When Robert Frost forswore both academic degrees and farm life to write poetry, he wrote a poem about himself and his wife as a response to the disappointment of his family. The poem is called “In Neglect,” and it describes well anyone who spent their Lent in a worthy manner.
“In Neglect,” both brief and beautiful, is presented here in its entirety:
They leave us so to the way we took,
As two in whom they were proved mistaken,
That we sit sometimes in the wayside nook,
With mischievous, vagrant, seraphic look,
And try if we cannot feel forsaken.
Although it may seem strange to think of “In Neglect” as having anything to do with the holy season of Lent, it is a unique property of the author, Robert Frost, meditating on the natural world he loved so much, to capture those very things that spring from, rely on, and make analogy to the supernatural world.
The relation of Frost’s family to himself and his wife is perfectly analogous to the way some of our friends, family, and acquaintances might see Lent and our practice of it. It is familiar to them, but not understood. Certainly, the romantic appeal of Lent still lingers in our modern world (consider for example the desire of even non-practicing Catholics to get ashes on Ash Wednesday and palms on Palm Sunday), but consider the manifold mistakings of what it is. Some view Lent through a purely naturalistic and historicist lens, thinking it a mere relic of an era when food was scarce in the spring anyway. Some, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, think that Lent is a time of self-degradation. Some think it is a willpower contest. Few understand it as it truly is, a time of renunciation of physical goods for the purpose of spiritual union with Christ in his physical and spiritual sufferings.
Indeed, trying to practice Lent well does not look like something most people are expecting. For example, consider the response of the fad diet crowd to the standard of penitential practice in the Church during Lent: moderate fasting, in which one eats about two-thirds of mostly all the things one normally eats. “What? You’re not abstaining from all GMO products, gluten, or sugar? That’s not serious at all.” Or take the educated person (for example, a former Catholic) who knows all about how Catholics hate themselves. Imagine her incredulity upon seeing her grumpy old Catholic uncle trying to ignore her barbs and to act kindly. Imagine her inner dialogue: “This is not what Lent is about! It’s about being mean to the people around you and meaner to yourself!”
Yes, a good Lent will probably involve our friends, family members, and neighbors believing themselves even more mistaken in us than they thought before. We certainly do not have to go as far as lounging around in the nearest wayside nook to make their faces more nonplussed than they already are. Their hopes for our promise have already been confounded by our having more than two children, or working for extremely low pay as campus missionaries, or taking unpopular stances because of religious principles, or any number of other things. Now during Lent, we are to take our status as vagrants on this earth even more seriously; our increased charity towards others means less keeping up with the standard of American affluence and thus possibly looking poorer and weirder and more out-of-touch.
Then consider the possibility of Lent making us more mischievous. Not a few are familiar with the strange phenomenon of increased joy and high spirits that occasionally surfaces during Lent. Partial credit of course, is owed to the coming spring and to healthier eating, but there is something else. Somehow, breaking our attachments to material things makes us lighter, makes us take ourselves more lightly, makes us like angels, to paraphrase Chesterton. It is a truly innocent mischief, a seraphic silliness. Which brings us to another characteristic of Lent; fasting and other kinds of “giving up” are not only ordered towards making reparation for sin, but also becoming closer to the angels, our elder brothers in creation.
Now, in my use of “In Neglect” to illuminate how we should approach Lent, I may have “spiritualized” it too much. I may have made it look like a mere allegory instead of a great poem inextricably tied up with its literal meaning. This has not at all been my purpose. But I think it is a property of great poems (and probably most good ones, too) that they retain their literal meaning, while at the same time this literal meaning is applicable to spiritual realities, relies on those spiritual realities for its own truth, and ultimately is originated by those same spiritual realities. The truths of the Faith, particularly manifested in Lent, are both necessary for Frost’s poem and act as an origin for it.
While we sit in our own wayside nooks with looks on bright faces, what are we to do in the season of Lent but try and feel forsaken? What are we to do but keep our fasting, as well as our almsgiving and prayers, and keep them secret? Secret so that Our Father in heaven who sees in secret will repay us, as Our Lord has promised. “And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.” Lent is not merely a time for us to look seraphic and feel forsaken, but to do this in union with Christ. Just as Frost welcomed being “left so” as long as he was left with his wife, let us welcome Lent, for though it is a hard, vagrant way, it is the way Jesus Christ is going.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Solitude of Sorrow” painted by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1856-1935).