Rising from the Ashes

Ash+CrossToday is, of course, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent for Western Christians.  In the liturgy of The Episcopal Church for today, worshippers receive the sign of the cross made with ash on their foreheads and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Traditionally, the ashes and the words that accompany their administration evoke our own mortality:  our life on this earth is limited.   Placed within the context of the Lenten season, that reminder of our mortality is also a reminder that we should get about the work of deepening our relationship with God, because our time is limited.  The language of the Ash Wednesday liturgy gives us many opportunities to remember just how out of sync with God we often live — which is really what we mean when we talk about “sin”.

Another way of saying this is that we live so much of our lives centered in the False Self, in the most shallow, most ego-driven part of ourselves.   We invest great quantities of energy into things that do not last, and spend relatively little time focusing on the deeper dimensions of life.  We settle for a self that is too small, and consequently for a life that is too shallow.

And this brings me to another meaning of the ashes of Ash Wednesday: that they are a symbol of mourning.   In many places in the Hebrew Bible, we find examples of people putting on sack cloth (a bit like burlap) and sitting in ashes, or heaping ashes on their head, as a sign of deep sorrow, lamentation, mourning, and grief.  This is the symbolism that strikes me most powerfully this year.

For Ash Wednesday is a day when we can and should mourn for how often we live centered in what is false and shallow.  It is a day to lament how small we so often are, and how that smallness impinges on the lives of others.  It is a day to grieve how often we try to pull God down to our level, making a mockery of the Holy One by assuming that God is as small and petty as we.  It is a time to regret how out of sync we are.

But ashes are also fertile.  They can enrich the soil with which they are mixed, and from ash can rise new life and new growth.  And that is the hope of Ash Wednesday, and of the Lenten season.  If we were to stop in our mourning, if we were not to move on from our grief over what we are not, then we would indeed be pitiable human beings.   The self-reflection to which Ash Wednesday invites us is meant not to stop us, but to move us on, so that self-reflection becomes self-awareness, and self-awareness becomes an opening to the Spirit, and the Spirit leads us into transformation.  We pause on Ash Wednesday to consider our own falseness in order to then see how beautiful our True Self is, and to hear God’s call to move toward it.

May this journey of Lent be a blessing for you:  may your True Self rise from the ashes.

Perhaps our Biggest Religious Mistake

deep-breathThe writings of Richard Rohr, in particular, have helped me to appreciate what is perhaps the biggest mistake we have made when it comes to religion:  we have disconnected the outer system/symbols of belief from the inner experience of God, or the divine.

In an earlier age, belief systems and inner experience were intimately connected.  Indeed, Rohr and others would argue that they were connected from the beginning of each tradition, but over time, under the influence of what we might call Western rationalism, outer belief systems and inner experience lost their intimacy.  In large part, this was the result of people losing touch with the profound notion that the realm of our inner experience was precisely the place where we were meant to meet God.  The rituals and spiritual practices of the world’s religions were meant to help us delve more deeply into our interior selves, to discover (in Judeo-Christian language) the image of God within us — which is the same as discovering God’s presence within us.  Outer belief systems were also meant to point us toward interior truths.

In the Christian tradition, for example, the story of Jesus is not simply the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but is offered as the story that defines the spiritual journey of the Christian.  The outward, historical journey of Jesus is a map for navigating our own interior journey away from what Rohr would call the False Self toward the True Self — another way of describing the image of God within us.  When we speak of Christian beliefs in the Trinity, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, the “day of the Lord”, among others, we are not simply describing things about God and about Jesus.   We are, at the same time, talking about our own spiritual journeys.  Each of these beliefs is meant to connect to and be verified by our own inner experience.  Interestingly, Rohr points out that for people who have never touched this inner experience of God, even if just fleetingly, this kind of talk doesn’t make a lot of sense, and is, indeed, often heard as being a bit heretical.

Yet, the damage caused by this disconnection between outer belief system and inner experience is substantial.  One of the fruits of that disconnection is that the belief system loses credibility.  When we speak, for example, of Jesus as the incarnation of God and of his having been raised from the dead, we are speaking of things that, in their outward forms, lie completely outside human experience.  We propose them, then, as articles of faith that must be believed for their own sake — “because they are true” — and expect that people will simply accept those beliefs, and find some way to make them meaningful.  In the end, the only way these beliefs do become meaningful in any lasting, transformative way is when we can connect them to the inner experience of God that is possible in any human life.

Another side effect of this disconnection is the tendency to replace the inner experience of God with moralism.  Rather than finding that inner “place” where we participate in God and God participates in us, we too often seek to impose a rigid morality from the outside, believing that adhering to a strict moral code will somehow bring us closer to God.  We have forgotten that a truly moral life unfolds from that inner place of divine and human cooperation, rather than from enforcement of an external code (despite the fact that St. Paul was rather clear about this).  This is not to say that law should be abandoned — it is simply to say, with Paul, that law cannot take us where we want to go, and it cannot substitute for the actual experience of God.

Richard Rohr sums up the problem this way:

Our True Self remains untouched for most of us, because any direct experience of God or explicit union with God was blocked, denied, and largely declared impossible.  It always had to be mediated by a Bible, priest, minister, church, or sacrament, and very often the mediators, and the defending of their mediations, became the primary message itself.

-Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, p. 125

It’s not possible to discuss all the nuances of this in a short blog post.  But I hope this might be enough to help us come to terms with the way in which we so often have lost the point of religion.  It is not, and never has been, about assenting to a particular set of beliefs, no matter how strange and alien they may seem.  It is about learning to discover ourselves in God and God in ourselves, and to be transformed by the encounter.  The Bible, priests, ministers, churches, and sacraments were never meant to mediate between us and God; rather, they were meant to point us toward the depth of reality, including the depths of our own selves.  In the end, the rituals and beliefs of our traditions only become meaningful when they acquire a “hook” into our own deep, inner selves, so that the truth spoken “out there” finds the truth spoken inside each of us.

As it is noted in the Second Letter of Peter, all of these things God has given us so that through them, we “may become participants in the divine nature.”  We have too often settled for something much less.

Celebrating Difference, Overcoming Otherness

black_sheepIn the fourth chapter of his book, Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr points to something that lies at the very heart of the Gospel:  that Jesus calls us to celebrate difference while overcoming otherness.

Rohr makes this point while speaking of the way in which Jesus, in John’s Gospel, uses the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep to speak about himself and his followers.  In the course of teaching about this metaphor, Jesus says,

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

In saying that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”, Jesus is speaking of people who are different from those he is addressing.  Jesus knows that his listeners imagine that these others are not simply different, but they are other:  they belong to a different “fold”; they are a different people, with different ways and different customs, and so they are other:  alien, foreign, unknown, and thus dangerous.   But the voice of Jesus seeks to draw these others into one “flock”; notice that  he changes terms here, using the word “flock” rather than “fold”.  The flock is a different sort of entity:  it is a collection of folds, a coming together of peoples in a way that does not seek to eliminate difference (Jesus has no desire for uniformity).  But the flock is nevertheless one, because while the differences inherent in the various folds remain, the otherness has been overcome.  The sheep, listening to the voice of Jesus, have learned to celebrate difference while transcending otherness.

The very pattern of Jesus’ ministry, of course, reflects this.  He spends a great deal of his time among people whose differences have made them “others”, and alienated them from their families and communities.  This is often the result of circumstances that are beyond their control, like physical or mental disease or economic disparities.  When Jesus heals such people, when he helps them find divine love and forgiveness, he always sends them back into their communities — back among the people who cast them out for their otherness — and, by so doing, he forces both the formerly other and their community to find a way to reintegrate them, to find a way to overcome the sense of otherness that has been at the heart of their relationship, often for a very long time.

Interestingly, we almost never hear that part of the story.  We don’t know how these outcasts and their families and communities managed this integration.  But we know that the people involved must have been forever changed by the experience.

Modern American culture is a strange entity.  At one and the same time, it celebrates difference while using the very differences between us to keep in place a strong sense of otherness and alienation.  We celebrate the American myth that we are a great melting pot, while at the same time preserving a keen sense of who is “other”.  And, sadly, religious people — and Christian people — are often the best at keeping our various folds from coming together as one flock.

When we really deeply consider the teaching of Jesus, and when we really take in the pattern of his life, the task before us seems rather clear:  celebrate difference, overcome otherness, and stop maintaining the walls the separate us.