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.
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.
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 becomes 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.