"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reveling in ashes

My thinking about Lent has been stimulated by a trenchant criticism of The Episcopal Church made by an Episcopalian, an old college roommate and debating partner of mine who now blogs as RatherNot. Apropos of the favored themes of its current presiding bishop—an ex-Catholic who, of course, is not a bishop—RatherNot writes:
In the end, a church that emphasises questions and not answers will be the same church that emphasises blessings without repentance. Its message will indeed be union with God, but union on our terms, not His.
Now the Catholic Church in this country has not quite got to the point where questions are emphasized more than answers. But to judge from how things are in most parishes and dioceses, we certainly do see a great deal of blessing without repentance. There is relatively little repentance by anybody, from the top on down. A great deal is wrong; but what's wrong is almost always "their" fault, whichever "they" happens to be in the crosshairs. And so the questions, though frequent enough, are less troublesome than the refusal to accept what the answers demand of us individually. The problem with American Catholics is that few seem to feel the need to repent in light of their faith and be converted to their own faith.
I myself am very bad at Lent, the season in which the Lord's call to repentance and conversion comes to the liturgical fore. It begins in mid-February, when I'm so sick of winter that I'm almost desperate for sensory consolations and seek them more than usual. Even the modest self-indulgence I can afford allows me at first to forget what a wretched sinner I am; but of course, once the knowledge returns, I feel myself to be all the more wretched a sinner for ignoring Lent. Then I decide that such scruples are unproductive; so I become less scrupulous than I need to be, and the cycle starts all over. But I've found a way to short-circuit such spiritual childishness. Perhaps some could benefit from hearing about it.

As I've hinted before, one of my favorite prayers is a paraphrase of Galatians 2:20. To our Lord Jesus Christ, I pray daily and more than daily: "Let it not be I who live, but you who live in me." I know of few formulae that serve as well to focus my mind on what the Christian attitude should be all the time. On our own, we are hopeless and useless: so warped by the effects of original sin, our own sins, the sins of others, and just plain misfortune that we have no power to become what God created us, in love, to be. It is with certainty that I know this of myself, but I am not unique. We all of us can only attain our destined glory if a new "subject" takes the place of what we are: one that is still "I," yet not I, because it is Christ living in and through me. That must be our goal, striven for by grace through the prayer, self-denial, and charity we are enjoined to show during Lent. The old, unviable "I" must be killed so that it may be resurrected in the new one destined for eternal life.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday serve, or are meant to serve, as a salutary reminder of that. It's easy to sniff at the "ashes-and-palms" crowd who only come to church for such freebies; but many, I'm sure, preserve a residual sense of the symbols' meaning. That's something to work with. Still, as we fall fall short of acting on that sense, we can and should seek strength from Jesus in the desert. His prayer at various times in the wilderness, as a facet of the great Mystery that is his Pasch, is what has made it possible for us both to recognize our poverty and primal solitude and to be enriched and befriended by God himself. Yet the latter is inseparable from the former, which must somehow precede it.
That's why I revel in the ashes most Catholics will receive today. They keep me from forgetting the order of spiritual priorities. But this Lent, I go further. I ask for the grace to revel in the ashes that are my life, as a reminder that the more I let myself be reduced and emptied for the sake of being filled by the Holy Spirit, the more of his love, power, and glory I will be able to exhibit for others.
Care to join me?
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