It's hard for me to go through Lent and not gravitate back towards the writings of the existentialists. Camus, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche are the most influential upon me. Like your typical angst-ridden teen, I discovered them while in high school. A friend liked Camus' "The Stranger" and I was intrigued. And I wanted to learn more about them and they simply blew me away. There is the stereotype of the mopey teen and undergrad with Nietzsche under their arm in a coffeeshop and they grow up and put those books on the shelf. But for me, that never quite went away. There was too deep a resonance and it has stayed with me throughout my life.
As I write this, I keep thinking of heaviness and depth. Lent is a heavy season, a time to allow that heaviness to resonate. The weight of life and its gravitas. We are pulled. We never seem to pull others or things. It's always that we're pulled – as if everything is always bigger than us and there is nothing we can do to stop it or escape it. What can we do? It is our fate.
It reminds me of the recent and very complex film by Lars von Trier, Melancholia. I don't give anything away by revealing that it is about a small planet (Melancholia) discovered orbiting the sun and that becomes intertwined with Earth's gravitation, eventually crashing into each other. It's very sad, but very beautiful in a very sad, Romantic way.
There is an existential Romanticism of Lent. Kierkegaard provides excellent salves, with his beautiful style and parables about one's solitude and relationship to self, others, and God. Nietzsche, in his iconoclastic fury, does the same for me, too. But why? Many have shrugged and seen the existentialists as merely a fad of youth, a self-indulgent narcissism that breeds selfishness. But I see otherwise.
What Camus and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche offer is sobering appraisals of being here. Here. Now. And how shall we act because of it? They see past the flashy veneer of life and see… what? Nothing and everything. There is nothing. Ash Wednesday established our starting and ending point: dust. So we are living dust. Now, what? And we must move forward. We are solidly in Lent. We have established our groundwork, that we are mortal.
I say all of this to mean that in our dust, we must remember hope. In the Greek myth of Pandora, she unleashes all the miseries upon the world and closes the box in time to keep only hope from flying away. Hope. And not just hope, but hope against hope. Love is based on the past. Faith is based on the present. But hope is based upon the future. It is intangible and does not exist in the present. Hope can never exist in the present, lest be dust, itself. Hope is nothing now, but everything soon.
Hope is our being beyond ourselves. Hope is our escape – our hope of escape from this gravitational field. And in Lent, we consider our past, present, and future. And the Gospel offers hope against hope, as we will see at Lent's end. There is an end, a goal, a teleology of Lent. We are not just mortal. We are moving towards something. And in Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus," he describes our existence as like pushing a rock up a hill that slips from our hands at the very top and rolls back down. And we must push this rock up again and again. Our lives, in themselves, are meaningless. And Camus says that we make meaning by (as one teacher told me) "getting into our rock," by acting and getting to know our rock and make it our own each time we push it (this is what, Camus writes, keeps us from suicide). I would add, for purposes of Lent, that hope is the expectation of pushing the rock and of feeling it slide from our fingers. Lent is living, achingly, consciously so.
Is there something more than this? We hope so. We act as such. We must continue as such. As Beckett writes in "Waiting for Godot," "I cannot go on. I must go on." Our hope cannot be limited. Our hope is what resists gravity, the only thing that can. And with hope, we can go on living.