Encountering the World’s Pain: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. … As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark period of life. These dark periods are good teachers. Religious energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers. Answers are the way out, but … when we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. –Fr. Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (45)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

Within the church calendar, Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas. It is a period of preparation. For the cross. For the resurrection.

A period of preparation that serves as a memento mori: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

The story that begins with the God of the universe putting on human flesh and entering the world through blood and water (as all of us, sons and daughters of Eve, must do), ends as all human stories must: with death.

Most of our great narratives, our myths, our epics, our hero tales, are stories about humanity trying to escape our fated end. Trying to win out over our own mortality. (Avengers: Infinity War anyone?) If we succeed, it’s to hold off the inevitable for an hour or a day or a decade, but death, like Beowulf’s dragon, always comes for us in the end.

This Lenten story, however, which ends as all human stories must, is fundamentally different than a hero’s story, because here, the one hero who could actually escape humanity’s fate, the one hero who is not, in fact, mortal, lays down that immortality and chooses death. Submits to full humanity.

So doing, death, humanity, Christ himself, are each transformed. But it’s a transformation that comes through, and not around, the grave.

My point? I’ve been reminded recently by Fr. Richard Rohr (among others) that Christianity — this religion predicated on following the footsteps of Christ — is about descent and not ascent.

It is about surrender, it is about gratitude, it is about becoming nothing because “when we are nothing we are in a fine position to receive everything from God” (Rohr 77). It is about growing “by subtraction much more than by addition” (Rohr 121).

I will never challenge anyone’s right to question the presence of evil in the world — the presence of suffering. But while theodicy attempts to offer a systematic, theological construct capable of holding — of answering — those questions, God’s answer was sacramental. Incarnational. God’s answer was to put on flesh and blood and hold the suffering itself. To put on human feet and walk into the suffering, walk through it. And, in walking through it, allow it to shape, change, and transform.1

This, stipulates Rohr, is the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ: “So much is happening on earth that cannot be fixed or explained, but it can be felt and suffered. I think a Christian is one who, along with Jesus, agrees to feel, to suffer the pain of the world” (151-152).

The Paschal mystery is the mystery of transformation in and through the ashes. If Lent is the somber reminder of our human condition, then Easter declares that there is hope, but that hope lies not in escaping our humanity but in journeying through it. As Rohr implies in the quote at the top of the page, answers may be a way out of the dark, but they are not the way into transformation. Transformation requires we walk into, we walk through: “We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer” (46).

Pain and suffering, says Rohr, are “the two primary paths of transformation” (115) and Rachel Held Evans reminds us, in Searching for Sunday, that healing comes when we “enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

Anoint it as holy. 

What would happen if we really believed that? That our suffering, our neighbors’ suffering, was holy? Holy not because God delights in suffering but because God came and joined us within it. Holy in the same way the Eucharist is holy — the spilled blood, the broken body — because Christ comes and meets us there. Not symbolically, but sacramentally. Incarnationally.

So, today, whether you will receive the imposition of ashes or not, remember that you are mortal. That you are human (with all the perils and frailty the term implies). And remember that being human is a holy thing. That our mortality is a holy thing.2 Sanctified by the One who came, the One who died, and the One who rose again.

May we all have courage to face our deaths and walk more fully into life.

Footnotes:

1. Christ’s risen body is a mystery of flesh and spirit that bears its scars at the right hand of the Almighty. The incarnated Christ is thus ever, it seems, and for all time, both fully human and fully God.
2. Here’s a quote to wrestle with (if you’re feeling particularly strong of heart):

We do not really know God except through our own broken and rejoicing humanity. In Jesus, God tells us that God is not different from humanity. Thus Jesus’ most common and almost exclusive self-name is “The Human One,” or “[Child] of Humanity.” He uses the term seventy-nine times in the four Gospels. Jesus’ reality, his cross, is to say a free ‘yes’ to what his humanity finally asks of him. It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. The first feels very religious; the second just feels human, and not glorious at all. (Rohr 19-20)

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Loving Questions | Words of Wednesday

I have given myself over to questions: large, hard, loving, full-blooded questions.
–Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith


I’m currently on a roll of reading one excellent book after another (well, not one after another, exactly, as I’m currently reading 8 books simultaneously — 5 actively, and 3 at a more gradual tempo — but you know what I mean). Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith, the third of my January reads, was no exception.

I wish Krista Tippett needed no introduction. But though I know she has a wide audience for her NPR podcast, On Being — and thus a wide readership — I also know that most of my friends have never heard of her.

Suffice it to say that I consider her one of the wisest, sanest, most hopeful, reflective, careful, balanced, and, well, loving thinkers in the world today.

Her gift is ultimately one of listening, and in her years of interviewing some of the most extraordinary voices in our world — Thich Nhat Hanh, Fr. Richard Rohr, Elie Weisel, Mary Oliver, Parker Palmer, Naomi Shihab Nye (and so, so many more) — the mystics, poets, reformers, and prophets — she has developed deep wells of truth from which to draw.

Her book, Becoming Wise, which I read in 2016, gifted me hope in the midst of a heart-wrenching election, and Speaking of Faith did something similar.

The last few years have left me heartsore and bruised (more so than I realized) from too many run-ins with a version of evangelical Christendom that finds it necessary to draw the lines in bold — the lines separating truth and heresy, the in and the out, the allowed and the repudiated. What is safe and what is not. A kind of Christianity described by Fr. Richard Rohr in Everything Belongs: “It wants to attach itself to everything in order to figure out everything, in order to control everything. It doesn’t have a high tolerance for mystery or even for ambiguity. [It] is preoccupied with clarity and control.”

More than the obsession with right thinking over right action, the disproportionate obsession with sexual “purity,”1 or even the tendency to literalize certain passages of scripture while discarding others as idealized object lessons (the sermon on the mount, anyone?), I am weary of the claim to certainty. Weary of being offered prepackaged answers to prepackaged questions. Weary of being told where to look, what to ask, how to think, who to be. Weary of having this perilous journey of faith simplified into something easy, manageable, logical, safe.

And weary, perhaps most of all, of having to defend (over and over) the sacred spaces where I have encountered God. (In the silence, in the questions, in the what-ifs, in the stories, in the possibilities, in the midrash, in the unknowing.)

Weary of having to fight for the privilege of calling myself a Christian.

And into this weariness, Krista Tippett spoke. For Tippett’s book is, ultimately, a defense of faith. A defense of meaning, mystery, and spiritual truth in a culture that likes to maintain that civilization has moved beyond religious fairytales, but also (more significantly, in my case) a defense of faith as something spacious and large. Something big enough for our questions, our hopes, our deepest longings, our pain. Something not to be dissected, defended, and defined so much as journeyed with, wrestled with, and embraced.

How can I not love a book that qualifies questions as large, hard, and loving?

For sometimes the questions need to be asked (wrestled with, journeyed with, embraced) far more than they need to be answered. And that is a truth I wish the evangelical church could re-embrace.

I have no idea if Krista and I (it feels wrong somehow — too impersonal — to call her Tippett) would agree on any elements of theology. But I don’t really think it matters. This was a book that refreshed my soul and gave my spirit space to breathe. A book that called me back to the life of the spirit, the heart, the mind. A book that restored hope.

I have precious few quotes on-hand from the text (mostly because I was listening to it in audio format — and was often out walking while I did so — so finding the pertinent places to transcribe was difficult at best), but here are a few random snippets taken throughout:

I had decided I believe in God because the world makes too much sense; I still believe in him . . . but no longer that the world makes sense.

___________________________

And paradox always gives me hope. It means there are tensions that long for resolution, gaps that might be pried open by human understanding and connection.

___________________________

This angle of approach to the broken world resists choosing sides and accepts antithesis and contradiction as given realities much of the time. I find that I grieve as bitterly for the broken humanity of the perpetrators of crimes as for their victims. . . . I find it harder and harder to label and dismiss them, render them abstract. I am constrained to be mindful of both the fragility and resilience of the human spirit. I sense that seeing the world the way God sees the world means, in part, grieving in places the world does not forgive and rejoicing in places the world does not notice. It would mean, therefore, to live with a patience that culture cannot sustain and with a hope the world cannot imagine.

Footnotes:

1. I don’t mean to discount the significance of a holistic purity. However, if one were to count up all the times Christ addressed sex in his teaching vs. all the times he addressed other things — well, it would be hard not to get the idea that we’re far more obsessed with the topic than he ever was (and far less obsessed with issues that he took far more seriously: like feeding the poor, for instance). 

Everything Belongs | Words of Wednesday

One always learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence. –Fr. Richard Rohr

Pulling out the chair
Beneath your mind
And watching you fall upon God–
There is nothing else for Hafiz to do
That is any fun in this world!
–Shams-ud-din Mohammed Hafiz, Muslim mystic (1320-89)

First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. But both are the mercy of God. –Julian of Norwich, Christian mystic (1342-1416)

It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. . . . If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional “threat,” you probably need to do some growing up and learning to love. . . . God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes. –Fr. Richard Rohr

Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are. Only when we live and see through God can “everything belong.” All other systems exclude, expel, punish, and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection or some kind of “purity.” The contaminating element always has to be searched out and scolded. Apart from taking up so much useless energy, this effort keeps us from the one and only task of love and union. –Fr. Richard Rohr


I started Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs today (and all the above quotes come from its pages).

Father Richard Rohr (a Franciscan friar) is one of my father’s favorite authors, and someone I’ve been intending to read for a long time. Winning Rohr’s book in our extended family’s Christmas book exchange seemed like a good reason to stop putting it off. I’m only one chapter in, but there’s already a lot to wrestle with and meditate on. There’s certainly a lot here that resonates with my recent exploration of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. The mystics in every tradition seem to echo the same message — a message that often leaves the rest of us feeling rather unsteady on our feet, desperately trying to redraw the lines.

Probably the most challenging statement in Rohr’s book thus far is this one: 

We do not know what it means to be human unless we know God. And, in turn, we do not really know God except through our own broken and rejoicing humanity. In Jesus, God tells us that God is not different from humanity. Thus Jesus’ most common and almost exclusive self-name is “The Human One,” or “Son of Humanity.” He uses the term seventy-nine times in the four Gospels. Jesus’ reality, his cross, is to say a free “yes” to what his humanity finally asks of him. It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. The first feels very religious; the second just feels human, and not glorious at all.

This is a message I can imagine Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, embracing. But a Catholic priest? No matter what our dogma (“fully God and fully human”) we are so wary of Jesus’ humanity. So uncertain of what it means to reconcile those truths, that paradox. Surely, Jesus’ incarnation can’t mean that we, too, are meant to embrace our humanity, are meant to find our salvation there. 

Can it?

Will “liv[ing] and fully accept[ing] our reality” really bring us into the presence of God, as Rohr suggests? Will “the edges of our lives — fully experienced, suffered, and enjoyed — lead us back to the center and the essence”? 

The saints say, yes, and I’m inclined to believe them.

So may this year, 2019, be a year of “bearing the mystery of God’s suffering and joy” in the midst of our holy, ordinary moments. May we be fully human, as Christ was, embracing this life we have been given, even as we submit it to the One who made it, and us, and called it good.  

May we find God right where we are.