Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, we planted the seeds of our Lenten observance. We committed to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We resolved to give something up.
Today is our first chance to check in on our progress.
How’s it looking?
We evaluate and see… a bare patch of earth. If one area of dirt, having been newly turned over, didn’t display a darker, richer hue than the surrounding soil, we might not even remember exactly where we had planted those Lenten sacrifices, those small deaths to self. It doesn’t look like anything has changed yet.
But we are mistaken.
Beneath the surface, things are happening. Pivotal things.
The seed is taking its chance.
“No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root,” writes the geobiologist Hope Jahren in her memoir, Lab Girl (52). Her reflection on the natural order speaks poignantly to the spiritual order, especially for these first days of Lent.
The mission of the tiny rootlet, she explains, is to anchor:
Everything is risked in that one moment when the first cells (the ‘hypocotyl’) advance from the seed coat. The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed. The gamble is everything, and losing means death. (52)
Now that’s asceticism. The seed spends all it has and is for the sake of finding its life. We have begun a similar process of self-emptying, driven by the desire that we may have life more abundantly. Yet we need not fear the small deaths of our Lenten mortifications. Nurtured by grace, we can embrace them: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies,” St. Paul stresses. “It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Cor 15:36,42). The prophet Isaiah speaks with assurance that the Lord “gives power to the faint, abundant strength to the weak” (40:29). We find an analog for this power and resilience in the life of the fledgling plant, as well:
If a root finds what it needs, it bulks into a taproot—an anchor that can swell and split bedrock… Tear apart everything aboveground—everything—and most plants can still grow rebelliously back from just one intact root. More than once. More than twice. (Lab Girl, 52)
From this first root’s ability to stabilize the plant and stimulate growth, all else follows. These first days of Lent are all about allowing the spiritual taproot to plunge us deep into the penitential season. In the weeks to come, it will sustain us in times of temptation, should our zeal slacken or our wills waver. And even if we do slip, new growth is possible. More than once. More than twice.
Whereas roots can weather away bedrock, we might say that our Lenten roots are meant to hew a new tomb in the rock. Our death-to-self carves out a place for Christ to be laid in death and to rise in glory. “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him” (2 Tim 2:11).
Beneath the surface, things are happening indeed.
Image: Pascal Frei