Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Quis ascendet in montem Domini / aut quis stabit in loco sancto suo? Innocens manibus et mundo corde / qui non levavit ad vana animam suam, nec iuravit in dolum. Ps 23 [24]: 3-4

Notam fac mihi viam, in qua ambulam/ quia ad te levavi animam meam. Ps 142 [143]: 8

The translation of ‘levavit ad vana animam suam’ I usually read renders it, ‘desires not worthless things’. So I have always thought of this quality—of the one who does not desire them—as a kind of non-distraction by useless stuff: trinkets, frippery, junk. But Psalm 142 puts it in a different light. ‘Ad te [Domini] levavi animam meam’: ‘to you [Lord] I lift up my soul’. If the soul is meant (as of course it is) to be ‘lifted up’ to God, then ‘levavit ad vana animam suam’—[having] lifted up the soul to worthless things—is nothing short of idolatry. It is not simply distraction by shiny trinkets but displacing the proper object of the soul’s desire: God. Then these are not just any worthless things. Whether or not the things mentioned are idols crafted of wood or stone, once the soul has been lifted up to them, they become idols. For that is what idolatry is: putting something else in the place of God. Compared to God, anything we desire is vain, useless. That is, nothing we desire will satisfy our soul. So the psalmist longs for God like a person in a desert yearns for water. Only God can quench that thirst. So the psalmist calls on God when his heart is numb within him. Only God saves all those who are crushed in spirit. To expect things—any things—to heal a broken heart or satisfy a thirsty soul is to try to fill a cracked jar with water: vain.

Idolatry is not a sin because God gets angry at being replaced, as if we are thereby depriving God of some necessary accolades. Idolatry is a sin because it stops us calling on God in the day of trouble, which is our only hope of rescue. And it isn’t only things that appear worthless that can be idols, of course. The most pious-seeming sacrifices can become idols if they are not offered up to God with a humble and grateful heart. All the burnt offerings continually before God (in Psalm 49 [50]) are worthless compared to ‘a sacrifice of thanksgiving’. God does not need the things we offer up. God lacks nothing: ‘if I were hungry, I would not tell you’ (Psalm 49[50]. 12). No: what God asks is this: ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me’ (v. 15).

All the practices of abstinence, fasting and almsgiving, prayer and penance, can become idols if we do them out of a desire for anything but God. The lack of food on days of fasting is a tiny taste of the ‘day of trouble’—a self-induced lack to train the soul for the real thing: a hunger we have not chosen and cannot satisfy; an emptiness not of our own making.

How will my soul know what to do in the day of trouble? Practice, practice, practice: ad te levavi animam meam, ad te levavi animam meam. In all the small wants that irk me during Lent, let me lift up my soul to the One who alone can satisfy.

Deo gratias.

What I always do for Lent

It’s not really a ‘giving up’ sort of thing, but it has become essential to my Lenten practice over the last several years. Don’t laugh: it’s my choice of earrings. I wear purple or black earrings during Lent. Occasionally I allow myself plain silver ones. Very occasionally.

This may sound like a very small thing, but it has a significant effect. Because I do wear earrings every day (I know not everyone does), I remind myself every morning as I am getting ready that it is Lent. I don’t always to have a list of things I am giving up, but just being aware every day that it’s a penitential season makes a difference.

For example, let’s say I’m having a mid-morning coffee and think about a sweet snack to accompany it. Then I remember it’s Lent. I just have the coffee. Five o’clock rolls around, and a cocktail or a glass of wine might be nice. It’s been a tough day (aren’t they all, these lockdown days?). I remember it’s Lent. Maybe I’ll have some herbal tea instead.

I suppose that restricting my earring choice is like putting on the shield of self-denial, as this morning’s collect at Lauds says. Of course, I don’t practice perfect penitence just because I’m wearing purple earrings. But it does help me to stick to whatever other practice I’ve decided to adopt for Lent. That’s going to be especially helpful this year, as the main thing I am trying to give up is getting angry. (Pray for me, please!)

And, of course, wearing somber earrings for several weeks makes me that much happier to don my favourite pearls when Easter comes.

Why I’m giving up chocolate for Lent

I was inspired, ironically, by a post listing 19 things to give up for Lent that aren’t chocolate. unknown-2The list includes fear, envy, doubt, pride and worry. Now, I would love to give up worrying, and not just for Lent. These nineteen habits of the heart (which is what they mainly are) should be the target of our asceticism; that is, whatever it is we give up for Lent, it ought to be with a view to strengthening ourselves for the daily struggle against the attitudes that lead us into sin and away from God.

Don’t get me wrong: I love to do a Big Thing for Lent. One year I wrote a devotional, reflecting each day on the Mass readings and pairing them with a saying from the desert fathers and mothers. Another year, I tried to give up losing my temper with the children, with some success. And once I tried to work out deep-seated resentment and unforgiveness, taking Lent as a time for a kind of spring-cleaning of the soul. That wasn’t my most successful Lent ever.

What I have found, actually, especially thanks to a helpful priest and the book he recommended, Spiritual Combat Revisitedis that the opportunities for small acts of self-denial are ever-present, and usually sufficient to my needs for ascetic exercise. Letting go of impatience as I wait in a long line at the supermarket, for example; or resisting the impulse to snap at one of the children, as s/he does that thing for the seventeenth time, having been told sixteen times to stop, please. There is no shortage in my life of opportunities to put another’s needs before my own. unknown-3

So why give up anything at all? One might say (and not unjustifiably) that the Church offers an ascetic programme of sorts for Lent: days of fasting and abstinence, extended hours for confession (and an obligation to go), and the liturgical fast from the Gloria and from all alleluias. Isn’t that sufficient? Perhaps. Giving up something more is a way of taking Lent to heart, of keeping the season in mind more consistently. I put more effort in, and my observance of the season deepens.

Chocolate does seem like the most boring possible thing to give up for Lent. I mean, couldn’t I find something more inventive, something more impressive? Everyone gives up chocolate for Lent. But does that make it any less effective for me? I think not. Remember Naaman, who suffered from leprosy? Elisha sent him to wash seven times in the Jordan, and Naaman had a tantrum. He expected something different, something more fitting for a person of his rank and distinction, perhaps. Luckily, one of Naaman’s servants kept his head, and suggested that ‘if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it?’ Well, then, why not do this small thing. And Naaman does, and is healed.
Giving up something for Lent is like that: it isn’t about thinking up something cool to take on, or something huge to give up. It’s about humility. As Christ humbled himself and suffered for us–in both very cruel and very ordinary ways–so we take this opportunity to grow in humility and expose ourselves to suffering. So I am giving up chocolate for Lent, as are a number of other people in the parish. I admit that this is enough for me; I hope that it will keep me mindful of other small opportunities for self-denial in my daily life, during Lent and all the days that follow.

With angels and archangels

This Lent, I am writing a series on the Sanctus for my parish newsletter. Although I do sometimes wonder whether anyone reads the back of the bulletin, a few people have been kind enough to remark on the short pieces. (I did a series on the creed in the autumn.) Here is the first installment (printed for the first Sunday in Lent):

During Lent, we direct our attention to the holiness of God more than at any other time of year. Not only that: we strive to imitate that holiness. One of the ways the Church has called the holiness of God to our minds comes from the sixth chapter of Isaiah: the prophet sees the seraphim, who call out to one another: ‘holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The acclamation has been a part of the Church’s liturgy since the early part of the fifth century, though it was probably in use from even earlier times. (The ‘Benedictus qui venit…’ was attached to the acclamation very early, and in future weeks we will look more closely at it.) For example, St Augustine would recognize the Latin text we sing, although the traditional Gregorian plainchant would not have been familiar to him. (What we rightly consider ancient—dating from the 8th century and widespread by the 11th—had not yet been developed in Augustine’s day!)

It is not just the antiquity of the text that ought to inspire us, however. The inclusion of the Sanctus in the Roman canon in the 5th century brought in the idea ‘that by joining the angels in their song we participate in the heavenly liturgy’ (Enrico Mazza, The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite, p. 48).  And this provides an important clue to the means by which we imitate the Lord’s holiness; by participation. All our Lenten practices—prayer and giving, and giving up—do not work magic on their own. Rather, by them we join ourselves to the Lord’s suffering. It is his passion and death that worked for our salvation, and in his resurrection that we are raised to new life. So in all that we do this Lent, our aim is to make more space for our Lord, so that we can say with the apostle Paul, ‘it is no longer I who live, but he who lives in me.’ When we attend to the presence of God among us and in us, and we participate in him as he dwells in us, holiness will be ours as well.

 

Being human, part 3: the spiritual life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual life lately. Not, of course, that it’s ever too far from my mind. As a teacher of those preparing for ordained ministry, I always considered the pastoral and spiritual implications of the theology and ethics I taught. And as a person of faith, I have found the spiritual life an integrative force in my life, which often seems like a patchwork of roles and responsibilities and hopes and disappointments. Woven through the various scraps of fabric, there is this sense of purpose that draws in everything–yes, everything–and orients it toward a bigger-than-I reality.

Although my recent thinking about spirituality has been inspired by the situation of women in colleges and universities and the challenges facing them, I’ve been struck deeply by the universality of our need for spiritual well-being. An article by David Morstad, over at The Larger Table, points out that people with significant intellectual disabilities have as great a desire and need for spiritual nourishment and community–if not greater–than those with greater cognitive abilities.

A sense of spirituality–which might be as simple as the notion that there is a reality bigger than we are, that holds us and draws us forward–seems fairly standard and unobjectionable. The category of folks who consider themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious’ attests, I think, to this foundational place of spirituality in our lives. But that isn’t to say that ‘spirituality’ is somehow what religion is really about, or that the practice of any sort of religion or spirituality is the same.

What our various approaches to religion and the spiritual life should teach us, I believe, is not that religions are all the same, or even that ‘religion’ is a thing that means the same thing to people who practice different religions. Rather, our continuing openness to faith and spirituality, and the persistence of faith-based values within our society, ought to remind us that, however much divides us, there is much that we nonetheless share. Being human involves forming a view (insofar as our capacities allow us to do so) about what it is to be human, and this is a task that involves a great many of us in spiritual reflection in addition to philosophical and scientific study.

As Lent begins, Christians around the world pay renewed attention to the life of the spirit.  I hope that this Lent will be a time when the universality of our need for grace also awakens in me a deeper awareness of the unity of the human family. After all, Jesus’s prayer for us as he entered into his suffering was that we might all be one. May it be so.

Deo gratias.

 

Monday in Holy Week

He does not break the crushed reed,
nor quench the wavering flame.
                               -Isaiah 42
*           *        *
I am glad that something has gone haywire with my email account, at least for the moment. Because the email from Universalis with the daily Mass readings hasn’t arrived, I visited the site for Lauds and the Mass readings. A few lines into the Benedictus, I thought, this is a strange translation of the Benedictus. And then I remembered why I like this “strange” translation so much:
Through the bottomless mercy of our God,
  one born on high will visit us
to give light to those who walk in darkness,
  who live in the shadow of death;
  to lead our feet in the path of peace.
The heart of our salvation is this, “the bottomless mercy of our God,” whose coming among us we remember in a distinct way this week. God chose this bizarre way to save us, this way that seems so foolish and un-God-like. Gregory of Nyssa contended with those who thought the Incarnation and the Passion were wholly unworthy of God. But it shows God’s infinite mercy spectacularly. It is that “bottomless mercy” that inspires the way of the Lord’s coming to “visit us.”
“He does not break the crushed reed/nor quench the wavering flame.” Indeed not. Instead, God opts to be crushed, though Isaiah insists that “he will neither waver nor be crushed until true justice is established on the earth.” So the One who cannot be crushed is crushed (Isaiah 53), and so true justice is established on the earth; and we are not crushed, but saved. 
And so all of our Lenten practice comes down to this, this week, in which we remember that all our endeavors to join the Lord in his suffering serve not to crush us, but to prepare us to receive him once again in his mercy–bottomless mercy!–at Easter. 
 Deo gratias.

Monday of the third week of Lent

“My father,” [Naaman’s servants] said, “if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.”  So Naaman went down, and plunged into the Jordan seven times at the word of the man of God. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him “Father, give me a word.” The old man said to him “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
*        *      *
It is the ordinary stuff of life that most escapes our sense of God’s presence: if it is an ordinary thing, God must not really be involved in it. The miraculous is extraordinary, we think. Miracles, like that which Naaman desired, look spectacular. The miracle he got, however, was no less miraculous for being ordinary.

Unfortunately, progress in Christian faith seems to require, as Naaman’s servants and the desert fathers and mothers knew, a steady diet of very ordinary disciplines. Ascetic superheroes get short schrift in the Sayings; Elisha sent Naaman to wash in the Jordan, and Abba Moses sent the brother to go and sit in his cell. Nothing fancy. 

Once upon a time, I used to try do do heroic things during Lent. Then I had children. Now I find that the most basic observance of Lent, according to what the Church teaches, can be a struggle. Is this it? I wonder. Is this really all I can do? And is that enough? 

We don’t get to choose how we suffer for the sake of the gospel. We don’t get to choose which things will form us in obedience and humility. If we did, well, it wouldn’t be obedience, would it? So I drag myself through this Lent, hoping I can make a good confession between now and Holy Week, at least. Somewhere in the dragging, the apparently meaningless and pointless suffering of a very low mood, God is at work. All is now chaos and darkness, and the swirling, struggling feeling inside must be the Spirit, stirring up the water, making ready in some mysterious way for that great command: fiat lux!

And there will be light. There will be light. Not because of anything I do or do not do, but because the One who commands all our obedience is faithful and strong and true: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. 

In the meantime, I think I’ll look again at the inside of my cell, and see what it has to teach me.

Tuesday of Holy Week

Though I thought that I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
Yet my reward is with the Lord: my recompense is with my God…
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
                                                                        Isaiah 49: 3-6
A hermit was asked by a brother, “How do I find God? With fasts or labour, or vigils, or works of mercy?” He replied, “ you will find him in all those, and lso in discretion. I tell you many have been very stern with their bodies,  but have gained nother by it because they did it without discretion. Even if our mouths stink from fasting, and we have learnt all the Scriptures, and memorized the whole psalter, we may still lack what God wants, humility and love.”
                                                                        (DF 111)
.                .               .
Isn’t it the measure of humility to think we have not achieved anything? Isaiah reflects on precisely this predicament: ‘I thought that I had toiled in vain’; that all was for nought. But it is in the acknowledgement that all he can do is work ‘uselessly’ that he finds the truth: recompence is with God. Because it is God’s will that God’s salvation reach the ends of the earth, God makes something of out otherwise useless toil. So, as the hermit says, all the fasting and prayer avail us nothing without the marks of true participation in the Spirit—humility and love. And what a good and timely word for this, the last week in Lent. We have fasted and abstained, we have spent time in Scripture and in prayer, we have done works of mercy. But what do we gain by it all? Nothing, so long as we expect the work to get us somewhere. The object of all the Lenten discipline we choose to bear is nothing more or less than the deepening of humility and the widening of our love.
Humility and love should point us towards the cross, where Christ’s humility is displayed in the utmost submission, and his love is extended even in his suffering: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Humility and love: forgiving before the repentance, before the acknowledgement of sin. Jesus shows us pure forgiveness, which is the way of humility and love. And so I find myself coming around again to forgiveness, although it appears nowhere in the lectionary readings for today; it is nevertheless what the Lenten season is all about: humility and love.

Friday of the fifth week of Lent

In my distress I called upon the Lord,
and cried out to my God;
from his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
Psalm 18 [17]: 7
 
Jesus said… “…the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.” Then they tried again to arrest him, but he escaped from their power.
John 10
 
 
. . .
 
This is, perhaps, the most difficult of all aspects of asceticism: calling on God in the face of temptation. We want to overcome it easily, on our own, or to give in. To look temptation in the face and say, as Jeremiah does, “the Lord is with me like a mighty champion,” and to call on God for help, is slightly less attractive as an option. We then can claim no special achievement, as Amma Sarah testifies: “It is not I who overcame [lust], but the Lord Jesus”—nor can we enjoy the pleasure of succumbing to the temptation, however fleeting.
 
No, it is decidedly unheroic, unromantic, simply to say “help!” and find ourselves, like the monk in one of the sayings of the desert fathers, on the road back to the monastery. There are no brave stories then for us to tell our sisters and brothers. We can say no more than the psalmist who writes, “In my distress, I called upon the Lord…and my cry to him reached his ears.”
 
In theory—that is, in the moments in which we are not beset by temptation, this appears to be the best way. Praise God alone, of course, because the victory belongs to God and not to us. We know that it is God who protects us, God who assures us in the valley of the shadow of death, God who makes our way blameless, God who makes us rise up on wings like eagles. All this we know and we celebrate it. That is, after all, what the Mass is about: the victory of God in Christ over sin and death, closing the unbridgeable gap between God and God’s created image, humanity. We know that we did not, cannot, achieve victory over sin.
 
But when it confronts us, in all the small ways it confronts us in our daily lives, we forget to turn to the One who made us, in whom we live and move and have out beings and say, perhaps, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ Help me to resist this sin; help me to cling to Jesus; help me to walk in those good works you have prepared for me. For the Lord is with us like a mighty champion; our persecutors will stumble; they will not triumph.
 

Saturday of the fourth week in Lent

A brother, being tempted by a demon, went to a hermit and said, “those two monks over there live together sinfully.” But the hermit knew that a demon was deceiving him. So he called the brothers to him. In the evening he put out a mat for them, and covered them with a single blanket, and said, “they are sons of God, and holy persons.” But he said to his disciple, “Shut this slandering brother up in a cell by himself; he is suffering from the passion of which he accuses them.” 
Nicodemus, on of [the members of the Pharisees] who had gone to [Jesus] earlier, said to them, “Does out law condemn a man before it first hears him, and finds out what he is doing?” They answered and said to him, “You are not from Galilee also, are you? Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” Then each went to his own house. (John 7:  52-53)
.             .          .
There is an entire section of the topical collection of the sayings of the desert fathers devoted to ‘non-judgment’—and that is in addition to the groups of sayings on ‘nothing done for show’ and ‘humility.’ The desert ascetics—and the fathers have more to say about this than the mothers—insisted on humility as the defining characteristic of the monastic life. To accuse another brother or sister of a sin, and to complain of it to one’s superior, was a sure sign that something was lacking in the accuser rather than the accused. Certainly there are a great many cases of monks falling into sin and doing penance, but in those instances the monk is convicted of his sin, often by the humility and charity of his fellows, or of his superior.
It is much easier to be like the Pharisees, and rest easy in the certainty that we know where prophets come from, and we know not to trust someone who comes from some other quarter. Jesus’s authenticity as a prophet was ruled out before he was even given a hearing: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Apparently not: Galilee had never produced any prophet, and the Pharisees were sure that the Scripture said nothing about a prophet to come out of Galilee. Nicodemus, while hesitant, demonstrates a kind of openness and discernment that the desert ascetics would probably have welcomes. Listen and evaluate, he suggests; let’s not jump to conclusions without any evidence.

What we think we ‘know’ can be so deceptive—like the “slandering brother” in the saying, we are quicker to accuse than to confess. Lent offers us a chance to turn that critical gaze toward our own souls, and look carefully; to examine our consciences and see whether we ought to confess our own sins, rather than accuse our brothers and sisters in Christ.