On Winning and Losing Life: a reinterpreation

Initial ramblings

My response to the lectionary’s text is an individual response within a communal setting. Preaching is always an activity of speaking from within a shared context. The context for me is my life within a community of relationships and the way this experience influences the trajectory of my response to text. Text does not, for me at least, exist in a vacuum. It originates in community, it is transmitted through community, and it is received within the context of a community. Community colors everything.

The trajectory of my response to the reading of Mark, the gospel text appointed for Lent this year, leads me to explore the aspects of spiritual practice enjoined on us by the Book of Common Prayer’s invitation to keep a holy Lent[1]. I feel an urgency to view this invitation in a new way; a way familiar to me from past responses, and yet also completely different.

I feel compelled to speak intelligibly to my community about spiritual practice. Historic Christian spiritual practices are couched in language, and project collective images that are not only now obscure to us, but carry the echo of a Victorian spirituality that saw the function of spiritual practice to be in making life unpleasant, rather than creative. Today we urgently need to be able to reclaim the creativity of our traditional spiritual practices.

This led me last week to translate, to make intelligible for 21st century ears, the practice of fasting https://relationalrealities.com/2015/02/21/to-keep-a-holy-lent-re-imagined/ . A not unsurprising silent response echoed back to me. Providence is a very foodie city. East Siders are very foodie people. Dieting, yes, but fasting? You’ve got to be kidding!

The Lenten invitation links self-denial as a spiritual practice with fasting. I see the connection, fasting is a form of self-denial. Yet, self-denial also stands alone because it proposes an approach to living that needs careful unpacking for contemporary ears.

Getting to the point

Mark’s chapter 8 is a pivotal point at which Jesus’ identity as the Christ, something hitherto only hinted at with the injunction to secrecy is now openly proclaimed. As Jesus begins to speak of his own trajectory towards increasing conflict and ultimately, death, he invites his hearers into the life of discipleship. He defines this as a life of self-denial, cross-bearing, and loss of life. What can he mean when he says that those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their life for his sake, and that of the good news, will save them?

The word Mark uses for life is psyche. In most languages, psyche carries a wider connotation than in English. For instance, a huge distortion in English speakers understanding of Freud flows from the translation of his use of psyche as mind. As in the Greek, so in the German, psyche carries a larger meaning for which the English word soul is more appropriate. To the Anglo-Saxon pragmatic mind, soul is very unscientific, unpsychological, and way too spiritual!

Mark uses psyche to tell us that Jesus is talking about more than physical life. Although, certainly in Mark’s, as well as Jesus’ world there were profound implications of life and death for those who followed Jesus, he wants us to understand that Jesus is referring to our total inner and outer disposition towards life, we might say, a soul approach to life. Soul lies at the core of our identity of selfhood. This core of identity is rooted in the reality of being made in the image of God. We find fulfillment only in living life from this perspective.

A traditional theological perspective

Christianity views the soul as the imprint of our divine origin – our imago dei in this phase of biological life. Soul energy impacts upon us to two significant ways. We unconsciously experience the pain of separation from God. This is the source of sinful action through patterns of life that place our own self-assertion at the heart of our living. The positive aspect of soul is that it offers to us ever new and fulfilling perspectives for living because through soul we are aligned with the life conferring energy of the Holy Spirit.

A contemporary psychospiritual perspective

Transpersonal or psychospiritual psychology makes a distinction between self and personality. Embracing our self-hood means living from the soul. It is through the soul that the connection with a higher source of energy leads to an enlargement of our experience of life. Personality is constructed from our experience of life. It is controlled by memory. Because memory is mostly unconscious, much of our behavior is beyond our conscious control. Hence, the truth of Freud’s dictum: that which we can’t remember we are destined to repeat. 

Memory transmits our sense of identity, or what we normally think of as me-ness. We recognize present experience as confirming a sense of me-ness through its familiarity. Familiarity is inherited from the past and bequeathed to the future. Living exclusively from personality leads to a degrading of the experience of self. How?

We live from personality because for most of us our attachment to soul is insecure. To make-up for the loss of the expansiveness of soul quality, the mind substitutes personality, which remembers only our own individual, biographical experience. Central to personality is the need to maintain a balance between what is new and what is familiar. Too much novelty disrupts our sense of the familiar, upon which we rely to tell us who we are. Too much familiarity robs us of the freshness of novelty and consigns us to an wearied experience of endless repetition, sapping away our vitality. This leads to a growing sense of futility and heightened anxiety. Our lives become dominated by fear and a need to protect ourselves against the unpredictability of life. We become imprisoned as a result and our longing for change is continually thwarted because nothing changes if we keep making the same choices, no matter how much we might wish for different results. 

Jesus’ invitation

In speaking of winning and losing life Jesus is addressing our estrangement from soul energy. He tells us that it makes little difference, even if we were to win mastery over the whole world, if to do so results in a loss of soul connection. Jesus offers us a new experience of life through following him. We follow him when we decouple our sense of self from the preoccupations of our personality, and open ourselves to the invitation to become who God dreams us to be. Decoupling from the exclusive dominance of personality feels like a loss. Yet, only through denial of personality and the experience of loss can we open to the inflow of the greater and more, expansive richness that God offers us through living from our soulful self-center.

Jesus own mission to be rejected, killed, and raised again demonstrates God’s faithfulness, a faithfulness he promises to Abraham in the first reading from Genesis.

Self-denial means to risk losing the life that flows from the self-assertion of personality only. Paradoxically, it’s the decoupling from the control of personality that opens us to fulfilled spiritual living. Self-denial means giving up trying to control things through the strength of our personality. The objective of self-denial is not to become good, better, or even moral. I heard on NPR this week that we no longer need a notion of God to live good moral lives. I could not agree with that more! The objective of self-denial reframed as loss of living self-preoccupied lives centered on our personalities, is to become transformed not to become good! Jesus invites us to follow him and thereby enter upon the route of transformation.

Jesus shows us that to find life requires us to lose life. To truly live is nothing if not a risky business. Seeking liberation from lives of self-preoccupation is the fruit of the spiritual practices enjoined upon us this Lent.

[1] I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Liturgy for Ash Wednesday in the Book of Common Prayer

To Keep a Holy Lent: Re-imagined


In those days, which is the equivalent to the modern TV phrase recently in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus appears at the Jordan and is baptized by John and the heavens are ripped apart and the Holy Spirit as a dove descends on him and God booms out in an amazingly loud voice this is my Son and in whom I am well pleased,  then the Holy Spirit drives-out Jesus into the desert to spend 40 days tempted by Satan, then he comes back because his friend John the Baptist has been arrested and begins his ministry with the words: the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news. 

There is such urgency in the first chapter of Mark’s incredibly spare and sparse narrative. His urgency is magnified by his use of the Greek word ekballo – to expell as the verb for the Holy Spirit’s immediate expulsion of Jesus into the wilderness.  desert1

Why the urgency? Well, Mark’s context is one of a community undergoing sharp Roman persecution. Suffering focuses the members of Mark’s community to the huge and urgent cost of being faithful to the Gospel, for whom this is a daily matter of life and death – what can be more urgent than that? Mark ends his opening chapter with Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God is nigh, no time to lose, repent and believe the Good News.


Mark does not detail the confrontation between Jesus and Satan. Our knowledge of the actual series of temptations comes from Matthew and Luke, not from Mark. I like Mark’s version better, not only for the stark beauty of its sparseness, but because it allows us to populate Jesus’ time in the wilderness with our own imagination.

The first Christians did just this. For them, the season of Lent – a time for intentionally remembering Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness became the season during which new Christians were prepared to enter the life of the community through baptism at the Great Vigil on the eve of Easter Day. Lent was also a time to focus on the restoration of those lost to the life of the community, those whose relationship to the community had been damaged by that which the Prayer Book calls notorious (public) sin. Lent was the season when through self-examination the non-baptized entered upon the path to fellowship, and for the estranged baptized, repentance provided for a way back into fellowship.

A new wilderness

In my community of St Martin of Tour, Providence, many were prevented by bad weather from attending the Ash Wednesday service marking the beginning of Lent. Many this year, did not hear the solemn exhoration in the Book of Common Prayer inviting us: in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by the reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. 

Nevertheless, for those of us who were able to hear the Ash Wednesday Exhortation, like many in our society we have become inured by our culture’s pursuit of comfort and the anodyne experience. Therefore, the words of solemn exhortation to observe a holy Lent flow off us like water off a duck’s back. Over the years, I have heard this proclamation many times, some years with a shudder and revulsion at the prospect of being invited into medieval images of gloom, doom, and privation. At other times, the proclamation’s sheer out-of-synch-ness with our modern mindset has tweaked my curiosity, briefly, before returning to business as usual.

Vital questions

Is it so hard for middle-class Episcopalians to take the Prayer Book’s invitation seriously? I wonder? I believe that for most of us who fit into this category, our failure to take to heart the Prayer Book’s invitation to keep a holy Lent is the result, not of indifference, but of our experience of wilderness – a wilderness of meaninglessness.

We reject the cultural baggage of sin and suffering emphasized by our Victorian forebears. We also reject the post-war period of shallow hypocrisy, when liberal Christianity and popular American culture seemed so alarmingly, interchangeable. Today we find ourselves in a kind of wilderness where we seem bereft because so many of our historic spiritual practices fail now to sync with our imaginations. Consequently, the words of the invitation to Lent and the spiritual practices they enjoin upon us, leave us not exactly unmoved – they are after all rather majestic in their gravity, the problem is they leave us uninspired. They fail to ignite our spiritual lethargy into life-giving flame.

Is there a way out of our communal and individual experience of spiritual wilderness? The question really is can we re-imagine the spiritual practices contained in the invitation to keep a holy Lent, re-invigorating them for our lives in 21st Century America?

The modern imaginary

Our relatively modern discovery of the mind has opened up a view where body and mind form one interconnected and interdependent system. Yet, we live largely oblivious of this fact. We notice when we suffer headaches, backaches, digestive distress, or skin conditions. We worry when we develop heart problems. Yet, we seldom make the connection between mind and body as the cause. The mind’s job is to process emotion. Anxiety or stress is a form of emotion. When the mind experiences anxiety overload, the overflow of unprocessed emotion lodges in the tissues and organs of the body as psychosomatic distress. When we make the psychosomatic connection and take steps to address our high levels of stress, our physical symptoms often clear up.

Reclaiming the spiritual within the modern imaginary

Today, we are more aware of the interconnections between mind and body. However, our recognition of the power of the mind has eclipsed a third element, an element our ancestors knew better – the presence of the soul within the human system. It is vital for us to now recognize the presence of soul, which together with mind and body completes the human psycho-somatic-spiritual system.

Soul is the imprint of our God-nature. The full glory of the human being derives from our being made in the image of God.  Our God-image imago dei is our spiritual likeness. In this life, the soul registers not only our connection to God, but it also registers the pain of the physical separation from God. The difficulty lies in the unconscious nature of much of our soul-pain. As unconscious emotional pain can lead to physical illness, unconscious soul-pain powerfully drives our addictions of all kinds. Addiction, even if it’s only to shopping, is the symptom of our attempt to fill the emptiness left by our physical separation from our divine origin. Spiritual practices seek to address disruptions in our psycho-somatic-spiritual balance.

Re-imagining spiritual practice

The invitation to a holy Lent, among other things encourages us to practice fasting and a form of de-centering traditionally referred to as self-denial. Fasting is unfashionable in religious circles these days, which is ironic in a society obsessed with food and dieting. Fasting causes us to feel hungry. Feeling hungry is not pleasant. Yet, countless numbers of us endure dieting in the service of our body-image! Now here is where the re-imagining comes in. Extrapolating from the common experience of dieting in the service of our body-image, might our somatic experience of hunger as a result of fasting function in the service of our God or soul-image?

Fasting re-imagined as a reinvigorated spiritual practice

Fasting is not extreme privation or starvation. Fasting is mindfully altering the pattern of our consumption of food while taking care to maintain good hydration. Abstention from alcohol is a form of fasting. In both cases, we experience a somatic sense of loss that offers us a way to consciously register our profound, if largely unconscious, longing for God – this is the source of our soul-distress – a distress that contributes towards our wilderness experience.

Fasting simply alters our pattern of food consumption. It might mean after a light breakfast not eating, though continuing to hydrate for the remaining 7-8 hours of a day such as Wednesday or Friday before enjoying a light meal in the evening. We return the next day to a normal pattern of eating, but having fasted the day before we are more aware of our way of using food to assuage spiritual hunger. Fasting hunger becomes the physical symptom for our spiritual hunger. It’s the unconscious nature of spiritual hunger that drives much of our addictive, obsessive, highly anxious and other generally unhelpful behaviors.  Fasting brings into conscious, physical awareness our unconscious, spiritual hunger.

Longing for something we are not conscious of longing for fuels as sense of the unrequited. Fasting and other forms of spiritual practice make us conscious of our unrequited longing. Instead of our unrequited spiritual longing driving us into dysfunctional behavior in the hope of filling the wilderness space within us, conscious awareness allows us to choose to draw on the energy of that longing to reinvigorate our sense of wilderness. The great Indian spiritual poet Kabir puts it eloquently when he says: There are seasons in the mind, great currents and winds move there, the true yogi ties a rein to them; a power plant he becomes.

Fasting might also result in taking something like meat or alcohol out of our normal pattern of consumption and translating our experience of loss into concern for the world through financial or practical support for a worthy project or good cause. In this way, fasting begins to work on our sense of connection to the world beyond us, fuelling a sense of compassion for others.

Re-imagined and revitalized spiritual practice is what we have to look forward to when we accept the invitation to keep a holy Lent as prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer Exhortation for Ash Wednesday. During Lent, we also consciously reconnect with the wilderness experience that Mark shows Jesus modeling. A wilderness experience that desrt 2becomes transformed from one of spiritual futility into a source for spiritual vitality.

During the journey of Lent, in these blog reflections I hope to continue to explore the possibilities for re-imaging the other elements of spiritual practice mentioned in the Ash Wednesday Exhortation. Stay tuned.

The Call

images-1It’s 4.15 on a Sunday morning and I wake early with thoughts about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in my head. One friend is fond of saying to me: you need to get out more!

The snow is gently falling again in Providence, coating the sand and salt encrusted mountainous brown and soiled snow banks, that have reduced the roads on Providence’s East Side into narrow goat tracks, with a fresh coat of feathery white, sound absorbing, snow. It’s amazingly beautiful!

I spent most of Saturday in a meeting of the Bishop’s Commission on Ministry (COMM). This was only my second meeting on coming to Rhode Island, but I bring four years of experience from my time on the very dynamic COMM in the Diocese of Arizona. I hate Saturday meetings because Saturday is the only day I have for the kind of reflective writing I do each week in this blog. Hence, finding myself at 4.15am, sitting at my laptop trying to get some thoughts down before the busy round of Sunday morning services and adult formation commence.

Vocation is on my mind. It’s what Paul is talking about in the Epistle from 1 Cor 9:16 appointed for Epiphany 5. Vocation is the issue I and my COMM colleagues spent most of Saturday grappling with as we interviewed three aspirants for postulancy. Postulancy is the name we give to the first stage of the public recognition of being called to ordained life as a priest or deacon in the Episcopal Church.

What is a vocation, often referred to as a call? How is a call being manifested in a particular person’s life? What seems to be the purpose for the individual of this new awareness of being called? In our catholic understanding of ministry within the Episcopal Church, the call begins as an individual experience but requires recognition and affirmation by the mind of the Church. In this process, the question is how does this stirring within the life of an individual connect or not with the wider needs of the Church? There are huge tensions within these wider questions that I and my COMM colleagues hold as we seek to encourage those who come before us to invite us into seeing what they see of God moving in their lives. For me this is the question. Is the aspirant able to let me – a representative of the wider mind of the community – into seeing what they claim to be seeing?

Paul speaks of his sense of being called in these terms:

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. 1Cor 9:16-18 

I get the sense that Paul feels that the liberation he has experienced through Christ lays a claim on him, which he has no choice about. For most of us this is a rather alarming image that makes us fearful about going anywhere near the exploration of having a call. Being called is a burden, a kind of compulsion that robs us of our own free agency for choice and self-determination. We hear Paul’s words from a place of fear within us. Our lives are full of experiences of obligation and duty. Yet, in Paul’s feeling that he has no other choice we can also see the possibility of freedom – of the liberation from our all-consuming, anxiety-provoking preoccupations with self.

There is much in our self-preoccupied, individualistic lives that makes us fearful of being called, of having a vocation because we hear being called as another layer of burden – in Paul’s words – a claim upon us. In our over stimulated and impossibly pressured lives, we shrink from involvement, fearing the claims that others or the community might make upon us. Yet, our fearfulness only further abandons us to a sense of dislocation, and isolation – of alienation, no matter how social and full of other people our lives might appear to be. For most of us are profoundly lonely within the pressure cooker of modern social life.

When I was a seminarian I remember a particular supermarket checkout person in the little market friends and I used to frequent. In response to her indefatigable joyful service we used to joke: she’s not got a job, but a vocation! Making allowance for the smug self-importance of the seminarian mindset, that phrase comes back to me over and over again whenever I meet someone who impresses me with their quality of being, often in what otherwise appears to me to be rather mind-numbing situations.

Being called, responding to a sense of vocation is the experience of liberation not
obligation. Our joy comes not from having our needs met, but from serving another’s needs. In our modern alienation, an alienation as much from self as others let alone, what is for most of us the utterly remote concept of God, we have become consigned to relationships, occupations, social connections that are functional, yet, not fulfilling. In our work lives we lack that strong feeling of suitability, being cut-out for a purpose that transcends mere functionality. We long for a deeper, wider, higher – any number of special metaphors will do – sense of purpose for living.

In short, do we not all long for that sense of vocation – now sadly lost to many of us, that infuses the ordinary aspects of daily life lived within a finite set of limitations and boundaries? Liberation is not escape from ordinariness, which is a realization so contrary to the relentless messages of advertising that insulate us in a fog of unattainable illusions. Liberation comes only when we are able to connect with a sense of being called, so that our endeavors come to offer us that particularly strong sense of suitability that makes all that we do, and all that we are, meaningful and fulfilling.

In his sense of being called Paul speaks of being all things to all people? This is not the imagesrather grandiose impossible boast it appears. In his sense of being compelled to serve he encounters freedom to reach out and across the spaces that divide him from others; that fracture that fragments of community into factions. Paul is talking about here,
what we moderns recognize as empathy. Maybe empathy is the first and essential step on the path to accepting one’s calling.

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