Blogging is often a navel-gazing, narcissistic exercise and this post definitely falls into that trap. My family is facing a difficult road ahead and my emotions have been blocking me from my usual light-hearted words. You’ve been warned, so read on if you choose…
“From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” The priest spoke those profound, intimate, sobering words as he marked me with the unmistakeable sign of being a Catholic – ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday. As an intermittently lapsed, one could even daresay at times “collapsed”, Catholic, I still practice Lenten observances. Ash Wednesday calls me back to the fold. But, why? I think it is because there is something so essentially true about an entire season devoted to preparation, forgiveness of others and self, acknowledgement of our mortality, and the promise of immortality. Of course, theologically speaking from the Christian perspective, I am referring to the death and resurrection of Christ. During the Lenten season, we can see nature play out the same tableau. There are tiny buds under the ice covered branches. In this barren winter time, the promise of new life musters its strength, draws on its reserves deep in the roots of the tree, and stubbornly persists. Lent is all around us. It feels ancient, older than Christianity. These themes of preparation, forgiveness of others and self, acknowledgement of mortality, and the promise of immortality are useful even to flawed, doubting, questioning and intermittent practitioners like myself.
During Lent, we prepare for renewal. Those buds on the tree are gathering strength, they are calling on their reserves, they are waiting to burst open. During Lent, we do the same. We get ourselves ready for the life and vitality of Spring. For me, the preparation takes the form of more prayer than usual. Lately I’ve added some yogic breathing into the regimen as a way to prepare myself (4-7-8 breathing, if you’re interested in googling it). Prayer has its forms and rituals, but I think God is less interested in how you do it as He is in whether you do it. For me, I begin with the words and the forms I was taught as a child and find the rosary especially useful, but what I hope for is to reach that moment of stillness when the words fade, and there is just silence that you are a part of. In that moment, I listen for God and hope for peace and strength. In prayer, I try to prepare for the challenges of life and death.
During Lent, we forgive others and our selves. This year, the priest spoke of reconciliation with family and friends. So many heads in the pews in front of me nodded in acknowledgement when he said that we like to use the excuse, “They never call, so why should I?” Forgiveness and forging reconciliation is so painful, requires humility (ouch, that’s a tough one), and an openness to the possibility of rejection. This Lenten season, I will try to wade back into at least one of those relationships that I have allowed to fall away. Ouch. Now it’s out on the Internet and I have to do it.
During Lent, we acknowledge our mortality. All around us, there are family, friends and acquaintances dealing with life-threatening diseases and loss of loved ones. Especially close to home right now is my father’s battle with a host of health problems, not the least of which is leukemia. We feel so bad for the ones whose lives are in danger, but if we are honest we also feel bad for ourselves. We experience our own feelings of loss and a sense of looming mortality. Christ, the Son of God, felt his anguish and fear in the garden before His arrest. I think there is such a lesson in this. If Jesus (a man of God even if you are not a Christian and God incarnate if you are) felt frightened and torn about the fate in front of him, how could we not feel those same things? We are allowed to feel sad, fearful, angry and confused. We question, we plead, we bargain, we cry. And, in the end, we go forward inexorably to face our mortality and to let go of our loved ones. The story of the Passion of Jesus is a lesson in eventually letting go as lovingly as possible, but it would be impossible not to expect some resistance and anguish along the way. The pain of this is too acute for me to really write about it further now.
During Lent, we hope for immortality. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return” is where we started Lent and it is where we end up. In Christianity, the resurrection of Christ is our promise. For my non-Christian friends, there is the promise of reincarnation, paradise, or some other transmigration of the soul. But what we all have in common is that this body does not matter in the ultimate scheme of things. We will surpass this flesh, so maybe we should stop thinking about how it looks and focus more on whether it feels well enough to help us achieve our goals. We have hope for immortality but we won’t achieve it in this covering. The lesson for me is to stop judging myself and others by appearances and look deeper into the actions, words and love of others. Yesterday, at Starbucks, I saw a man who seems to be dealing with some cognitive and emotional issues. I’ve seen him there before. He always sits in the same spot. He says “hello” to the regulars, like the delivery men and the staff. But, yesterday, a very pretty young woman came into the store and he said “hello” to her. She went over to him and spontaneously hugged him. He seemed surprised, so I don’t think she regularly does this. It was a long, hard, eyes-closed-tight kind of hug. She really meant this hug. And the smiles on both of their faces made me teary-eyed. She went on to order her coffee and leave. But, in that moment, in the meeting of those two souls, I saw a glimpse of love and immortality. Beyond the flesh, beyond the appearances that divide us, there was soul-to-soul connection, love and the promise of immortality. Welcome, Lent.