Lent is like this. Prayer can be, too. Where are my spiritual breakthroughs, my lofty discoveries? Instead, I am struggling just to keep up every day: to listen to prerecorded prayers, to read brief devotional pages, to write a few notes in a small gray journal. I listen to the prayers while I make the bed, fluffing pillows and wondering whether I should change the sheets. I try to think about God while I’m on my hands and knees, scrubbing traces of dirt off the hardwood floors. Outside, it’s an early spring, and what little rain we get turns the clay to clumps of mud that stick to the sides of our shoes.
It’s an obvious parallel between cleaning and devotion: both are often acts of upkeep rather than inspiration. The table is clean and then, suddenly, it’s spotted with sriracha and stacked with bills. The flowers in the vase have rotted, turning the water brown. The heart goes toward God after contemplation. Then, suddenly, it’s angry and jealous. Sin settles like a film of grease. The work must be done again. It is a necessary, daily exercise, and it requires time.
Time is precious. During Lent, I hate to “set it aside,” as I know I’m supposed to, because I already feel like I’m always losing or wasting it. Every moment should be spent making art, or getting knowledge, or acquiring experiences. And yet, so many are spent minding what I already have, keeping it from disrepair. I sort darks from whites, then chop onions. My husband mops and folds and vacuums. We make a home, and eventually, we’ll welcome others into it—but these days, our chores are mostly for ourselves. Much as I like to imagine my life and mind as unencumbered, unconcerned with dust and dirt, I can’t. It’s impossible to ignore the physical world, the things I’ve been given, the less-than-600 feet we inhabit. I just can’t let it stay messy, even though I know it will get messy again.
If only I felt this way about the time I spend with God: that regular prayer, however brief, is equally essential, both to who I am and what my days look like. Prayer is more permanent than it appears. As long as I’m living, I’ll be making a mess, spilling coffee on the couch and clogging showerheads with calcium. Eventually, I’ll leave this apartment, sell this furniture, and pass on any space and possessions I’d temporarily laid claim to. Meanwhile, God promises real, lasting achievement: maintenance, yes, but also purification. I can’t imagine what that will be like, who I’ll be when the sanctifying labor is perfected. I should start imagining that more.
I open up the windows earlier these mornings as the days edge toward March. The air smells like daphne and citrus and redwood. It does some work for me, and I let it.