time of preparation and reflection on the death and new life that Christ gives. Lent and baptism were, for many years, intimately linked together (and still are for the Catholic Church). Lent was something the church did together, to identify with one another and with those being welcomed into their family.

My thought today is that we would do well to consider this season as something we do as a community. What would it look like for us to consider the places of suffering and death and isolation and grief that are present among us, and exercise intentionality toward joining our sisters and brothers there? Could we spend these days fasting, as a community, from the isolation that falls too quickly and easily upon those in pain? Could we see Lent as an invitation to come together as a body and identify with one another in some new way?


  1. Beautiful meditation Erika. Gives me a thoughts for focusing outside myself and my own grief. Thanks too for the link love. Blessings~

  2. I love Christine’s insight that abstaining from fluff is too slight. That cheapening has always bothered me, and I love your words, Erika, too.

  3. I just saw your post on Eugene’s blog … I was reading throught the list of books. I wasn’t looking at who’s lists they were … and when I read your list I thought, “That sounds like a list Erika would come up with.” And low and behold … it was you … great list.

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