“A Long Dream of Home”: Lent as Exilic Discipline
The forty days of Lent embody a number of biblical events, including the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, Moses’ forty-day sojourn on Mount Sinai, and the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in exile. Exile has been a lot on my mind lately as my master’s thesis for a degree in literature and creative writing focuses on the connections between exile and writing. With this in mind, it occurred to me that the forty days of Lenten austerity and self-reflection offer us the opportunity to partake of a kind of miniature exile—to adopt, in a low-stakes context, the mindset of one who has been separated from the familiarity and safety of the status quo.
Exile can manifest itself in many forms. On the most fundamental level, it is an experience we all share from birth, thrust as we are from our mothers’ wombs into a foreign and uncharted world. Exile is also a central motif of the Christian Church, for human history is launched with the story of Adam and Eve’s banishment from paradise. Christ himself chooses self-exile in order to redeem the world. Likewise, the prodigal son leaves behind the comforts of home for a faraway land.
Exile—what Victor Hugo called “a long dream of home”—sets up an inevitable dichotomy. Implicit in the ache of departure and separation is—fortunately for us—the hope of return. Much of literature dwells on the theme of separation and return—a concept beautifully articulated by Marilynne Robinson in her award-winning debut novel Housekeeping:
Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory—there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.
Ironically, the experience of exile can be both terrifying and transformative. Any time we are separated from what is safe and familiar we are forced into a liminal space. We notice things previously dismissed or unseen. We experience a kind of fertile detachment. We are confronted in new ways with the fragility, dislocation, and transience of life. It is no wonder that so many great writers (like Auden, Conrad, Dante, Dineson, Kundera, Lessing, Solzhenitsyn, Wharton, Wilde, and Yeats, to name just a few) were individuals who had suffered the dislocation of exile, whether political, geographical, or ideological. And it is no coincidence that so many of these exiled writers found through their dislocation a pathway to renewal and redemption.
The Lenten season offers us the opportunity to more deeply value Christ’s gift of salvation as we walk through a time that embodies Christ’s absence. It is a time ripe for self-examination and personal growth. And it provides us with an opportunity to learn how to better empathize with the pain of those around us—the sick, the disenfranchised, the grief-stricken, and the millions around the world exiled from their homelands by politics or poverty, whose “long dream of home” will continue far beyond the boundaries of Easter and our Lenten exercise.
St. Michael’s, Brattleboro
1 Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1980), 192