Another Ash Wednesday is upon us. I have been telling myself that the reason I don’t feel ready this year is because Ash Wednesday is obscenely early. Yet, if I am honest I can’t recall a year when I have been ready. Why is this?
Not feeling ready has a lot to do with the way I live my life. I live as if I have all the time in the world and so I don’t need to be ready, and that’s the truth I hide from. In Choruses from The Rock T.S. Eliot mines this theme with chilling accuracy. He points out that: All our knowledge brings us nearer to death, but nearness to death no nearer to God.
The prophets of Israel railed against pious displays. They identified the spiritual practice that God desires as the practice of justice and repentance: rend your hearts and not your garments, by returning with all our heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. This traditional language, these familiar images for Ash Wednesday and Lent strike discordantly upon the ears of many in the contemporary Church. Fasting, weeping, and mourning with ashes upon our heads, all conjure up a heavy emphasis on making ourselves miserable, as if this is what is really pleasing to God – suffering. Yet, God’s point here is not an invitation to suffering, but the invitation to return. Matthew reminds us that the spiritual practices of penitence, prayer and generosity focus us upon the difficult task of turning away from empty displays and chasings after external things – images, accolades, solutions, and panaceas – all outside of ourselves, and turning instead to the intimacy of our connection with God in secret, i.e. personal and private. Instead of rending our garments, an action upon an external appearance, rend our hearts, i.e. pay attention to what’s happening inside.
Matthew reminds us that the spiritual practices of penitence, prayer, self-control, and generosity focus us upon the difficult task of turning away from empty displays and chasings after external things – images, accolades, solutions, and panaceas – all outside of ourselves, and turning instead to the intimacy of our connection with God in secret, i.e. personal and private. We have no time to waste with such illusions. Instead of rending our garments, an action upon an external appearance, rend our hearts, i.e. pay attention to what’s happening inside.
Coming from another angle
Putting aside the traditional imagery for a moment I want to approach this from another angle. My recollection that I seem never to be ready for Ash Wednesday and Lent is a recognition that like many others today, I live in denial of the inevitability of death, which is what creates the illusion that I have all the time in the world. Linking a lack of preparedness for Lent with a denial of death, at first sight, seems somewhat overly dramatic. Yet, denying death does not postpone our deaths. It simply pushes it’s inevitability out of mind – psychologically as well as spiritually, a self-defeating thing to do because we distance ourselves from the possibility of spiritual transformation.
Eliot questions: Where is the Life we have lost in living? …. The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. In losing our hope for a God who transforms us, we settle for the dust of that which is closest to hand.
The spiritual practices enjoined upon us in the Book of Common Prayer as the way to keep a Holy Lent strike our modern imaginations with images that evoke either pious pretence or emotional masochism. Do you think it might be possible to put aside the defence of cynicism and embrace these traditional recipes for spiritual practice? Might not fasting, penitence, prayer, self-control, and generosity be practices not just for Lent, but for life – so that we do not lose our lives in the living? To lose our lives in their living is Eliot’s image for living unconsciously, life without awareness.
One of the great gifts of Buddhism’s arrival in the West has been its emphasis on living mindfully. Mindfulness is to bring an awareness of life lived in the moment by moment flow of time. Buddhism encourages the cultivation of awareness as a quality of consciousness accompanying the actions of our day. Active awareness dissolves the false distinctions between pain and pleasure, between the exciting and the mundane. To clean our teeth while being consciously aware of the experience of cleaning our teeth is a more satisfactory experience than doing so with our attention lost somewhere other than in the moment we actually inhabit. Mindfulness is the antidote to Eliot’s image of our lives lost in their living.
A Holy Lent
This Lent at St. Martin’s our focus will be upon the creating of a rule of life. This is an ancient piece of Benedictine wisdom, all the more important for us because the best definition I know of what it means to be an Episcopalian is to be a Benedictine shaped Christian. Drawing from horticultural analogy our rule of life is akin to the construction of a trellis. The function of the trellis is to train the plants that grow upon it in order to maximise the ingredients for successful growth – namely support, space, air, and light. As plants need these ingredients to grow, so do we to spiritually flourish. Spiritual flourishing requires the trellis of a rule of life and the ingredient of practices that cultivate awareness of the presence of God, usually made known to us through our experience of the longing (absence) for God.
Therefore, I invite us to the keeping of a Holy Lent through:
- Fasting – as a form of spiritual dieting, and like dieting, we practice fasting in order not to starve ourselves and feel miserable, but to bring a new quality of intentionality to what and how we eat so that eating or not eating may make us more mindful of the presence of God.
- Repentance – as the awareness that our profound disappointment can become a spur in us to desire to be better than we are – through repentance – the practice of being sorry, we open not to the possibilities of self-improvement but to the power of Grace – God’s gift, freely given and the engine of our transformation.
- Prayer – as in reaching out in our loneliness for a greater experience of intimacy with God and those we live among.
- Self-control – as in seeing another before we act, hearing another before we speak, considering another as we practice self-awareness.
- Alms giving – as in daily practices of generosity that flow from a profound encounter with the forgotten or overlooked gratitude at the core of our lives. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also Matt 6:21.