Lenten excavation

Welcome to Lent’s invitation to wild foraging, bushwhacking adventure, deep excavation

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Psalm 51,” Choir of St. Simon the Leper, Republic of Georgia (sung in Aramaic)

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In the first year of my career as a stonemason, most of my work was of the grunt variety: hauling rock and sand, lugging 200 pounds of mixed mortar in a wheelbarrow from the mixer to the work site, and digging footers for stone walls of various functions.

The latter included lots of shovel work, then even harder pickaxe labor once you reached the hard clay strata, sometimes mixed with rock-hard mica. Or wielding a five-foot-long, 20-pound pry bar to dislodge rocks; occasionally, a hatchet to cut stubborn roots.

My boss took mostly smaller jobs and couldn’t afford to rent a backhoe; or work in crowded or steep slope areas where it wasn’t practical to use machinery.

Footers have to be deeper than the frost line, so the rock structure isn’t subject to the ground’s heaving freeze-thaw cycles that can tumble a structure. Here in Western North Carolina, the frost line is 18 inches.

The hardest single job I did was cutting a 100 foot-long trench, from the edge of a driveway up a steep slope around to the side of the house. Then lugging 30-60 pound granite riprap up the hill to set in place. Then muscling five-gallon buckets of mortar up the slope. More than once, a rock slipped out of my hands and rolled down the hill. Maintaining my footing while clearing vegetation and digging the trench was a constant, and exhausting, challenge.

That labor became for me a metaphor for the strenuous excavating work of Lent. In the rough and tumble of life, baneful habits harden; or spread like kudzu, killing everything it covers. The roots of our spiritual growth (and their mitochondria “fingers” that process nutrition from fertile soil) get blocked by hard clay, stunting growth. Sometimes the seeds needed to enhance growth get too little water, or too much; too little sun, or too much. A late frost can kill new buds. Sometimes rocks have to be disgorged.

Would that spiritual growth was more like a day at the spa, hot tub with flute of champagne in hand! A masseuse on call; a manicurist for nails; a stylist for coiffure. Sure, throw in some weight training, some treadmill time, maybe a Pilates class and a few laps around the pool. All of these things are good. Most bring health benefits.

But this is not the labor of Lent, which is more feral in nature, more daunting and risky, undertaken outside sterile confines amid undomesticated circumstances. Heaven’s repeated “fear not” exhortation throughout Scripture presupposes tremulous encounters. Divine light is promised to those who sit in darkness.

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Hymn of praise. “I want to be ready when joy comes back to me.” —Ruthie Foster, “Joy Comes Back

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Forgive me if I sound like all is muscle and brawn. It is not. Spiritual formation will also involve being still when your every urge is to be busy. Savoring life, not just saving it. It may require the enduring resolve of a woman in labor; maintaining composure with a fretful child; speaking tenderly in the midst of brash encounters.

Patience, yes; but not when patience means throttling the demands of justice. Wisdom in taming a thrashing tongue is required; exercising gentleness in prickly circumstances; vigilance, when all around you have been lulled to sleep by the Deceiver’s charms and the Market’s allure.

All of these traits, and more, are practiced and refined on turbulent testing grounds where success is not assured but bruises are.

There are two essential virtues that sustain the faithful in the face of history’s ruinous momentum.

The first is the capacity for beauty, which is far more resilient than moral heroism. It entails beatific vision, a prescient horizon beyond rational calculation. It involves being baptized into a transcendent conviction about the Age to Come when all shall sit unafraid under their own vine and fig tree, when tears will be dried and death comes undone.

The second is faithful perseverance, arguably the highest virtue in Scripture. It represents the acknowledgment that it is not our job to assure earth’s deliverance. There is an efficacious Power and a flourishing Presence beyond our control, beyond our management, beyond our sustenance. Surely this Companion invites our collaboration; but we, individually or collectively, are not history’s guarantor. Our works of mercy and pursuit of justice are performed not as obligations of a servant to a master, but acts of delight from a lover to the Beloved.

Welcome to Lent’s invitation to wild foraging, bushwhacking adventure, deep excavation to uncover blocked streams of bounty and delight. Buckle up with the promise of a balm in Gilead, manna in the desert, water from sheer rock. The Beloved has pledged to “restore the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25).

As martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero noted, there are many things can only be seen with eyes that have cried. But Heaven’s injunction to the sorrowful is this: Take heart, for ours is an insurrectionary summons. Despite much evidence to the contrary, fear not.

Though trenched by sadness, know that you are tracked by joy. Another world is not only possible; it is, even now, hastening on its way. Hold close Resurrection’s pledge that Death’s thaw will dislodge the tomb’s sealing stone. Offer prayers as flares to mark the rendezvous.

Be assured, pilgrim: Love will find a Way in the wilderness; will reclaim desolate land; will restore marginalized people. Keep your eyes on the Prize. Hold on.

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Benediction. “Eyes on the Prize,” Mavis Staples

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For more on this them see this poem, “Blistering Hope: A stonemason’s meditation on perseverance.”