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ST. MARTIN'S LENT
November 26, 2011
 
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
Mark:13:37


After a tryptophan-induced night's sleep, and apple pie with several cups of wonderful coffee for a post-Thanksgiving breakfast the next day, a ride in the car through the South Fork from Sag Harbor to Amagansett. How lovely it is here -- the little old cedar-shingled saltboxes in town, the larger houses of the estates that surround it, the ordered rows of plants in the vineyards, the peculiar lucidity of sunlight informed by the proximity of the sea. We went to have a look at the beach and then we poked our noses into a few charming shops. In East Hampton I bought a gorgeous wool dress coat, easily worth five hundred dollars, for twenty-five at the Ladies' Village Improvement Society. Then we came home and had a luscious split pea soup for lunch.

What a lovely day.

Something began to nag at me in the car on the ride back Sag Harbor, though -- a gathering foreboding. It seemed to center on a vague feeling of illegitimacy. I should be doing something. Too many hours had passed without my having made a contribution to the world's well-being. I was having too much fun.

Most of the people with whom I have discussed this uncomfortable feeling in the past have counseled me to get over it. Relax and just be, they tell me. You don't have to be producing all the time. And I agree -- I don't need to be producing all the time, but I do need to be producing some of the time. I need to work. I can't survive for very long on a steady diet of fun. It is like a steady diet of dessert -- after a while, you just need to bite into a carrot.

Everyone is not the same. A nice long stretch of doing nothing is good for some people, but it is not good for me. I am most myself and happiest when I snatch downtime here and there, when the centerpiece of my day is working, when relaxation is my well-earned reward for a job well done. I don't do well when relaxation is my job. I am like an athlete: they don't feel well if they don't get out there every day. That's not how they're made. They need to move.

The sobriety of the church's Advent season suits me. I realize anew every year that I cannot yield to the frenzy of Christmas as the festival of consumerism it has become -- I enjoy all the preparation as much as anyone else does, but I must hold something of myself back from it. I must claim the time I need for prayer and for music that centers me on the coming of Christ, and I need more of both at this time of year, when the demands upon me are greater than at other times. Pray and listen and write. Let the stillness and the darkness partner me -- they mean me no harm. Light a candle to mark them both.

Deep penitence is not really appropriate for the weeks of Advent -- though there was a time when it was thought to be just the thing. The six weeks leading up to Christmas were a time of penitence and fasting; they were even called "St. Martin's Lent," beginning as they did on November 11th, the Feast of St. Martin. We long ago left off treating this time of year so somberly; St. Martin's Lent shrank to the modern four-week Advent, and the grimness in the lessons is all that remains of it. We instead ponder the brevity and fragility of life, as a means of coming to terms with limits to our power and our freedom which we might prefer to ignore. In many parts of the world, these winter months are hard ones, cold, dark, inhospitable outdoors. We huddle together for warmth, cling to one another to calm our fears.

Somber? Not so much. The world is good, and we love it so much that most of us don't ever want to leave -- even its glitter is fun, in small doses. Sober is more what I'm after: a reasonable blend of work and play, of penitence and praise, a gathering of strength arising from renewed awareness of where strength comes from.

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Read about St. Martin's Lent and how it became the Advent we know at
http://fullhomelydivinity.org/articles/advent.htm.
You can also hear a lovely mediation on Advent given by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
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