Ancient Traditions And Contemporary Problems: Recalibrating

Herman Henstenburgh (Dutch, 1667–1726)

Vanitas Still Life, Herman Henstenburgh (Dutch, 1667–1726)

My visual voicemail on my iPhone had only been working sporadically for a few months. It was a small inconvenience but one that accrued over days, weeks and months. Eventually it annoyed me enough so Googled the usual iPhone message boards to find the fix – refresh the phone’s settings. Which I did and that solved the problem, though it required I spend a half an hour reenabling Apple Pay and message forwarding to other devices and other bits and pieces. A trifling amount of work compared to the annoyance of often having to try three or four times before being able to listen to a message. I should have done it sooner.

I have known for many years the brief, direct attention required to fix most low-grade problems is far outweighed by the simmering accretion of frustration and  inefficiency caused by these “small problems.” Yet I, perhaps like most people, let these little problems slide, day after day, because they don’t demand attention the way big problems do. The toilet seat that needs tightening so it will stay up properly. The lightbulb that needs replacing high in the stairwell. Or more broadly the huge range of instruments and devices that require recalibrating on a regular basis to insure proper function.

These are all technical, measurable, manual issues. But what about metaphysical issues? The accretions that build up on a mind, on a soul, a time passes? The wants that get mistaken for needs, the gifts that get mistaken for rights? The once-gratitude that simmers away toward a stiffening, sticky crud of disappointment and unmet expectation?

You can reboot a computer, reset your iPhone. What do you do for a soul?

Lent. The ancient seasons of the church are built around resetting, recalibrating, the human soul.

I recall two years ago, sitting on the edge of the pool at the Y with a friend, watching our kids play. “How’s Lent going?” he asked. “Terribly,” I answered with an honesty that surprised me. “I don’t know what it is, but I can’t connect, can’t feel…something I’m supposed to…” I don’t remember exactly how I went on at that point. But I know now in retrospect there was a great leviathan of sorrow beneath the surface of that year’s ocean, and it was coming on inexorably. When it surfaced, jaws gaping, I learned something new about grief and sorrow, and about recalibration, and later, about gratitude.

This year, Lent has been different. I’ve remembered more readily the soul and mind need recalibration and resetting. And maybe by the time I’m an old man, I will have learned how to time that recalibration well enough so the whale doesn’t need to devour me before I do it.

I fasted on Ash Wednesday this year – and did not take even the allowable two small collations that don’t equal a full meal during the day, allowable for Catholics. I say this not to boast of my discipline or aestheticism, those who know me know I am a paragon of neither.  In fact, I skipped those two snacks precisely because I am so driven by hungers.  (As Doctor Who once said, “Good men don’t need rules; don’t make today the day you find out why I have so many.”)

And in observing that fast, not putting a small meal to my lips until after sunset that evening, I recalibrated something; my hunger, my understanding of need, my gratitude. I felt it happen. I woke up different the next day.

All problems solved, spiritual connections made, the rest of Lent a perfect trifecta of prayer, penance and almsgiving? Of course not. But it’s better than it would have been, physically, mentally spiritually. I suppose that’s why I wrote this; wanted to share it with you. These ancient practices aren’t just for the holy, the aesthetic. They’re for us, the worldly, stumbling, hungry, distracted, over-scheduled, under-rested, sometimes-terrified, post-modern humans balanced precariously on the rocks at the edge of the great sea that rolls forever beyond understanding.