leave the past in ashes
There’s a little phrase that we used to sing during the distribution of ashes that really captured my attention (I liked it so much I set it to music twice), and that I think sums up our purpose for the season of Lent: Leave the past in ashes, and turn to God with tears and fasting.
I always try to keep everything about spirituality in the positive light. Even asceticism I try to view in a positive light, not concentrating on its penitential aspects so much (and avoiding at all costs the word “mortification”!), as much as on asceticism as joyful acts of training the senses with the aim so of stilling the mind to make it available for prayer and meditation. And in the confessional I was trained to be ever so pastorally sensitive, and usually I see most sins, even if they are grave matters, and even if there was full knowledge, as rarely having full consent, there is such a lack of freedom in so many people. Of course without making light of someone’s sins, we simply give them to God, count on God’s mercy as it is promised to us by the scriptures, and commit ourselves to avoiding the “near occasions” that lead us down those slippery slopes.
I’ve been reading lately some critiques of the “evolutionary optimism” of certain schools of thought like that of Teilhard de Chardin, that everything is just slowly, slowly working itself out––“It’s all good!”––, but which don’t take into account evil and sin; and I had to admit I think at first glance I could be accused of that. But in my defense I fall back on the distinction yet again of Cornell West: Optimism is a secular construct. No, I’m not necessarily an optimist, because I truly believe that we also have to grapple with evil, and with sin. In this book we have been reading with the formation guys (Spiritual Passages, by Benedict Groeschel) he makes the point that “evil is not a being, but it is a reality.” We don’t believe as other religions might that what we consider evil is an equal and opposite force to the goodness of God; but it is still a force, and a force to be reckoned with. And in ways great and small, this is what also we grapple with in the season of Lent, and especially on Ash Wednesday when we are reminded of the fragility of life, how quick it passes, and how urgent this work of being totally available to God really is. There is a total positive thrust to Lent––this joyful preparation for Easter, an Advent-like joyful expectation of the Bridegroom. But Jesus also taught that the union of fasting and prayer is the only way to overcome certain kinds of demon. And this is what passes into the ascetical tradition of the church and desert monasticism, that the union of fasting and prayer––“prayer with tears” Saint Benedict says, along with “compunction of heart and self-denial” (RB 49)––is sometimes the only way to overcome certain “passions,” compulsions, patterns of behavior; in other words, the only way to overcome certain what we call “sins.”
If you are in a state of serious sin, this season was made for you. While I am not always an optimist, I am a man of hope, and this is a season of hope. Why I say that is because the church says, and our scriptures teach us, that we can “leave the past in ashes and turn to God.” In the ancient times of Christianity there was a one-time chance to do this called exomologesis. Now we say you can do that anytime, but this is a privileged time each year for that exercise, to prepare to celebrate Easter with joy and freedom.
But even if we aren’t wrapped up in any kind of serious sin, for most of us mere mortals there is still some work to do before we reach the holiness to which we are called. It’s these little things, these patterns, petty compulsions, like annoying little gnats, what the PRH program calls “DRRs”––Disproportionate Recurring Reactions––, what Martin Laird calls the “videos” that play on endless loop, that come from our scarred childhoods and our cultural baggage that keep leading us into the same quagmire over and over again, that we think we are going to have to live with for the rest of our lives. Even here, while we may not be optimistic that these can or will ever be conquered, the church holds out hope and says, “You may be a product of your environment, but you don’t have to be a victim of it anymore. Leave the past in ashes, and try this: turn to God with tears and fasting.” Sometimes the admission of our powerlessness and surrendering to the Power greater than us is the beginning of turning the corner. Stop the conversation! Dismantle the narrative! Leave the past in ashes! Turn to God.
But there’s more. We heard a beautiful ancient sermon this morning that taught us that while sanctifying the one who practices fasting, it also purifies our neighbor, “the profit overflows,” it said! I often like to think that we are here on this mountain praying and meditating for those who can’t, those who don’t have the luxury of a contemplative life on one of the most beautiful pieces of real estate on the planet. But along with that, perhaps part of our job is also doing penance for them too, doing penance for those who cannot do penance, maybe even fasting and praying and almsgiving in the name of those who are culpably ignorant of that fact that they even need fasting and prayer. Turning to God for the sake of the Body which is the whole church, all the baptized, the whole of humanity, all of creation that is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies. There is a lot of evil; there is a lot of sin abounding in our world; there is a lot to cry about; there are many reasons to fast and pray and do deeds of mercy, starting with our disregard for the dignity of life from the moment of conception to natural death rampant in our society, moving on to the evil of people in our societies not having adequate housing, food, employment, access to health care, especially when that is caused by greed. There are the countless victims and perpetrators of sexual assault and gun violence; there is the scourge of war, especially wars of aggression and wars in the name of religion and wars fought from computer screens, and the thousands of innocents that get caught in the crossfire, unnamed and forgotten. There is the evil of our idolatry of endless growth in the name of so-called progress that in the meantime is killing our ecosystems, wiping out tens of thousands of irreplaceable species of plants and animals, and changing our climate system, not to mention altering the God-given course of evolution, and not for the better.
The list could go on, but suffice it to say, just as there myriad reasons to pray for those who need or depend upon our prayers, so there are plenty of reasons for tears and fasting, almsgiving and doing penance. We’re not just doing it for ourselves: we’re doing it for the whole Body so that we can all celebrate the endless Easter with joy.