Ash Wednesday Week
Sunday the temperatures plunged to 2 above, and the weather prophecy was for blizzard snow overnight and into Monday. Fr. Cyprian, Br. Andrew, and I were scheduled for our second virus shots at Mercy Hospital in Springfield on Sunday afternoon. I had planned to return to my hermitage after that and then go to the monastery on Monday. But the weather people linked the future with such adjectives as “bitter,” “brutal,” and even “dangerous.” So the decision decided itself. I went in tandem with them to the monastery, with Fr. Thaddeus the driver deciding we would toast our courage with hot chocolate at a friendly gas station. I usually spend my birthday monastically (Feb. 13th, 91)) but this year the early Ash Wednesday made the spiritual choice. The back roads were snow-packed, the freeways clear, and Route OO an adventure. We drove basically alone with falling snow and rising thoughts, occasionally passing a snowplow. Cattle were like frozen sentinels, their top sides covered with crystalline snow. The world was on tip-toes, waiting.
The snow began in earnest by Sunday Vespers, and lasted well into Monday -- temperatures below zero and fierce winds justifying the “brutal” language. The birds must have an inclining of what was coming, as they all had plump bellies, content in Tuesday’s brilliant sunlight to dance on the snow crust. I was here, but could I ever leave, as Tuesday night the snow returned and lasted into Wednesday, yielding upwards to 6 inches? The only physical change I saw in the monastery was an aesthetic 2 X 4 lattice-work on the sides and back of the metal roof for vehicles outside the kitchen door. The Vietnamese monks do not have snow in South Vietnam where they lived, only in North Vietnam. Our private rooms were relatively warm, having individual thermostats, and so was the church -- but the Refectory, Chapter Room, and kitchen were uncomfortably cold due to furnace complications. The altar was adorned with a purple orchid and, unbelievably, someone had coaxed a dogwood branch into bloom -- its vase wrapped with colored paper decorations apparently left over from the Lunar New Years celebration.
My week assignments were to be priest on Tuesday and Sunday, antiphon reader at the offices, and organist for Compline. Our books for Lenten reading were to be placed in a box to be distributed Ash Wednesday eve. I chose Cardinal Sarah’s “The Power of Silence.” If it doesn’t turn out to be engaging, I brought in reserve Olivier Clement’s “The Roots of Christian Mysticism,” a gem worthy of a re-read. I’ll work as well through the Lenten selections in my own book “Reasons for the Seasons,” and continue working my way through the Bible. I had finished Hosea, thankful for having reached a God of passionate love, tempering the previous prophets’ detailing of God’s destructive temper tantrums. And Joel stood in readiness, an appropriate prophet for Lent: “Return to the Lord with all your hearts, rend you hearts and not your garments.” I identified two aspects of my life worthy of Lenten attention: my obsession with doing, and my periodic desire for affirmation, evidencing envy of those who receive it. Two spiritual disciplines in need of focus are a mantra rendered as natural as breathing, and schedule periods for practicing the three types of contemplation reflecting relationship to the Trinity.
The Tuesday homily centered in identifying how our readings bifurcate Lent into two parts. The first three weeks are from the synoptic gospels, providing the demanding teachings of Jesus -- ending with his insistence that we become perfect as God is perfect. Ironically, the goal is not to bring us to perfection, but to the realization that despite all our tryings, we will fail. The intent is “compunction” -- puncturing our illusions about ourselves, deflating the balloon of our egos. The goal is to expose the human condition characterizing us all. Only then are we prepared for the second half of Lent, when all our readings are from John -- moving us from an ethical to a Christological thrust. Here we no longer encounter demands of what WE are to do, but declarations about what GOD has done -- loving us with an unconditional love that in no way do we deserve, but is offered in spite of our failures. Our Genesis reading discloses, in fact, that God is so grieved by our behavior that He is ready to obliterate us from the face of the earth. This is the first time that God makes such a rash decision, and it is Noah who reminds God of his covenant with us, so that God relents. Later that reminder will be by Abraham, then Moses, then Jonah, and definitively by Jesus. And, in turn, it falls on us to take our turn in calling out in the darkness like a child with a nightmare, crying for the grieving God to comfort and to hold us -- so that, as in Hosea, God will cry out in return with flowing tears, “How can I ever give you up?” In this way, we are prepared to hear deeply on Ash Wednesday the words used in administering ashes: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The poet T. S. Eliot put it this way: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” And as Elvis Presley used to sing, “You ain’t nothin' but a hound dog." The alternative words are best kept to begin the final three weeks of Lent: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Sunday’s Mass readings again make clear that the prerequisite for hearing the gospel is to be made humble. The historian Charles Beard provides the backdrop: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is true of Presidents, Abbots, and actually any of us who are given any kind of responsibilities, for we are tempted to clutch onto it, feeding our egos by arrogantly making it our own possession and right. I cringe when, over and over again, Israel’s kings begin to lord it over other kings, force them to pay homage, have their enemies lick their boots, and covet wealth. Inevitably in the next chapter we will read of their demise. None of us are exempt from forfeiting humility for the two major sins: greed and arrogance.
And in today’s gospel we learn that this is true for Jesus as well. Even after his baptism God does not regard him as yet ready for ministry. He must first undergo his own Lent -- the full 40 days. Jesus will be ready only after battling the temptations that we all face: the seductions of prestige, power, and possessions. And when he finally emerges, what we have is a humbled Jesus, purged of the temptation to make his own decisions by his own power to accomplish his own ends. Throughout the rest of his life, he keeps retreating into the hills almost daily to pray for help in letting God lead each moment, wherever that will lead. Poignant is the time of his greatest temptation, sweating blood in realizing at Gethsemane that he could escape crucifixion by fleeing over the hill, but finally able to cry out, “Not my will but thine be done.”
Confession is a major gift that the Church provides for bringing us to such humility. Yet often we render it shallow by confessing only the things we have done. While this is important, it is only the beginning. We need to confess what we have failed to do -- which is even harder. In addition, we are to scrutinize our words. As the Office of Prime puts it, we are “to check and restrain our tongue” so that it not be “an instrument of discord.” What we say can sometimes be more destructive than what we do. Even further, we are to confess also our thoughts -- the way we rehearse grudges, stewing over put-downs, jealousies, and judgments. Even if we can refrain from speaking them, they nevertheless contaminate our minds. And finally Prime slyly mentions “the folly of impure thoughts.” In my book for Lent, Cardinal Sarah becomes more concrete, as when we fear that others may be praised while we go unnoticed; that others may be loved more than we; and that we might be forgotten. So perhaps the greatest of sins is to begin our Confession with the words, “I really don’t have much to confess this time.” Lent is the time for us to get truly honest in order that we can experience in depth the beauty of the words concluding our confession: “I absolve you of all your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace.” This is the amazing moment of knowing that our slate has been erased clean, and that we have been given a new beginning.
As I finished this report Sunday morning, I am ready to face the snowy roads. If you receive it by email, know that somehow I made it home.
May you have a blessed Lent.