Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday

Somewhere St. Augustine speaks of Lent as being an analogy to the whole of our life and Easter being an analogy to the next life. Certainly Lent is a good time to pull away a bit from the allure of this world and to focus again on our interior life. In the year before I entered the monastery, I discovered that this can be quite painful if we aren't used to it. I was discerning a religious vocation and making efforts to fast and pray. In the meantime, my best friend and roommate was dating the woman whom he eventually married (and with whom he has three beautiful daughters). The two of them were out one evening and I was home by myself. I prayed the Divine Office and looked to sit and pray silently. One after another, voices began to come into focus in my head:

"Why don't you call Beth (an old friend living in D.C.)?"

I decided no, I would sit and read and pray and just be silent for awhile. Soon another voice came:

"Wouldn't it be great to go to the Medici (local hip restaurant/coffee shop), get a piece of cheesecake and sit and read poetry, see who's there...?"

I decided not to do that either. An astounding cascade continued in my head:

"Get out your guitar and play and sing some moody songs!"
"Go to Starbucks and get some coffee and a sweet roll, come back and do some composing!"
"There's probably something on TV..."
"Play something at the piano by Beethoven--that always cheers you up!"
"You haven't called home in awhile"
"Put on some Jethro Tull really loud and sing along!"
"Why don't you take a long walk and brood over something?"

At some point I remember simply laying down and waiting for all these activities simply to fade away, not unlike the apocryphal quote attributed to R.M. Hutchens: "When the urge to exercise strikes, I lie down until it goes away." As I lay there, I felt as if my skin was being lifted away from me, as if I was be divided from myself. It was an actual physical sensation and not a terribly pleasant one. However, I was willing to undergo it because I was tired of being at the mercy of my own impulses, good as some of them were or seemed to be.

This renunciation of thoughts (as Cassian or Sr. Meg Funk would call it) is something that I still need to do, and Lent is the perfect time. Fasting is one of the best exercises in this effort because food is so central to our survival and something we think about directly or indirectly more than we realize. What I mean by 'indirectly' is that we take for granted that we will be warm and energetic a lot of the time, and people probably expect it of us. But being hungry means being slow, a bit chilly and not a party animal. It is a good reminder of our creatureliness and our dependency on the earth, on those who till and harvest the earth and on the work by which we support ourselves. It is a good reminder of our privileges in 21st Century America when most of our fellow human beings are cold and hungry somewhere else. Most of all, it is a discipline that helps us to slow down and actually identify thoughts and impulses as they come. Most of us are not aware most of the time of the impulse to eat and to feel good eating and drinking (I also cut out coffee during Lent). If we rely on caffeine, on sugar or on alcohol to be happy, even at a small level, then we are not relying on God who is our happiness.

Let us joyfully return wholeheartedly to our Lord and God this holy season of Lent, and let us pray for one another that we as a Church may repent of our reluctance to be the Body of Christ and so be transformed again into the Presence of Christ in the world.

1 comment:

Polyglot said...

As I was discerning a vocation to monastic life last year, Lent started with plenty of "desolations". And of course, I did not want to be "there". A jesuit friend of mine told me : "Sounds like you will be in the desert this Lent. It is a graced place to be if you accept to be there with Christ". And he went on to say: "I tell my parishoners that we do not choose our own Lent". Your Ash Wednesday reflection is a wonderful echo to this experience and reminds me that our refusals to "be there" take on many guises. I have since accepted (in the full sense) a position in a corporation. My Lenten discipline this year might well be to consent to this call - in small but concret ways : I can, for example, resist the temptation to grumble about the upcoming working breakfast - would I not rather go to Laud in the nearby Abbey?

Thank you for your prayers, and please do count on mine

Martine Rey (France)


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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