Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ash Wednesday 2017

Well, it has been years since I tried any kind of meditation during Lent.  However, I have more time, and perhaps I am more mellow. As of 1 March 2017, I am retired.  Again.  I tried retiring at the end of April 2014 but a trip to Paris that May did two things: it used up my travel funds and it told me I wanted to see Europe again.  So I have worked part time until now.  No more.  Unemployed and not looking to work.  Also, I am curious whether I will engage traditional themes  with less inner conflict.  I have only gone to church a few times in the past few years and my contact with the church year and spiritual themes is mostly through the posts of friends on Facebook.  Eh bien, mes amis, here goes.

All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.
- Jonah 3.8b

Thus the king of Ninevah in response to Jonah's call to repent.  There is the whole sackcloth and ashes and fasting bit, but those are trappings and the suits of woe.  Do we have that within which passeth show? (Hamlet) It is not giving up food or changing our garb that counts but rather what we do.  How do we actually change our behavior?

I am auditing a course in French poetry from Baudelaire to Mallarmé.  If we want something to sober us up at the beginning of Lent, we can do worse than Baudelaire's "Au Lecteur" which opens Les Fleurs du Mal.

La sottise, l'erreur, le péché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrissent leur vermine.

Nos péchés sont têtus, nos repentirs sont lâches;
Nous nous faisons payer grassement nos aveux,
Et nous rentrons gaiement dans le chemin bourbeux,
Croyant par de vils pleurs laver toutes nos taches.
Here is Roy Campbell's English translation:
Folly and error, avarice and vice,
Employ our souls and waste our bodies' force.
As mangey beggars incubate their lice,
We nourish our innocuous remorse.

Our sins are stubborn, craven our repentance.
For our weak vows we ask excessive prices.
Trusting our tears will wash away the sentence,
We sneak off where the muddy road entices.

Those are only the two opening quatrains.  Trust me, it gets worse. As the introduction to a work, this goes against the usual mode of gaining the reader's confidence.  We are not flattered into trusting the writer and siding with Baudelaire; we are confronted by him and the mirror he holds up is like ice water thrown in our faces.  It is an uneasy complicity that develops as we acknowledge the uncomfortable observations of the poet.  He concludes by addressing:
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!
Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!
 Fans of T. S. Eliot will recognize that he uses this line in The Waste Land.

While I have rejected most of the warped Calvinist view on which I was raised, I have never been and still am not someone who believes that if we know the good, we will do it.  Or that human nature is altogether noble until corrupted by circumstances.  My own experience tells me that my namesake, the Apostle Paul, knew what he was talking about when he said, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." (Romans 7.15).

On the other hand, I do not believe in "total depravity" either in Calvin's view that no part of us is untouched by original sin nor in the extremes of his followers who viewed everything about us as utterly corrupt and deserving of damnation.  Twaddle.  I find it much more sensible to see us all as works in progress. Yes, we are by necessity enmeshed in the web of fallibility, ignorance, brokenness, and just plain willfulness that is the lot of limited, corporeal, social beings.  A blend of limits and, yes, evil.  Oh, I do believe in evil, but I also consider much that is so labeled to be other things. Yet we are also God's creation, and God calls creation good.  At the end, God even said "very good." We are beloved, cherished, and embraced by the Divine, not loathed and damned.

Years ago I preached a sermon on Ash Wednesday in which I did not use these terms but the topic was "the shit and the Shekinah." Lent is a time to deal with reality. Our reality. Ourselves.  We can stop pretending that there is not a whole lot of shit in our lives and that sometimes, and way too often, we act like shits.  We can be real.  And being real also means we should not deny that we are also the dwelling place of God, temples of the Holy Spirit, living tabernacles in which the Shekinah, the glorious presence of God, abides.  Both of these realities are part of who we are and how we live.  Too often we deny one or the other, or both. And much of the time we avoid integrating our scattered fragments by running away, numbing ourselves, staying asleep.  As they say these days (and this makes my grammar sense shudder though I agree with the sentiment) we need to be "woke."

Lent is a call to give ourselves time and space to be present.  To be woke. To be honest. To be unafraid of reality. To let go of pretense and illusion. To become a little more integrated than we were last year at this time. We can dare to do this because, ultimately, we have heard the Good News that we are loved. Maybe we only believe this with a little part of ourselves but we are called to trust that and move into it.  And we are called to express as much of it as we know in our lives and to show it to others.  Together we can grow into it and become more authentic, more whole, more holy.

To my mind, neither Lent nor any other time should be spend in self-loathing.  Facing ourselves and looking at our shadow is not the same as denigrating ourselves.  It is natural to be anxious about what we may encounter but, again, let us try to see ourselves through God's eyes.  Scary? Only if you believe in a vindictive SOB of a deity.  I don't. When a loving parent looks at a child they do see faults and failures as well as amazing wonderfulness, and all is viewed with abiding love.  How much more gracious the divine embrace! When I realize I have a hurtful habit, facing it with the loving encouragement of God--not wrathful judgment--enables me to deal with it and gives me courage to allow it to be transformed.

The day I preached the sermon mentioned above, which made no mention of fasting, prayer, or almsgiving, I realized that I felt a calling to help people heal from bad religion and that I needed to express what I know as the  Good News of God's love in language that was not churchy but worldly and everyday.  I still feel that call as I live my life very much "in the world."

May all who read this be bathed in gracious love and find peace, time, and space to allow the healing power of reality to work in your lives.  We all play false roles; we are hypocrites.  We are siblings and twins, all in the same boat.  But there is grace.  I have always believed that and I still do.  Peace be upon you.

-the BB

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