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)

Advertisements

The Sparrow | Words of Wednesday

And deeper, in a place she rarely inspected, there was a part of her that wanted to believe as Emilio seemed to believe, that God was in the universe, making sense of things. –Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow


I was introduced to the science fiction novel The Sparrow through Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being. An account of a Jesuit mission to “know and love God’s other children” (the ones not inhabiting Earth), the story — written by a life-long scientist, former atheist, and later-life convert to Judaism — deeply intrigued me.

I’ve been immersed in The Sparrow‘s world for about a week now, and though I’ve yet to reach the end, I already know that I would highly recommend it. Whether you’re interested in sci-fi, or faith, or just a really well-crafted narrative, this book is for you.

And, yet, I don’t recommend it lightly. Whatever the above quote may imply, this is one of the most uncompromising explorations of devastation I have encountered. It is, in its way, a subtle, deeply original, and utterly un-didactic retelling of the Old Testament book of Job. What does one do when it is God who destroys one’s faith? God, as Emilio tells us, who breaks one’s heart? 

Whatever peace I’ve made with the presence of suffering in the world (a peace predicated entirely on the incarnational presence of a God who enters into that suffering — wearing it like skin — in all times, and all places), this text (more, perhaps, than any other) has forced me to wrestle again with who God is and what God wants from us. How to reconcile the paradoxes of Old and New Testaments — of a God who both gives life and takes that life away.

And this I think is the point — these questions, this wrestling — and why I can declare Russell successful, regardless of where she takes the narrative from here. Whether she concludes with consolation, or answers, or only with silence, she has forced us to look again, question again, wrestle again. To acknowledge that we are mortal and dust, and God is mystery, vaster and deeper than any expanse of space, or time, or unknowable universe. 

And so, as Marc, one of the book’s priests, declares, “Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.” And yet, he continues, “The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds.” 

So, with Job and Jacob and all the patriarchs of old, we must keep wrestling, keep questioning, till we meet God face-to-face, receive our true names, and hold our hands over our mouths. 

“And then,” Marc finishes, “we shall dance with God.” 

Lilac Breasted Roller in Flight (Naibosho Conservancy, Kenya)

You can listen to the On Being episode that first inspired me here

 

Eucharist

Calvary Episcopal Church, Santa Cruz
Sunday, 28 October 2018

The priest wore red
today, as he held his hands
aloft over bread and wine.
The color of martyrs and
remembrance, Christ’s passion
leaking from instep and
palms, blinked rapidly
from stinging eyes (oh, God,
were there flies? I’ve never thought
about the flies — the agony
of a body so taut, it can’t
even twitch to drive away
the swarms which gather,
like clouds without rain, or
so much dust in the desert,
to feast upon the bleeding flesh
of the too-soon dead),

yet today was not meant
to be a day for red.

Eleven are dead,
yet they never asked
to be martyrs (do any ask
to be martyrs?), as they
gathered to worship, to
celebrate, to pray, “on a quiet
drizzly morning,” just another
Saturday. Just another
sunrise, just another breakfast,
just another day
until it wasn’t.

We kneel at the altar,
my unpierced palms open
to receive the dry and tasteless
wafer, the wine smooth and
sweet (no hint of vinegar or gall)
on chapped and broken lips. We say
the “Our Father,” the offered
bread still heavy on my tongue,
and ask deliverance
from evil

— but whether his
or mine is left unspoken
as the music swells and the cross
processes down the nave,
and through the open door into
the sunshine of an ordinary
street, an ordinary day.
Pater dimitte illis: dare we
follow in its wake?

Written following the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Resurrection

The cross on the wall
of every church
I’ve ever called
my home (evangelical
gypsy that I am)
has been empty,
harmless.

Nothing but the sheen
of polished wood,
a finish so smooth
I want to rest my cheek
against its softness —
a pillow, like Jacob’s rock,
on which to dream
of promised blessing.

Nothing to hint
at blood
or guts or the stench
of remembered
pain.

After all,
it is the ending of this story
that we love.

And so we skip ahead —
an empty tomb,
a bloodless cross,
a king triumphant
on his clouds.

So quick to preach
of heaven, where every
tear, like water in the desert,
shall turn to mist and be
no more, we forget
it was the world — this broken,
bloody thing, where thorns
grow wild and snakes
can bite one’s heel —
that he loved enough
to die for.

In a Jesuit chapel
on the outskirts of Nairobi,
I stare at the pierced and broken
body of the king I claim
to know. The crucifix a heavy,
holy reminder that to be human
is to break. That neither
love nor life will ever burst
into being on this globe
without the mother’s share
of suffering and pain. That on
the very morning we sing
“hosanna” and call the battle
won, the victory proclaimed,
Mary is weeping in the garden,
cursing an empty tomb,
a missing body, and our walk
to Emmaus has just begun,
tired travelers with blistered
feet, bereft and heavy
hearts.

Our hope upon the road:
that one day we may turn
to the stranger
at our side and recognize —
in the sound of our name
on their chapped lips or the broken
bread in their work-roughed hands —
that Life has pitched its
tent among us

(and today
is the day of resurrection).

On Mortality: A Lenten Reflection

As Lent begins to draw to a close, and we find ourselves moving towards Easter, I have been doing some reflecting on the paradoxes of this season.  This time of self-examination, repentance, prayer, and fasting. This time of preparing one’s heart for the cross.

Lent begins with the words, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Yet as the cross is traced in ash upon one’s forehead, there is a powerful irony in the words: for we are dust no more. The living breath of God has been restored to us. Christ became dust for our sake — became a mortal formed from clay, destined for death — so we could know life. Yet we are still poised in this space of in-between. Caught between the cross and the resurrection.

Lent calls us back to our mortality. Reminds us of our frailty. But does not do so in order to imprison us there. Rather, we are reminded so we might turn and be healed. When Christ declared that he came not for the healthy but for the sick, he was not implying a dissonance between those who had need of him and those who did not. Only that there were those who refused to acknowledge that need, for only those who know themselves sick will seek a physician’s care. As I have written elsewhere, I am coming, more and more, to believe that salvation through faith is not about being saved by faith — by one’s ability to believe passionately enough — but in fully submitting to the reality that one cannot save oneself, and in ceasing to strive to do so.

And perhaps it is that striving, that insistence on a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency — a pride that demands we earn our own place in the world — that is, in itself, at the heart of our sickness. I doubt it was Eve’s longing for knowledge that brought death into the world, but perhaps it was a demand for that knowledge on her own terms — not a relational knowledge (and perhaps the knowledge of good and evil can only ever be relational if it is not to be destructive) but an independent, self-sufficient knowledge. The right to declare truth for herself and by herself. Give me my inheritance, demands the prodigal. I can do this on my own. But can such self-reliance ever be aught but a rejection of love? And can life exist where love does not?

The journey back to the Father, as Henri Nouwen reminds us in his The Return of the Prodigal Son, is simply (and not so simply) about allowing ourselves to be found by the love that has been pursuing us all the days of our lives.

Yet here, too, is irony and tension, for what lies on the other side of a closed, stubborn, self-sufficiency but a vulnerable, broken, openness? Nouwen writes, “It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering.” And so we are brought back to the cross and the life that is somehow found on the other side of death. In this upside-down economy, where the first are last, and the last first — where one must lose one’s life to save it — it would seem that to be whole one must choose to be broken, for Christ bears his scars even on the right hand of the Almighty, and if love wears the face of suffering, then, in wearing that face, one wears the face of God.

Do we have courage enough to root ourselves here? In an open, vulnerable, brokenness? To choose to reject the temptation of self-protection and the illusion of control? To recognize that only God can be perfect and sufficient in God’s-self, yet even God has rooted that perfection within relationality, and chosen the dependence, vulnerability, and heartbreak of relationship over an independent self-sufficiency?

Is it possible we’ve misunderstood, from the beginning, where strength, wholeness, and life truly lie? Misunderstood what it means to be like God?

Whatever the case, Lent reminds me that coming home isn’t about striving for perfection, but accepting imperfection, embracing my humanness (and the death that comes with it), and allowing God to meet me there with the love she has been speaking over me since the day I was born.

God did the work, all I must do is allow myself to be found. 

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountain and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.