Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What Bliss, That We are Dust

Ash Wednesday -- such a dark and solemn day in so many churches.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  No matter the care you take to be healthy, to be successful, to be beautiful, all will turn to dust and worms and ashes.  You will die, and you will be judged, perhaps by an angry and vengeful God, so you'd best use this season of Lent to beat yourself into submission before it's God's turn to beat you into submission.

I've noticed in the past few years that some clergy have taken to the streets with Ashes to Go for the folk who don't make it to church on Ash Wednesday.  The rationale is that people these days are too busy to get to church, but they'd like to "get their ashes" anyway.  I suspect, however, that however real their busyness may be, it's not the real reason why churches are increasingly empty on Ash Wednesday.  I suspect that the deeper reality is that the message that has traditionally come with those ashes is terrifying, and instinctively people avoid it.

There is a much larger story to Ash Wednesday, though, a deeper truth hidden in the dust and ashes we so fear.   Just as Jesus showed us in his own passion and death, in our death is our liberation.  In our willingness to abandon our egos and agendas and self-development programs lies the path to actual freedom.  In acknowledging our impermanence lies our very bliss.

Dame Julian of Norwich experienced her visions of God's limitless love and mercy towards his
cherished children in the context of a near-deathly illness.  St. Francis of Assisi carried the stigmata of Christ's crucifixion as bodily reminders of the inevitability of death itself, calling the end of life "Sister Death."  Ramana Maharshi felt himself near death at a young age, and laid himself down to fully experience his transition, at which point he recognized the presence of divine consciousness within himself.

Rather than the solemn and terrifying threat of damnation, Ash Wednesday may be received as God's invitation to burn away our obsessions and illusions until all that is left is Love Itself, the pure consciousness of God.  What bliss that we are but dust -- the dust of the earth, and the dust of the stars -- and that God's Love is what animates this collection of passing matter.  I will use this season of Lent to discover what God can burn away, and leave me with the Divine Alone.


Friday, February 5, 2016

Love Letters from the Past

Dear Ones,

In a fit of New Year’s clean-up-and-organizing fervor, I decided to collect up all of the baskets and piles and drawers of letters and cards and Christmas pictures that had nestled into various corners of the house.  My goal was to eliminate the envelopes with addresses I no longer needed, and consolidate the cards and letters into a single container.

I achieved that much, but what I couldn’t have imagined was how much more I gained in the process.  Little did I know, but there were old friends, former parishioners, semi-distant relatives, so many lovely souls who had been trying to keep in touch over the years.  For many reasons, I’m pretty sure I’m the one who dropped my end of the tenuous thread that held those relationships together.  

Why?  What a mix of difficult thoughts and emotions here – shame, sadness, confusion, mostly shame, actually.  I thought I’d left parish life under a cloud, one that I wasn’t strong enough to lift on my own.  I didn’t see that others either wanted to lift it for me, or never really believed it was there.  I just hid there, wishing it would go away.

And now?  I’m not sure about the cloud – it may have dissipated, or rolled away like fog on the shore, or just tucked itself into some obscure corner of my soul.  What I am aware of now is a feeling of gratitude, a desire to acknowledge all these dear people whose kindness went unacknowledged but not unappreciated over the years.  I’m not sure how to do that, except by a card or note of thanks, and I’ll probably take that up as a practice in the coming weeks.

If you are reading this, and think you may be someone who has not heard from me in a while, please know that the precious relics of your caring friendship are still here, and still cherished.  Thanks be to God for you.