Remarks for Ash Wednesday 2009

(Homily delivered in a shorter version at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, DC)

Traditionally, Lent has been that time of the year when people search the rhythm of their lives to discover something suitable that they can do without for six weeks. But what is the real object of giving up chocolate, alcohol, soap operas, Internet games, or something else dear for Lent? Is it to care for body and mind, soul and spirit more purposefully? To make ourselves more holy?

To find the answer, just look toward the end of Lent. What looms there is the crucifixion and the resurrection— in other words, death and new life.

Recently I have had the privilege of studying with Esther de Waal, a much beloved writer on Benedictine and Celtic spirituality. In her short book Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, she explains how death and rebirth are lessons so important that they are written in the very soil we walk upon:

The dying of the grain of wheat and the growth of the new has to happen to us all, and the ways in which it will happen will be secret, hidden certainly, and quite different for each of us. . . . Without ... separation, which is a small death, the new life cannot spring up. . . . In times of the deepest depression part of the pain of darkness is the feeling that it is utterly pointless and useless, and even worse than useless, that it is destroying, annihilating. Only later, perhaps months later, as the inner darkness starts to lighten do I begin to see that here too the pattern of death and new life is taking shape within. . . . (pp. 73-74)

The purpose of Lenten discipline is to give this pattern of death and rebirth an opportunity to work within and to create space for God to enter. On the one hand, we knock down the idols worshipped with our attention but empty of spiritual meaning. Yet on the other hand, we open ourselves up to failure, to the small daily deaths, because any attempt at discipline — whether it consists of giving up something or adopting a new spiritual practice — eventually comes face to face with temptation. It is not God who leads us into temptation, but ourselves, as we are bold enough to imagine that we can bypass it. What we think to avoid, we inevitably find ourselves confronting.

In that impasse, the only solution is not to exercise effort to become more holy or even more mindful, but simply to be who we are. That true Self that we may begin to see in the mirror of Lenten discipline is the one that comes from God and will return to God. I look again to Esther de Waal, who explains how such self-knowledge, with its recognition of shortcomings as well as gifts, is a necessary step toward transformation:

It is a sign of maturity to rejoice in what I have and not to weep for what I have lost or never had. . . . I must live in this moment, not looking either forward or back, or to right or left, but realizing that unless I am what I am, there cannot be any growth. If I promise myself that life will be better, that I shall be a more agreeable person, that I shall be closer to God on the next stage along the way, then I am failing to live as I am called to live because I go on dreaming of that ideal which does not exist. This past has brought me to this moment and if I begin today anew I can also begin tomorrow anew and the day after that, and so I shall be truly open to change. (pp. 74-75)

Lenten discipline is like an unwanted pebble in your shoe. Eventually, you will come to a place where you can stop, pause, and remove the pebble, but until then, you may be acutely aware of every step. You change your gait, shifting the weight on your foot in a way that you would not ordinarily do, experimenting to see whether there is a sweet spot that makes it more bearable. You become absorbed in the walking, allowing the destination to take care of itself. And so I invite you to walk with God for these 40 days, in whatever way you feel called to do. Accept that deaths — large and small — are fundamental to the growth of new life. Look to those little deaths as a way to understand how God is reaching out to you and seeking your collaboration in your own renewal.