Ash Wednesday inaugurates the Lenten season for Christians, but the season itself, tied to the natural year, as are so many Christian observances, has deep spiritual invitations for all of us, regardless of our theological path and orientation. And invitations can always be accepted or refused, just as our inclinations can be both explored and honored for what they tell us about our growth, or need for deeper healing. Or not. Always our choice.
I’m unable to address the gifts of Lent without offering some clarity regarding my own spiritual orientation; I do so with openness and respect for your own. What does it mean that my blog title connects the daily round to living from the spirit level?
As a chaplain who has tended people’s spirits in times of body-mind-spirit crises, I’m mindful that the stance of “spiritual but not religious” is clearly growing among humankind. I created and led (gratefully and humbly) far more of my patients’ memorial services than I attended at their family churches. Yet, while foregoing membership in a faith community, they still reached for and connected with their spirits in ways that were evident, profound, and sustaining to themselves and others. We are, I believe, as Pierre Teilhard said, “spiritual beings having a human experience,” and deny this at our peril. Our spiritual needs are as real as our physical, and perhaps more earnestly in need of tending, since they are what makes us eternal. “Church” is where your spirit is affirmed, fed, challenged, and evolved in Love.
I am not a proselytizer of any institutional religion, but I also have derived rewarding challenges and deep comfort from studying the beliefs and practices humans have created throughout history–and that are still evolving–to name and integrate the Great Mystery, the human experience that is beyond words, or confined to the vocabulary of the liminal: Holy, Sacred, Transcendent, or simply, Love.
We know that Christianity adopted ancient nature-based rites and observances to integrate their archetypes with new stories and learning; my own spiritual journey leads me to honor the gifts of my Catholic Christianity most authentically by reintegrating practices that honor the Earth (Franciscan, Native American), and the deeper meaning beneath Christian imagery (Jungian symbolism, archetypes, the arts). I have received great spiritual gifts from my studies of Sufism, Taoism, Buddhism, and more. My spirituality is not a set of practices I do, but who I am; spirit means breath, and I do not breathe only an hour a week under the direction of anyone ordained to so direct my journey.
I have grown beyond the childhood God who was too often offered as male, judgmental, focused on logic, my sins, and the law as outlined in doctrine. For me, the Sacred is compassionate, mysterious, creative, a deep blend of feminine and masculine qualities and invitations, and–always–focused on my healing and growth in relationship to Love. All human growth occurs in stages that guide outward and beyond to the Great All…if we choose to live the examined life and self-correct, when necessary.
My orientation as a Catholic Christian, leaning heavily towards the mystic end of the spectrum, does not for a second prevent me from admitting and acknowledging the sins of the institutional church and the damage it’s done to its possible blessings in the world, but neither do I apologize for deriving spiritual direction and peace from the elemental messages Catholic Christianity offers (and as I interpret them): We are here to love and be loved. With our first in-breath, we arrive gifted and called to fulfill those gifts, though a lifetime of concurrently pursuing our healing, by which I mean our wholeness. The two words have the same etymology.
We fail, and we harm ourselves and others, and when we do, we’re invited to admit it and reconcile with Love and our communities. We offer forgiveness to others when they fail. We are made in the image of our Creator/Love, which, for me, means that we are formed to be co-creators, artists whose medium is life-on-Earth and whose sole technique is Love.
I think these ideas are wider than confinement within the concept of religion; they map the terrain of what it is to be human, and can certainly inspire us wherever we are on our journey. (And, please consider that religion holds no constrictive intent, etymologically, any more than does the choice to pledge our deepest self to one relationship in marriage. The word means to bind ourselves in reverence and obligation to a spiritual path. Our choice.)
I welcome the symbols of Lent and their contemplation, which are also accessible to the “spiritual but not religious” for inspiration. The crucifix symbolizes the human capacity for both the profound evil that would so desecrate another human, and for the profound love that would sacrifice itself on behalf of others. It affirms that our Source/Love is with us in our suffering, and that our existence is by nature transformative, because of our capacities for compassion and forgiveness. The shape of the cross is our human story: we are literally contradictions of ego and union that meet where Love holds us in all of our mysterious desires, attachments, and suffering, and allows us to transcend them and merge with that Love. Death is a door to new life.
Lent asks us to consider that life is never about perfection, power, and “winning,” but perhaps about the consciousness we bring to our woundedness and brokenness, and how healing ourselves and others allows us to participate more fully in what life truly offers: the invitation to love as we are Loved. I’ve always wondered, does the crucifixion make Love/God more human? Or does it subsume the human into deeper unity with Love/God? Perhaps both. Whom do we crucify, and when do we feel our own suffering most deeply? Lent is a season rich with self-reflection, if we’re open and courageous (living from our heart).
But again, whatever path your spirituality follows, the seasons likely affect its course. Winter, in our hemisphere, is seen as a time of burrowing, stillness, listening, and, often, the indulgence of the physical from autumn through the holidays. January and February can feel particularly sluggish and often our physical exercise decreases as well. Winter is both tomb and womb, where we’re dying to our old patterns and gestating changed perceptions and choices. Spring’s growing length of daylight stimulates our own spiritual and physical unfurling, as does the birdsong’s shift to spring and nesting hymns, the smells of thawing earth, the emergence of buds and splashing, flitting, erupting lifeforms everywhere.
We’re ready, but for what? In what ways are we yearning to grow? Are we called more by shadow or light in this new season? Either might be the song we hear at this time. For me, the Lenten season invites specific exploration of such questions. Winter fills me with dreams and images regarding my desires for growth and experiences; Lent clarifies the ways I’ll fuel and direct these goals when I emerge in the world again (our annual resurrection). Lent is like the staging area for the next steps on our journey.
It’s a time of austerity, of surrendering the more indulgent winter habits, of paring down and simplifying, sacrificing the clinging to comfort necessitated by winter for the sparer, sturdier independence required to see ourselves as we are. What choices and behaviors are inhibiting our flowering in the ease and joy that Love would have us experience? What gifts are we denying? Where are we pushing Love away, and how can we “convert,” or turn back towards Love? We may manifest our yearnings in spring cleaning, planting seeds, getting outside for longer walks, listening to different music, reading different genres of books, and expressing ourselves in different language. (Listen to your verbs and adjectives.)
If Lent is the staging area for our next steps, the bright promise of Easter is the ribbon-cutting: new life has arrived: go forth in love and joy. Be the art of Love in the world, always new, always transforming.
A commitment to living from the spirit level is, for me, greatly deepened and inspired by established and proven templates for spiritual growth, further enriched by honoring the Earth’s seasons and re-visioning the ancient archetypes that human spirituality has transformed and deepened throughout history. Take, eat, and be changed. I wish you all the blessings for deepening that the season offers. May you exit winter’s tomb in joy, and dance in spring’s new light, transfigured.
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