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. 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.
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.
 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