Ash Wednesday in the House of Christianity

The cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ’s victory over death. The words “Remember that thou art dust and that to dust thou shall return” are not to be taken as the quasi-form of a kind of “sacrament of death” (as if such a thing were possible). It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.

Thomas Merton

dsc00665I attended an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service this evening. The program they passed out gave us Merton’s introductory passage to glimpse what Christianity was not. As I stood in a chapel I had last entered when I attended a Rufus Wainright concert (not exactly a journey into the sacred as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John might have it), I came to realize how much I have to learn about what Christianity is.

Sure, I’ve got the basics down and I understand what it was to be raised a Catholic kid in the 80s. But for all my reading, it was not until I watched a sparsely attended ritual held together with a crazy quilt of readings and quotations that I was able to look through the windows of Christianity in a new way and realize, despite its many doors, it is still just one large house.

Though I now have a smudge of ash upon my forehead, I did not remember the significance of this temporary mark when I decided to step in after work. I am sure that I knew once, but it was not the sort of information I ever had to retain. All I knew was that it made sense that I was in that chapel. I needed a place for quiet contemplation to mark the day and the remnants of my own history and the power of ancestral memory set me comfortably enough in the Christian fold.

Perhaps it was because I am not a student, but for all that I had the credentials of a Christian, I still felt like I stood outside and looked in the windows of their ritual.

This is not to say that I felt alienated. In fact, I felt the complete opposite.

I was amazed to realize that the sentiments included in the Litany of Penance so closely echoed untutored words I have whispered into my own soul. The language, that I know a younger, more recalcitrant version of myself would have found debasing, felt necessarily humble and honest. The professed admissions of failings and the hunger for reconciliation at first seemed too heavy a cross to bear, but then I realized that I force myself through such rigorous self examination all the time. And I am much less forgiving of my own sins than God promises to be…

Yes, it all made sense, and the prayers rang true.  Enough of me was at home there.

dsc00383But still, a portion of me observed from outside this house of Christ. That part of me stood rooted into the earth and felt the rain fall upon my face and trusted the sun would come out to dry me in time. I was able to love everything marks this first day of Lent because I know I am welcome in that building, but am comforted to know I can still step away in order to speak the language of a Yoga Sutra or an Arabic mantra.

Other faiths’ houses of worship do not offer the organic comfort that the Catholicism of my heritage does, but their traditions still offer sweet succor for the soul. Sitting in the warm embrace of Christ I was able to understand that every moment is sweeter when I can embrace all spiritual possibilities. Churches, mosques, and temples – they are a collection of neighbors’ homes planted in a circle on God’s beautiful green earth.

Deepened Connections, Deeper Love

In a post from this past Sunday, Christine at BlissChick gave us this line from Thomas Merton,

The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.

Christine carries her readers through a consideration of all the ways that we are so overcome by Christ’s example. Because he was too compassionate, loving , tolerant, we immediately give up on following his examples and teachings. We are mere limited mortals; it’s no use to even attempt to be so virtuous as the Son of God.

dsc00920When I started to think about her post and this quotation, I took the idea in a direction I had been thinking about for a while: the ways in which we simultaneously overestimate and underestimate the strength of our bodies and our spirits. A few conversations I have had over the last few days bring me to look at Merton’s wisdom in a completely different light, however.

I’ve talked before about the realization that everyone carries around his or her own universe. If we are ready to recognize that everyone we meet is as complex and nuanced as ourselves with their own childhood hurts and age old karma, buried hurts and secret needs, then we have to reset the way we look at everyone who crosses our path. We don’t have to love everyone or pretend we approve of their actions. We just have to realize that the reasons and impulses that drive people’s behavior can be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that we are never going to comprehend the full extent of their “this is why.”

With that in mind, I look to Merton’s quote and think not of the baffling behavior of those we can keep at arm’s length. I am thinking about the ways that we relate to the people closest to our hearts, those we love the most whom we are supposed to understand the best.

In a number of unrelated situations, I have been offered a glimpse into some of deepest stories of my dearest companions. Suddenly bit of their characters fell into place when they described their choices and their fears that had previously been inexpressible. Not only do I think it was cathartic for them to talk through their perspectives, but I felt honored and blessed to be given the chance to understand them better.

How often do we settle for knowing too little of the interior worlds of those we love? How often do we just throw up our hands and say things like “I love him, but he is just impossible to get through to when it comes to X”? How often do we just choose to hear only what we expect them to say?

I am not saying that we should push our way into corners of others’ souls where we might not be welcome. I am instead suggesting that we walk into our relationships with hearts and minds open and ask ourselves if we are settling for too little of the brilliance and intricacy of our friends and family.

dsc01452We’ll never be able to take up residence in a brother’s body to really see the world the way he does, but why do we then quit trying to understand and pretend to be content with the stories that we’ve made up about his life? It is a slow and unpredictable process, this discovering the innermost alcoves of people we are supposed to know like the backs of our own hands, but it can only lead to deeper connections and truer recognition of the miracles they are.

We may find secret and unexpected places, but under the guidance of compassion and love, so few stones will be too scary to overturn.

There is certain wisdom in the recognition that we are not our stories (thanks Brandi!), but we cannot abandon someone who still needs our help with the untangling of the loose threads that mar the tapestry of her life.

Life Changing Philosophy and Bumper Sticker Ethics

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something we would never want t0 be, if only we knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we are made for?”

– Thomas Merton (quoted in James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are)

I read Martin’s slim book about the search for the true self this morning and was transported by Merton’s quote, feeling as if he were speaking directly to me as I try to sort out my perspective on occupation and duty on the one hand, and dreams and destiny on the other. My education and experience position me to continue to climb the professional ranks; the inherited family work ethic has generally lead me to follow this path without question. But now the questions refuse to fade into the background and the path looks like it leads to a thicket of doubt and mediocrity rather than an upward spiral to worthy achievement.

One of Martin’s central theses is that we are never alone in this search for meaning and identity. If you think your existential dilemmas are more harrowing than someone else’s, you’re probably just a touch self-absorbed. Trying not to assume that my current internal debate is any more taxing than other people’s, however, only makes the choice of what to do next marginally easier. I am certain that some of this could be chalked up to being a recently married college graduate in her late twenties who was raised to be believe that she was clever and accomplished and could have it all. That would really explain my predicament if I was wondering how to balance career and motherhood, but we are not even there yet. Right now, I am trying to sort out how to reconcile the pull of a full time spiritual, writerly life even though I think I cannot bear the guilt associated with leaving what, by all appearances, is a lovely job that compensates me quite well.

Being a Jesuit, Martin flavors his work with examples from the lives of the saints. That’s probably the best way to maintain some perspective and remember that my current crisis does not rank all that close to say, Thomas Aquinas (his family imprisoned him for two years in an attempt to get him to forget about running away to join the Dominicans). At the same time, articulating my desire to leave the 9-5 life behind seems like one of the most difficult things I have ever done – marriage was a simple “yes” in comparison!

As I try to employ this bit of wisdom from Thomas Merton, I admit I am reminded of a cute little slogan that graces the bumper of many a Subaru wagon around here:If it's not fun why do it?

To tell the truth, I have always sort of hated that sentiment (even if Dublin Mudslide is the best flavor ever). All I can think about when I see that line are all of the not-so-fun things that are quite essential – trips to the dentist and the dump, paying taxes, walking a dog on a dark, rainy night. Guess I am not such a crazy hippy after all…

But you do not have to look too far to realize that Merton was not giving us sugar coated philosophy when he talks about “what we are made for.” To follow his lead and question our current existences in an attempt to sort out whether we are striving to become something we don’t really want to be is not to choose a sundae instead of a salad, hedonism over maturity. It is an act of ultimate bravery that may take us outside of the expected social norms, but is the only way to fully understand your purpose in life. The question for me is to determine whether I actually have to leave the framework of my current occupation behind in order to discover what I am truly meant to accomplish in this world.

And maybe, just maybe, Ben and Jerry really wanted to say “If it’s not uniting you with your true self, why do it?” but it wouldn’t fit on the back of a Volkswagon.