Wake up! The season of Lent is like an alarm clock that starts ringing on Ash Wednesday. As we journey through its forty days, we intend to become more and more awake, more and more conscious, more and more alive. Our hope is to be as fully present as we can be for the feast of Easter, the great celebration of the Life That Never Goes Away revealed in the Risen Jesus!
Wake up! That’s the root note in the chord of Lent. It is no accident that in the northern hemisphere, where the church calendar originated, it is also the time of spring. New life is waking from its winter death, the sun’s strength returns, and the natural world begins to vibrate more and more.
But waking from unconsciousness has always been a tricky adventure. For, the very tools and practices we use to wake up often begin to seem like the end in themselves. Traditionally, the time of Lent is a time for praying more, indulging our appetites less, and confessing our sins. It is coloured by a sombre, restrained tone. The practices we adopt, the fasts we observe, the letting go we do, can very easily become our focus rather than the intention of becoming more awake. In the Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday we hear Isaiah (Chapter 58) exhorting his people to realize that it is waking up to relationship with the Eternal, aligning with the energy of mercy and compassion and joy, rather than any prescribed action that is the true goal of the fast.
Fasting is sometimes much easier than waking up. Lent or not, all of our practices must be tempered by the constant reminder that the practice itself is not the goal. One of my favourite illustrations of this is a story from the Snowmass Conference as it was related to me by one of its participants. With the leadership of Fr. Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk, since the 1980s these conferences have brought together leading practitioners and great minds from many different spiritual paths to share dialogue and explore points of convergence. One year, the group was intent on releasing a statement about what they could agree on as a group in terms of spiritual practice. After much discussion they agreed that they could agree to a statement that each tradition found a practice of intentional silence (i.e. Meditation) to be integral to the spiritual journey. But one participant had another point of view and chose that moment to speak up. Roger LaBorde, who represented no spiritual community and who joined the conferences along with his teacher Gerald Red Elk, said the following:
Meditation is something you all do to kill time before you decide to wake up!
Roger’s gift, of course, is to play the trickster, the clown who jars us out of our complacency. His insight is not that meditation is a waste of time but that it is only useful if it is employed as part of a larger intention to be awake. Fasting, prayer, liturgy, or anything at all can become a barrier if we lose sight of what our larger vision of wakefulness is. Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus did not write anything down or give his disciples a revolutionary, effective spiritual practice to focus on. He knew that human beings love to try and concretize and possess and control the means of our salvation, which is one of the code words in Christianity for awakening. He also knew, maybe because he loved the prophet Isaiah’s writings so much, that as soon as we succeed in concretizing, possessing or controlling then the icon that beckons us forward becomes simply a mirror that leads us nowhere.
And so we are led, in Lent, to liminal space. For, as embodied spirits in our experience of space and time we must use symbol, story and metaphor, poetry, prose and song, as tools and vehicles on the journey toward the One. On the path of awakening, the path of “ascension”, we learn to use these symbols as tools rather than as idols, as guides rather than as Gods. The paradox is, of course, that we cannot abandon them too soon for it is in working with the “not yet,” the world of symbol, that we are prepared for the “already”, the world beyond form.
There are two notes in the Lenten chord that seem to be particularly well suited to our journey of waking up. On Ash Wednesday in the Christian tradition, as our foreheads are marked with ash, we hear the words spoken: Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. We will die. Nothing in this world of space and time is permanent. Everything is passing away. The reality of death has always been a key component in the ritualization intended to bring us into greater awareness. Initiation into the sacred mysteries of every culture involves some sort of ritual death, a stark reminder that the only thing there is to choose is life in the present moment.
One place this process of initiation is preserved in our technological, post-modern Western world is in the 12 Step movement. In particular, Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. With the help of this guidepost, millions of people have become more and more awake to themselves, more and more healed and whole. The insight captured by this remarkably inspired movement can also be found in the more dusty recesses of the Christian tradition. The tone of Step Four is the reason why Lent has traditionally been a season of self-examination, confession and penitence. When we make a searching and fearless moral inventory we must enter death. We must die to the person we think we are, that we pretend to be, that we wish we were, the masks we present to the world. Through this death we can come to new life, to a new state of wakefulness as we cast off the illusion of past and present and enter more fully into the eternal moment that is before us.
May we all observe a Holy Lent!
Ernest Morrow is an Anglican Priest, Montessori teacher, wilderness program instructor, music leader, philosopher and faithful servant of the Lord. Ernest directs the Community of the Reconciliation and serves in a half-time position as Assistant Priest at St. Philip Anglican Church in Victoria, BC. Ernest & his wife, Jeannie Achuff have one bright and busy toddler, Curzon.