What Writing and Working are Teaching Me This Lent

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with the firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of this coming day with all that it will bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray You Yourself in me. Amen.

–Morning Prayer of St. Philaret

 

Great Lent is a school of sorts, in which we learn to repent–return to Christ, to throw off the “sin that so easily entangles” and attend to the Cross and Resurrection in our lives. Sometimes we learn this through the traditional practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. For centuries, these practices have taught Christians how to pare their lives and egos down to the Essential.

This year, though, I’m also learning Lent through the unconventional disciplines of writing and work…

Last week Thursday, days shy of the midpoint of Lent, I submitted the manuscript of my forthcoming book (Time and Despondency)¬†to my editor at Ancient Faith. It was a whirlwind of a finish, marked by two months of writer’s block that lifted less than a week before my deadline. Anyway, right after that, I started a new full-time job as a grant writer for the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto (Canada). Perhaps I should mention, by the way, that this is my first full-time, 9-5 job in my life. (How have made it into my thirties without having a “real” job, you ask? Grad school, I tell you. And then immigrating/ not having the right to work for a while. And then a heck of a lot of freelance editing, which I’m still doing in addition to my new job because I love it.)

Finishing a book can be very emptying. As rewarding as it is, it’s also a loss. Along with just pouring yourself into the work, it means facing what you could not accomplish. As an author, there’s always more you wish you were capable of putting into words. The closer I got to my deadline, the harder it was for me to see what my writing actually did accomplish because I was overwhelmed by the nagging sense it wasn’t enough. It’s kind of a slice of what it must feel like to be on one’s deathbed–at some point, you have to put your pencil down and look back and realize this is it, for better for worse. This is the book you wrote, with all its gems and warts. That can be both a rewarding and harrowing thing to face, mostly because I have always had a¬†set of¬†standards for myself that are completely and ridiculously out of sync with reality. If it doesn’t manage to¬†solve world hunger, the political debacle, and basically all other forms of human suffering, I might as well not even try.

I’m convinced that’s a big reason why I couldn’t write for two months–I just couldn’t face that crushing wave of inadequacy. In the end, there were a number of factors that allowed me to finish the book–tiny miracles, I think–but one of them was simply grieving. As silly or overly dramatic as it sounds, I had to stand before God with all the ways I had fallen short of what I thought I was supposed to do or be in this book. In my experience, whenever we come that way to God–surrendering some small fragment of our ego–grace always finds us. And it always brings us to a more spacious place. In my case, the writer’s block lifted and I was able to finish the book, thank God, but more importantly… I was freed, at least momentarily, from some of the routine self-delusions that keep me from cooperating with God in life and salvation.

Along came work. The hardest part about this new job, I think, is going from working at home to working somewhere else–and all the logistical changes this means for our household. For the last few weeks, I’ve been cooking ahead and scraping around for simpler recipes than I used to make when my home was my office. And making a cleaning schedule. And figuring out what could be delegated to my husband in a way that would work for both of us. We’re still learning, but I think this is called “simplifying.” I¬†simply have less time to get complex about things.

And there has been more grieving–no, I can’t go work out (or take a nap or read a book) in the middle of the work day if I wanted and just make the hours up at night. ¬†And no, I can no longer be my own boss. (Incidentally, my husband is one of my new¬†supervisors. So far, so good–mostly, ha ha.)

Oh and another grief: no, I can’t go through the whole day in introverted bliss without having to interact with a blessed¬†soul for eight-hour stretches. Now I work with other actual people, in the flesh. I’m realizing what is probably obvious to other adults who’ve been part of the formal economy for longer than I have. Namely, that all those unpleasant workplace moments–when someone is standing ahead of me in line for the copier, or when someone asks me to do something (because it needs to be done, or because it’s my job)–are not some monumental social injustice pitted against me. They are mostly just¬† the stuff of life, and responsibility, and encounter. I think being graceful in these moments is called “humility” and “patience” and “love.” And I think it’s a skill that will take me quite a while to learn.

It’s another end of myself I am learning to face: that I am rather limited in my capacity to show love to other people in the give and take of interpersonal life. This is something I can’t muscle through on my own strength. When I walk from the bus stop to the office in the morning, I try to remember to pray the words of St. Philaret’s morning prayer. And when I do manage to do that, the words are real–like a shield or a dose of slow-release medicine. I need those words because they remind me that this small act of showing up and doing my job is my present moment right now, the arena of encountering Christ in the face of my neighbor. I need those words because they push me beyond my default of inner impatience and self-focus.

Great Lent is a beautiful time in the Church, and the seasonal disciplines we are given in Orthodoxy are beneficial. Still, more than any overtly spiritual practice that has come my way these last few weeks, the coupled experience of completing a book and commencing a job–and trying to do these things with some semblance of love–have maybe been the most Lenten thing about my Lent. In some small way, they brought and are bringing me to the end of myself, or at least the end of certain parts of myself. And they’ve opened up a different sort of vista where I can more clearly behold my need–for Christ, for salvation, for the peace from above.

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Feeling rather despondent this Great Lent? Check out my podcast series from last Lent on that very issue. Here’s the first episode.

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