Lent falls on Valentine’s Day this year in the Western calendar, and Easter falls on April Fool’s. This feels about right for our current cultural moment, no?
I don’t always observe the liturgical calendar of “church seasons”: I didn’t grow up with it. But given this dual alignment of days traditionally associated with renunciation and pathos, respectively, an inner prompting came to me last night, concerning something fruitful I might “give up” beginning this Ash V-Day:
It’s been a challenging year for me, if I slow down enough to notice. (Can I get an ‘amen’? Anybody with me?) I noticed that I’ve been nurturing a special attachment to certain miseries this past year, almost as though me and The Blues were dating.
But is this relationship really working out? What would it be like to let this melancholic romance go?
Lent- this season of sinking deep into the death, resurrection, ascension and indwelling of the Living Christ – offers us an opportunity, in grace, to let go of that which doesn’t serve.
“Remember that you are dust,” we say on Ash Wednesday, “and to dust you shall return.”
There’s a real freedom here.
We are marked because ash is one of the most fertile nutrients for growth that we have on the planet. To be touched with ash is a prayer for the grace and nutrients to grow ever more deeply into the image of the One in which we are already made.
But how do we grow? We Americans are often obsessed with the idea of ‘growth,’ by which we mean extractive consumption. We want more, more, more.
Thomas Merton offers us some contrasting wisdom:
The spiritual life moves forward by a process of subtraction not addition. I find my true nature as I am willing to let go of clinging to fruit and demanding consolations and rewards in this life.
What gifts am I seeking that keep me from opening to a genuine awareness of God’s presence in my life?
What might I need to let go of in order to open more fully to an awareness of God’s presence and action at work in all of life?
Sage input in an era of overconsumption and shallow materialism, echoes of the ancient Letter to the Hebrews:
Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…
And yet, some of us have become Olympic athletes of renunciation: making ‘sacrifice’ our calling card. Others of us, especially during Lent, excel at making token, notional ‘sacrifices’ that are perhaps more for our waistline or virtue-signaling than our actual growth.
This is why I’m not giving up chocolate or social media this Lent – deprivations along these lines feel arbitrary.
Instead, I’m giving up suffering – the kind I create. What would it be like to just let it go?
The enigmatic early 20th-century spiritual teacher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff drew a distinction between conscious suffering and mechanical suffering. Of the latter, he said:
Another thing that people must sacrifice is their suffering. It is very difficult also to sacrifice one’s suffering. A man will renounce any pleasures you like but he will not give up his suffering.
Man is made in such a way that he is never so much attached to anything as he is to his suffering.
And it is necessary to be free from suffering. No one who is not free from suffering, who has not sacrificed his suffering, can work [toward waking up]. Later on a great deal must be said about suffering. Nothing can be attained without [conscious] suffering, but at the same time one must begin by sacrificing [mechanical] suffering. Now, decipher what this means.
We have already spoken enough about the meaning of being ‘born.’ This relates to the beginning of a new growth of essence, the beginning of the formation of individuality, the beginning of the appearance of one indivisible I.
But in order to be able to attain this or at least begin to attain it, a man must die – that is, he must free himself from a thousand petty attachments and identifications which hold him in the position in which he is.
He is attached to everything in his life, attached to his imagination, attached to his stupidity, attached even to his sufferings, possibly to his sufferings more than to anything else.
He must free himself from this attachment. Attachment to things, identification with things, keep alive a thousand useless I’s in a man.
These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born.
Growth through letting go, a spirituality of subtraction: This is likely to offend our epicure I’s and please our masochist I’s.
But what if it’s suffering that’s first to be sacrificed on our altars? What if its oppressive comforts are denied? Might its golden chains be broken, giving me a whole new quality of experiencing my day-to-day? And might my inner epicure and inner masochist find their roles reversed?
This is what I aim to find out.
Recommended Reading for Keeping a Wholly Lent:
Becoming Truly Human: Gurdjieff’s Obligolnian Strivings – a Lenten eCourse – Cynthia Bourgeault
City of God: Faith in the Streets – Sara Miles
Girardian Lectionary – Paul Nuechterlein + Various
Godspace: Lent – Christine Sine + Various
Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation – Alexander John Shaia
In Search of the Miraculous – P. D. Ouspensky
Resipiscence: A Lenten Devotional for Dismantling White Supremacy – Jasmin Pittman Morrell + Various
Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible – Anthony Bartlett
TextWeek – Jenee Woodard + Various
Thoughts in Solitude – Thomas Merton
Will You Join Me for A Prayerful ‘Experiment’ this Lent? – Carl McColman