A Prayer for Disturbance


This piece is part of syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. You can read the original piece at https://www.yalelogos.com/home/prayer-for-disturbance.

The church calendar is largely satisfying to look at … but Lent has always disturbed me. Two large blocks of green Ordinary Time take up most of the year, punctuated by the white of the Christmas and Easter seasons. But this orderly and pleasant calendar is marred by a large block of purple that sits there like a bruise. Lent feels very different from the rest of the liturgical year. Advent is also a season of preparation, but it doesn’t give the same sensation of mournfulness and introspection that Lent does, which is why newer liturgical calendars color it royal blue instead of purple. Lent is purposefully set apart from the other seasons: many traditions practice some form of abstinence, adopt new faith practices, or avoid saying the word “hallelujah.” 

Lent is uncomfortable. I invariably find myself anticipating Ash Wednesday with a trepidation usually reserved for final exams and the dentist’s chair. Ash Wednesday is a jarring date; while for 364 days I wear few overt Christian symbols (my cross necklace tucked snugly under my T-shirt), on Ash Wednesday I bear a mark of faith on my forehead for all to see. So this year, I might resolve to change my outlook on the season. Instead of my usual funereal severity I might go into Lent with joy – or at least meditative peacefulness. But is it such a bad thing to be disturbed by Lent? Disturbance on its own is not essentially good or bad. 

In my own experience studying ecology, I’ve learned to examine the effects of disturbance all the time, and one relevant way of explaining how disturbances may affect an ecosystem is the intermediate disturbance hypothesis.

The intermediate disturbance hypothesis (or IDH) was created as a solution [1] to the problem that is biodiversity. The term was created by Joseph H. Connell in 1978 after studying coral reefs. Here’s the issue: corals compete for space, but do so unequally. Some will inevitably outcompete others, a process which will eventually lead to one coral achieving domination of the reef, or competitive exclusion. But we know that coral reefs are incredibly diverse, and you can often find species coexisting in small amounts of space. How is it possible to create a stable system under these difficult circumstances?

The answer is surprisingly simple: you don’t. The model of competitive exclusion assumes that the system reaches equilibrium, so to prevent one species from dominating, you simply have to keep the system from reaching that point. Enter the intermediate disturbance hypothesis. Connell found that storm damage was a great promoter of diversity. Usually the more dominant species grew faster and covered more area, and in sheltered areas, this allowed a few competitive species to dominate the available space. In areas exposed to storms, however, the dominant species suffered more damage from hurricanes and the like, preventing them from ever growing too much and providing space for less dominant species to grow [2]. Storm disturbance made the coral reef a more complex and diverse community.

I believe that Lent functions in a similar way. Lent is valuable precisely because it is so jarringly different from the rest of the year. When Lent worries me and sets me on edge, the season is doing precisely what it should be doing. What is the purpose of abstaining from certain foods or behaviors? There is nothing wrong with, say, eating meat on Fridays; most people do it every week. The Catholic Lenten promotion of weekly vegetarianism is not an attempt to decrease global meat consumption but rather a challenge to disrupt the routines that surround one of the most basic human activities. Avoiding meat on Fridays, like all abstinence during Lent, is meant to be a disturbance. When you pledge to remove something from your diet, you are forced to rethink what you eat. When contemplating crucifixion causes you to consider your own sin, you are forced to rethink how you act. A coral reef will, if left untouched by storms, become dominated by a few strong species [3]; our lives and our thinking will become set in routine if we don’t get shaken up once in a while.

There are, of course, limits to the value of a good storm. The intermediate disturbance hypothesis is intermediate because just as a lack of disturbance causes stagnation and single-species dominance, too much disturbance leads to the same result. If we lived in a constant Lenten state of penitence and abstinence we would sink into routine; the wind-scoured rocks would have just one species of tough, stunted, obstinate coral. The most diverse pockets occur where disturbance and serenity are balanced, and I believe the same is true in our lives as Christians.

So I will go into this season full of trepidation. Ashes are not just a reminder of what we are made of. Ashes are remnants of destruction; what was once a living thing has been killed and consumed. The green fronds of a palm are wonderful living things, but they must be killed to make way for new growth. The same fire that destroys trees clears room in the canopy, promoting diversity in the understory. Have I formed harmful habits? Have I become too comfortable with my own sins? Have I become too set in my ideas? Lent comes every year to shake up my thinking, removing the dead weight and complacency that have developed over the last year. Lent stimulates new thinking and promotes a closer connection with God. For the rest of the year, I will pray for peace, for joy, for serenity, but this Lent I will pray for disturbance.

Ben Colon-Emeric is a junior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

[1] The intermediate disturbance hypothesis is controversial and by no means universally accepted (see Fox 2013 for the other side of the argument). This essay is not an endorsement of IDH as ecological doctrine (the evidence is too mixed for me to do that) but rather an endorsement of IDH as a way to appreciate the Lenten season.

[2] Connell, J. H. (1976). Competitive Interactions and the Species Diversity of Corals. Coelenterate Ecology and Behavior, 51–58. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4757-9724-4_6.

[3] There is a difference between natural disturbance (seasonal storms, fires, etc.) and anthropogenic disturbance (pollution, climate change, etc.). Ecosystems have evolved to deal with the former but not the latter; climate change is still really bad.

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