I thought I would enjoy the six days in Florence, Italy, that I had to myself. I packed my pens, my notebooks, spare paper, and ukulele, imagining days spent frolicking through the warm Tuscan stone and tapping into that artistic vein that runs deep in me, unleashing my own Dante or Michelangelo of words and music.
Friday, the first day, saw my early flight into the city. Under the warmth of an afternoon sun I sat at an outdoor cafe, sipping espresso and munching focaccia. With my notebook open, the writing came easy—the words flowing forth from my pen didn’t have to make sense then because they were simply indicative of the great verse yet to come.
And then Saturday—blustery and short-tempered.
I huddled in the cold room I had rented on AirBnb, mindful of the poor woman who owned the apartment somewhere around the corner. She must have thought I was crazy to stay hidden in the small room while there were still four hours of sunlight left and treasures awaiting me in the city.
But I couldn’t go out. For, despite the beauty of the art galleries, the majesty of the Duomo, and the rich, flaky pastries on every corner, I couldn’t face the solitude that also walked the streets of Florence. I was alone, despite being one of thousands; the language difference indicative of my solitude.
This was only day two. It would be a full 96 hours before I saw anyone I knew. I had been by myself before, and, as an introvert, I usually seek solitude—but here was a barrenness I hadn’t known before.
I like to think that I’m an interesting person, but when I’m the only one I hang out with, I’m suddenly faced with the awfulness of myself. What a boring, mean, cranky person I am!
Into the desert. It’s a romantic phrase, evocative of monks, purification, and spiritual rejuvenation. But who wants to be there?
Right before his public ministry, Christ went into the desert for 40 days. Every Lent, we remember that time and seek to similarly ready ourselves. It’s an individual task; only the individual can make the personal commitment, whether it involves giving up chocolate or sticking a popcorn kernel in his or her shoe and praying every time they feel it.
The dawning of Lent coincided with my trip to Florence. I found myself drawn to paintings of the penitent woman clinging to the foot of the cross, her long blonde hair hanging loose. Into the desert, I thought. Penitential and begging for grace.
But if I could barely survive six days of solitude—a solitude where I was still surrounded by the lavishness and beauty of the world—how could I expect to survive 40 days of spiritual purgation?
Like a malcontent employee on a Monday, I usually enter Lent hunched over and ready to go.
In this mindset, the season becomes a daze, one where I’m unsure when it’s going to end and prone to losing any idea of my progress while in the middle. Suddenly, it’s Laetare Sunday; then Palm Sunday. And then I can breathe again because it’s Holy Week and it’s all almost over.
But I don’t want my Lent to be something to slog through or something to bear with gritted teeth. Surprisingly, I found consolation for this sentiment while reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
A firsthand account of his experience in the Holocaust, Frankl’s book touches heavily on how prisoners who survived approached time in the death camps. Mindful that viewing his time in the camp as an endless expanse would overwhelm and consume him, Frankl paints a picture of how each day had to be approached individually and with the expectation of surprise.
I want to approach Lent in the same way: one day at a time, each day taken for what it is, with the expectation of goodness. Being alone, therefore, comes not as isolation, but as a chance to find self-motivation—without the usual distraction of other people.
Solitude can be terrifying. It provides an intense view of yourself that no mirror can ever reflect. But that clarity is absolutely necessary to further growth—the kind of growth we’re called to seek during these next 40 days.
Into the desert then. Into the streets of Florence. Into the long highway drives with the radio off and the evenings under late winter skies, quieting our thoughts. Into whatever setting causes us to see ourselves as we are and without the distractions that occupy us—ever mindful God never ceases to surprise, even in the solitude.