Lent 1: Ash Wednesday

Lent begins in silence. I was late downstairs, rushing to put the water on, finish making porridge before chapel. At quarter to seven I’m pushing a wheelbarrow full of bin bags down to the gate, passing the woman who delivers milk to us three times a week. I say good morning, and we smile at each other, and the silence somehow stays complete. I’m discovering the strange elasticity of silence, how sometimes it stretches around whole conversations, how at other times a cold shoulder or a single word can make it snap like burst bubblegum. There is a constant friction between me and the silence: a yearning for it fighting with the impulse to push the clutter in my head out into the empty space.

For many years I’ve thought of Lent as empty space. It’s a time of waiting, a time of absences and restrictions. The chapel is stripped of flowers and the liturgy of cheerful Alleluias. There is a need within me to fill empty spaces. Sometimes I fill Lent with projects. If I give something up, I talk about it ceaselessly; if I read a Lent book, or study, I read hungrily, without time to stop and meditate. And then comes the cavernous emptiness of Holy Saturday, between the grief of Good Friday and the blissful end of emptiness on Easter Day. In both of these days there’s plenty to fill my head and heart. But I’ve always hidden from that long, empty Saturday, unsure what to do with it, how to understand that stretch of time.

This morning I helped to clear our smaller greenhouse, ready to take trays of seeds. In the pouring rain, we emptied the space, levelled the ground, and begun to plan and place shelves. Excess soil, which I had assumed was dead to all use, we sieved and saved for seedlings which need poor soil. I’m beginning to realise how often the garden changes, and how adaptable we need to be to keep up with it. In my naivety I’d imagined that anything we hadn’t used in the last six months was never used, and sat as a permanent fixture in one place, as if it had sat there since the convent was founded. But even unseen, even in absence and emptiness, life changes our garden. The tomato seeds that lay dormant three days ago have sprouted inch long stems and inch imperceptibly towards the glass even as we turn them back. As we clear away, I see the greenhouse in a new light. Even emptier now than it was this morning, laid bare but for the neat shelves, it suddenly seems so full to me. I can see the rows of young tomato and chilli plants and the trays of lettuce and beetroot and chard, rocket and perpetual spinach, bean and berry. The greenhouse is a womb holding the next few months of our garden, even before the seeds are planted. And in it’s emptiness it also holds my hopes, for the things I might learn, the journey I’ll take over this Lent and the months and the years to come.

As a student I once wrote an essay on ‘blank space’ as a metatextual element. Emptiness and absence have become an uncomfortable recurring interest, an academic obsession. But it’s not so comfortable to be asked to live alongside emptiness or uncertainty. If we really go into Lent, this is inevitable, and it’s so human to run away. But it seems to me that, like the waiting greenhouse, the silence of Lent is a growing silence: empty, and yet so, so full.