by W. Christopher Evans
To hear the praises of Orcas,
we may have to sail silently;
To smell the incense of Redwoods,
we may have to build without beams;
To see the majesty of Mountains,
we may have to relearn habits of sleep;
To taste the goodness of Salmon,
we may have to unstopper streams.
To touch the glory of Earthworms,
we may have to garden green.
To live as priests amid this world,
we may have to trust our dying—
Soon Pentecost will fall upon us again. And then a Sunday later, we will celebrate the ongoing work of the Holy Trinity to gather all things into communion to be followed by what Anglicans once called The Season after Trinity. And yet, I am still stuck on my insights about Lent.
I have a confession to make: Lent has been one of my least favorite seasons of the Church for a very long time. While words and images of the Crucified God, Jesus Christ, move my heart and mind and all my being, the practices of response to this One associated with Lent always filtered themselves through my own brokenness.
You see, I am prone to the disease we call perfectionism. Perfectionism is a disease, a brokenness, a sin that cannot deal with our mutability and vulnerability. Perfectionism is a profession of never measuring up, and trying to measure up anyway by means of oneself. At heart, perfectionism is about being God for oneself or earning God for oneself.
The irony is that the disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, intended to lead us deeper into God and deeper into life and designed to lead us out of ourselves toward God and for others, have tended to turn me in upon myself—what the mystic of the Theologia Germanica and Martin Luther define as sin or the self turned in upon the self. Lent became hell—where hell is our being completely turned in upon ourselves to the exclusion of God and all else. So I stopped doing Lent in all things but rite.
Something changed this year. I entered this Lent pre-nourished by the Psalms, gardening, poetry, and daily birdsong. I began putting together final chapters of a small work on the Psalms that included brief offices for morning and evening. And I began test-praying these Christocentric-Trinitiarian creation-oriented prayers.
Somewhere along the way of these practices, our being dust has become good news for me. Our being dust is profession of our need for God in each and every moment. And it is a profound profession of God’s love for human beings and all living beings of earth in all of our incompleteness and vulnerability—for we are given and share the breath of life.
To profess we are dust is to acknowledge our relatedness to and solidarity with all created beings—elemental, living, sentient, as fellow creatures created in and by and for Christ. To profess we are dust is, to paraphrase F.D. Maurice, to make praise of God’s relatedness to us and solidarity with us in the Incarnation, Jesus Christ. To profess we are dust is to remember our Baptism, our being freed in Christ to live and love as human creatures.
So to hear this news spoken to me and to have this news inscribed on my forehead with ashes and oil in the mark of the cross gave me pause. This mark, first given us in Baptism, is a reminder of our absolute dependence on God, of which death is the most final reminder. To be marked on the forehead by the cross in ashes and oil shifted how I think about and experience repentance and conversion.
At the heart of repentance is not a mere confession of these and those sins. Rather in confessing these and those sins, we find ourselves professing our need for and lack of God.
And in absolution, we are turned around to a world bathed in God’s love and embrace. To confess our sins is to confess our lack and need is to confess our utter dependence is to confess our being beloved. My Lent began on this insight into that form of praise we call confession.
I say form of praise because confession is its own profession of faith or trust in the God Who Is this way with us as revealed in Jesus Christ, namely steadfast love toward us—even unto death, death on a cross at human hands. God’s steadfast love and our trust are the movement of the Psalms be they praise, thanksgiving, confession, imprecatory, or lament.
To acknowledge our utter dependence on God has the paradoxical effect of opening our eyes to the needs of others and to our reliance on others to live. This effect pertains to how we are in our human social worlds as well as to how we are among all creatures and the whole of creation. We enter ecstasy, the going out of ourselves to be with and for others. And that leads us to embrace ourselves with humor and humility as creatures of clay. We can go with others and be for others because in Christ even death is become a sign of God’s faithfulness to us and a daily means of our being more fully alive, our being with and for others.
An old lens fell away, and I acquired a new Lenten lens this year that looks out through the purple, violet, pinkish hues to see shades of life in green.
But what does it mean to live Lent the rest of the year? After all, St. Benedict instructs us in his Rule to live all of life as Lent. I have always balked at his instruction given my proclivity to perfectionism. This year, I read his words afresh.
The Rule of Saint Benedict could just as easily be called A Small Catechism on Discipleship or A Manual of Christian Communal Wisdom. Rule in this case is closer to what our Jewish kin understand of Torah or Instruction. Rule is a Way of Living in response to God’s goodness and gifting. In my lectures on indigenous Christianities, I have noted time and again that communal ascetical practices are aimed toward our living and growing in harmony with God, one another, and creation. They are whole-making and life-giving responses to the God Who makes a gift of Godself to us as Jesus Christ. William Temple puts it this way,
Man is a part of the system of nature, whatever else he may be beside. He must study the ways of nature and follow them, for he is utterly dependent on the natural world. Consequently, he must not think of natural resources as there for him to exploit to his own immediate advantage, but must rather co-operate with the natural process and so, in the long run, gain a far greater advantage. This is of primary importance in relation to man’s treatment of the soil. Nature is man’s partner rather than his servant; he is dependent on it for the means of life. For the Christian this is recognized as a pact of creatureship. The treatment of the earth by man the exploiter is not only imprudent but sacrilegious. We are not likely to correct our hideous mistakes in this realm unless we recover the mystical sense of our one-ness with nature. I labour this precisely because many people think it fantastic; I think it is fundamental to sanity (Temple, The Hope of a New World, 67).
In this sense, discipleship and wisdom are two different ways of writing about a way of living in response to Christ. Somehow, I had not applied my own observations to St. Benedict’s instruction or to the Season of Lent. Now I do.
Wisdom is a peculiar social science. An openness exists in wisdom to be vulnerable, to learn from failures, to discover new things, to even learn from sins. Wisdom has a trial and error quality about it that over the long run becomes tradition, the accumulated learning of the community about the way, the store of life-giving and whole-making patterned responses to the Gospel, Jesus Christ.
Wisdom can be revisited, adapted, revised as new times call for new interpretations of instructions or even development of new practices. And in each age, distinct practices and interpretations of received wisdom will emerge to make Jesus known in this time and place and culture while always drawing up in themselves that which has been passed on to us from faithful ancestors.
And for our age, living Lenten wisdom in the greening time, the season devoted to the work of the Life-giving Spirit among us and the age in which the pilgrim Church finds ourselves, cannot avoid considering ecology and creation.
Take our patterns of consumption.
The practice that considers our patterns of consumption has a traditional term, “fasting.” And how quickly at Easter we throw aside any Lenten wisdom practice of this sort, no matter how meager our discipline, rather than reinvigorate it in light of the Resurrection, Ascension, and Sending of the Spirit. We moan about giving up chocolate or meat and rejoice when we can indulge incessantly again.
But fasting is about balance, harmony, and life. If we peel away the layers of this practice, century after century what emerges is not a body-hating, pleasure-hating orientation, but a concern for vulnerable others’ having life in a world of limited and finite capacities.
Limited and finite and vulnerable are dirty words for us in the overdeveloped world. We believe that growth and more and security are inevitable. This is the language of our economy. We like to hear about the abundance of God in Christ and translate that into attitudes and practices of abundance on the level of creatures that do not take into account the fullness of the Incarnation.
After all, the Second Person made himself limited and finite and vulnerable for us, not shirking our estate, but entering fully into our condition even to the point of being pinned to a tree like an insect. As St. Paul warns the Church in Corinth, Christ does not burst forth from this finitude in the Resurrection, so that we might fly or flee the bonds of earth. Christ bursts forth to lead us more deeply into embrace of and care for creaturehood. That is, embrace of and care for limits, finitude, and the vulnerable.
We do not want to hear about what limited and finite and vulnerability imply, namely, the possibility of scarcity because we do not experience scarcity. Yet, many on this earth do experience scarcity and our words of abundance to us and to them cannot mask that we as a society are living for ourselves and beyond the capacities of earth—even to the point of perverting the Gospel to justify our overuse.
But, we cannot escape facing our creaturehood. Even the capacity of the soil is limited and finite for the production of grains and vegetables and fruits. And we are poisoning and overworking the soil. The capacity for rivers to support salmon and trout and frogs is vulnerable. And we are poisoning and diverting the rivers. I could go on.
No, a truly Christian practice of the abundance of God’s Resurrection grace in a limited and finite and vulnerable world is not a practice of growth and more and security in the language of American economics, but a practice of enough and sharing, and yes, abstinence in the language of God’s Economy revealed in the Incarnation.
Fasting in every season is a way of living oriented toward our not taking more than need and a way of considering the needs of others. Such a practice considers the needs of other human beings as well as those of other elemental, living, and sentient beings. Unlike the practices of American economics, such a practice considers not only enough and sharing and abstinence, but also fragility, uniqueness, and beauty in any economic calculus precisely because the Creator became a creature in Christ Jesus. As William Temple reminds us,
Within human society we must aim at establishing that relation of the various functions or activities to one another which corresponds to their contribution to the general well-being. Thus a land-owner must not be allowed to develop his land for his own profit in a way which destroys its capacity to produce wealth or otherwise minister to the general good for generations to come. In this connexion, let us remember that natural beauty is a spiritual treasure; to convert it into ugliness for personal economic gain is wicked. (Temple, The Hope of a New World, 67).
Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular