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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Reading is a Sacred Act: A Follow-up

A semi-companion to this post about writing and a direct sequel to this one about reading spiritual books by women. 

I promised, a while ago, to follow up my post about women’s writing (and why we should be reading more of it) with a list of some of my personal “must-reads” — the books by women that have most deeply impacted my heart and mind.

At the time, I didn’t quite realize what an impossible task I’d set myself.

How does one curate such a list? Even if the only criteria is “personal impact,” how is one to measure and define such impact? Especially across genres and years? How do I compare Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moccasin Trail, for instance, one of my favorite Newberry Honor books from grade school (which spoke to my heart deeply on the topics of exile and displacement — the losses and gains of straddling worlds) with Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or (on an even more different playing field) Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects? For that matter, should Moccasin Trail even be a candidate, given that its protagonist is male? And what about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, loved so dearly for its lyricism and strangeness, which I would claim as one of my all-time favorite classics … but which boils down, in the end, to a masterfully told tale?

I can hear the hecklers already, It’s your list, do what you want. Yet it’s such a knotty business, choosing favorites. Publicly declaring, This matters more to me than all those others I left off the list. And whether one wants to admit it or not, the public aspect also gets messy. By posting this on a public blog, I’m not really saying, simply, Here are some books that moved me, challenged me, changed me. I’m saying, Here are some books I think you, too, should read. Yet, as a teacher, I recognize that my personal favorites are not always the best books for my classroom. Personal impact is not the same as “objective” worth (or general value). Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, is an important read, and, dealing with gender and religion as it does, leaving it off the list seems almost irresponsible. It would certainly belong on a list of “books you should read.” Yet, while it was certainly thought-provoking, engaging, and worth my time, its personal impact was limited.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I thought the whole point (as stated in the aforementioned article) was that these were meant to be spiritual books by women … well, that isn’t as simple as it might sound either. You see, there’s a reason I majored in literature in college. A reason I cared enough about what and how students were reading to become an English teacher upon graduating. Literature has been inextricably tied up with my faith journey since I read my first Newberry Honor book when I was eight. Earlier, actually, since I was already listening to stories (read aloud, played on tape, told orally) long before I could read them. I’ve read, and been deeply impacted by, my fair share of nonfiction over the years, but it is in the pages of fiction that I most consistently come face to face with the deep truths, beauty, and goodness that have drawn my heart, over and over, back to God.

If I hadn’t known Aslan as a child,1 or had my heart pierced by Justin’s sacrifice,2 or longed for the glory of Arthur,3 or tasted Hassan’s goodness4 — if I hadn’t had my imagination sanctified, over and over again, with glimpses of meaning, of sacrifice, of hope — if I hadn’t tasted life so often and so young — would I have recognized, in Christ, the fulfillment of my heart’s yearning? Or even known what I was yearning for?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I came to God by way of story. By way of literature. By way of books. And for me there is no clear demarcation between the spiritual and the secular in this realm. Rather, there are books that send me back to the world alive and awake (to wonder, to beauty, to pain, to the search for truth, to the need for healing, to the yearning for joy) — and books that do not.

As a Christ-follower, I also believe that part of our calling, as readers, writers, artists, people, is to search for that goodness, coherence, meaning, and beauty in the world around us5 (to create cosmos out of chaos, as Madeleine L’Engle might put it6). Are some texts drivel that do little more than de-sensitize us to the sorrows and joys of our fragile, beautiful world? Of what it means to live, to love, to die — to be human? Undoubtedly. Pornography’s a real thing (the dangers of which go far beyond the boundaries of trivializing sexual encounter — for treating sex casually is nothing compared to treating people casually, treating life casually, treating meaning casually). Yet I’d rather be on the lookout for the sacred than spend my time decrying the profane. Which is why I’d happily declare Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and James Goldman’s Lion in Winter two of the most moral, spiritual, and powerful texts I know.

So, yes, I’m still working on those lists (which will probably appear as a series of several shorter lists — divided by genre, topic, etc. — to make the act of choosing less traumatic). It’s quite possible that many (most) of the selected books won’t explicitly deal with faith — or be written by those who identify as people of faith. Even so, I see them connected, inextricably, with the purpose laid out in that original blog post: to cast our nets wider and encounter the image of God in places we have long ignored (namely, the words spoken by women).

As you wait for my lists with bated breath, what are some of your favorite texts by women? Or some of the unexpected places where you have encountered God? What stories remind you that there is hope and goodness in the world? Something to fight for, something to gain, something to lose? Something to this business of living that matters and matters mightily? 

Footnotes:

  1. C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia
  2. Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
  3. Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy
  4. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner
  5. Philippians 4:8 — “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
  6. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

 

The Sacrament of Choice

During a ten day silent retreat on the outskirts of Nairobi, a Jesuit priest stood before our group of retreatants — a community linked by silence and prayer, the communion of shared meals, the mundane kindness of a passed pitcher, a proffered mug, a quiet smile, and the holy mystery that is the Eucharist — and told us that to be human is to choose. To choose, and to accept the consequences of one’s choice.

It was the day of the feast of St. Ignatius (the man who founded the Jesuits upon principles of discernment), and four months later the priest’s words still echo in my heart and mind: to be human is to choose.

We live in an age ripe with decision fatigue. Where many of our foreparents were expected to live the lives set for them — by circumstance, by parental authority, by God — we are expected to choose our own. To forge our own paths: what to study; where to work; who to marry; where to live; when, and if, to have children; where, and if, to worship. Few of us have either the restrictions, or the comfort, of the seemingly ordained.

Yet I have chased that sense of destiny across continents, longing for a sense of calling that would put doubt to rest. Wanting to relinquish control (and responsibility) with the cry, “It wasn’t me, it was God.” Not my choice, not my fault, not mine, not mine.

I’ve never liked the weight of control. The responsibility of driving a car that could cause injury. The possibility of starting something only to see it go wrong. The culpability of saying “yes” and risking someone else’s heart. I’d rather be a passenger, called to the holy work of submission. Of finding contentment in the midst of a life handed to me, rather than forged through my own action and choice (with all the potential for getting it wrong).

And certainly we are called to that holy work: for we are not, will never be, truly in control. And there is great freedom to be found in accepting, and embracing, that fact. As Emily P. Freeman writes in her book Simply Tuesday, “Unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This day belongs to the Lord. And he has set out craft paper and Play-Doh. . . . He invites me to come sit at his table and pull up a chair made for small legs. He invites me to surrender myself to his agenda and trust that he intends good things” (134).

But the call of God is complicated and paradoxical. And even a child, invited into a preschool playroom, must choose where to start, where to focus, what to do. (Children, however, seem to lack the fear that paralyzes — trusting all choices as good, they inhabit the fullness of their moment without mourning the loss of what they did not choose. If only I, too, could embody such trust and fearless embrace!)

Perhaps I take choice too seriously. Rather than seeing it as an invitation to playful encounter, a way to explore the world God has placed before my feet (trusting always in his presence to comfort me in the bumps and bruises attained along the way), I dread choice because I recognize too much room for error. Certain choices preclude others, and how can I choose the best, when I know myself short-sighted, lacking in wisdom, ignorant of the future, blind to variables? When I know, in short, that I am not God?

Yet perhaps that is the point. That knowledge — recognition — of my limitations. That moving forward in a fear and trembling that is nothing if not faith.

I’ve been reflecting recently on grace. On what exactly it is (and isn’t). Within protestant traditions, we have a tendency to think about grace in the widest possible way: an unmerited gift. And don’t get me wrong, I love that definition. The breath in my lungs is grace, as is the strength to get out of bed this morning; the colors of last night’s sunset; my nephew’s smile when I walked into the room. I have done nothing to earn any of this, and the more I recognize the gift inherent in the details of my life, the more my soul is set free to worship. To exist in a state of wonder and awe not unlike that of which Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Mindful“:

It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.

Yet that is only one definition of grace. The more specific one (what Catholics usually mean when they refer to it) is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.”

The significance of this difference, in my mind, is that it helps us recognize — with gratitude — that which does not manifest as obviously as “gift.” Under this definition, much is grace that is also painful, difficult, and heartbreaking. As Cowper declares in his hymn,

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

In fact, if the great human rebellion lies in determining to be God — to exist in ourselves and for ourselves, immutable, self-sufficient, and in control — then grace is precisely that which awakens us to our limitations. That which reminds us that we can’t, in fact, do it alone. That we are not — cannot be, will never be — God.

Choice, then, is not simply an oft-dreaded, ever-present, and inconvenient reality of my 21st-century life. It — like marriage (that joyous and painful winnowing ground) and singleness (a furnace all its own) — is a sacrament: an external reality through which grace enters the mundane, sacred details of our everyday lives.

My brother and I have discussed this subject often this fall, as we’ve walked through the fields around Santa Cruz or driven the hours to L.A. and back. Regardless of one’s best intentions, it seems transition cannot help but raise questions about the future. About all the unknown paths and the choices that must be made between them. As I’ve fielded questions (my own and others’) about those choices, my brother has been there to remind me that, while I might theoretically prefer a world in which the future was set and all I had to do was face it with humility and love, that is not my calling — is not the life I was born to.

My calling (the life I must strive to submit myself to) is this messy reality of choice. This is the sacrament I must accept with open hands. The tabernacle in which I am invited to meet with God.

The church calendar begins anew in two weeks (with the first Sunday in Advent). As we go forward into this new year, readying our hearts once more for Christ, may we face our choices with the courage, faith, and awe that Mary demonstrated in accepting her own sacraments — a pregnancy and marriage not of her own choosing. May we know the truth of Christmas in the deepest places of our being: we are human, we are frail, we are limited, but Christ is with us; we are not alone.