Keeping a Holy Lent

Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, typically reminds me of two things:

  1. Don’t forget I’m going to die.
  2. While alive, to be grateful for the gift of life acknowledging that life itself comes from God. When I acknowledge God as Giver of Life, it frees me up to love my neighbor as myself asking both God and my neighbor’s forgiveness when I forget.

Jesus teaches me to give credit where credit is due, but don’t make such a fuss about it.

  • Step 1: When I fall down, get up (with God’s help).
  • Step 2: When I pray, pray in secret (for the love of God).

Note to self: Don’t dare to presume to pray in public without first doing Steps 1 & 2!

If I was to add a third item to my list of what Ash Wednesday reminds me to do it would be to take stock (or take inventory) of my life. Where is all my energy going, and why? Where is all my money going, and why? “For where your treasure is,” says Jesus, “there your heart will be also,”

[I think I may have to add another item to my list for Ash Wednesday]; that is, to contemplate on this phrase: “God is God; and I am not.” God is God, and I am not. Oh how I fall short of perfection, but if I’m honest with myself I do try – that is – to be perfect. Perhaps Lent gives me permission not to try to grasp at perfection, but to find joy in the one who perfectly loves?

I’m a priest. This means a lot of things, but one thing it means on Ash Wednesday is by virtue of my ordination and office in the church I get to read (out loud and to anyone that is present) An Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent, and The Litany of Penitence found in our prayer books. I enjoy reading the Ash Wednesday liturgy  (I really do); however, reading (especially “An Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent”) out loud convicts my own soul. It reminds me (publicly) of where and how I fall short. It reminds me (publicly) of my death. It reminds me (publicly) to love my neighbor. It reminds me (publicly) that I forget to remember these things; thus, God is God and I am not. Oh how humbling. Not humiliating; but humbling. It’s humbling to be reminded that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. It’s humbling to be reminded that God is ready to forgive but I hesitate to ask. It’s humbling to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness; then in the very next breathe God goes on and gives more of himself! He gives me/us/you his Body and Blood as pure gift, life, and love.

So maybe I’ll try and get more sleep over these next 40 days. Give up chocolate, or meat, or wine. Take on what I feel is necessary to observe a holy Lent. I’ll do what I need to do to practice my piety, knowing full well that these practices reward me more than they do God. Perhaps I’ll simply do what Jesus says; that is, to practice them quietly and in secret; then in 40 days the greatest secret held in plain sight will be revealed again so that even at the grave (even in my death) I’ll make my song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Angels and Demons

Friday was The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Below are some musings on the subject; but first, take a look at the exorcism portion of the liturgy in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. This section, found in the Book of Common Prayer is sometimes called the renunciations and affirmations section of the baptismal rite.

Q.  Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q.  Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q.  Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
A.  I do.

Q.  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
A.  I do.

Q.  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
A.  I do.

When a priest is ordained, he takes vows to be pastor, priest, and teacher. All three constructs aid the archetype of priest; however, I’ve come to believe there is one underlining metaphor that unites these offices. A priest is a journeyman – not in the sense of journeying alone – but rather, as someone who ‘journeys with’. A priest has been called (by Christ and His Church) to journey with others; and not as the hero, but as a companion along The Way. Put differently, and in the context of parish life, the priest accompanies his parishioners along the hero’s pathway.

I am at my best when I see the parishioners I serve as heroes. I can easily forgive in this mindset. I remember compassion. I do not forsake love. You might say a priest is more Sam Gamgee rather than Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings. Sam was right there by his friend’s side every step of the way. He spoke as needed, but knew the supremacy of silence. He evoked the power of metaphor at times, heard confessions, and gently corrected his hero when necessary. In a variety of situations and quests evil was fought, spirits were restored, and persistence remained.

Although priests are as much flesh and blood as the next person, scripture and tradition teach that there are also spiritual companions to help guide and protect along The Way. Actually, that’s putting it nicely. Angels (who we are celebrating this feast day) are better described as warriors, or maybe even secret-service agents that shield and defend us from the powers and principalities that corrupt our world. Humanity has always had a fascination with good and evil. Judeo-Christian thought has classically personified it. Roman Catholic Bishop, Robert Barron says this about evil incarnate:

“What are his usual effects? We can answer that question quite well by examining the names that the Bible gives to this figure. He is often called diabolos in the Greek of the New Testament, a word derived from dia-balein, to throw apart, to scatter. God is a great gathering force, for by his very nature [God] is love; but the devil’s work is to sunder, to set one against the other. Whenever communities, families, nations, churches are divided, we sniff out the diabolic. The other great New Testament name for the devil is ho Satanas, which means “the accuser.” Perform a little experiment: gauge how often in the course of the day you accuse another person of something or find yourself accused. It’s easy enough to notice how often dysfunctional families and societies finally collapse into an orgy of mutual blaming. That’s satanic work. Another great biblical name for the devil is “the father of lies.” Because God is Truth, truthfulness—about oneself, about others, about the way things really are—is the key to smooth human relations. But how often we suffer because of untruth!””[1]

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans suggested that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels [fallen or otherwise] nor rulers…nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). In other words, evil (like death) has lost its sting; yet, that’s not the end of the story. As Christians, we remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory (BCP, 368). We’re still living in the midst of the first two statements, and until Christ comes again [whatever that looks like], those powers of evil (which paradoxically have no power at their root) still persist to tear us (and our world) apart.

These days, a preacher (especially in The Episcopal Church) may get a scoff or two preaching a sermon on angels and demons. “How silly”, they might say. “Fr., haven’t you heard of myth and metaphor?” But I say unto you, “Haven’t you heard of Holy Eucharist, Confession, prayer, the Bible, and spiritual direction, to name a few?” Classically, these have been the tools of spiritual warfare within the world of the Christian. These gifts of the Church not only open us up to God’s love, grace, and goodness; they also protect us from evil like a devouring lion scattering and tearing our souls, communities, and families apart. We have Christ. We have His Church. We have the Angels. We can call on God’s Spirit to help us discern. We can use the sacraments and spiritual tools of the Church to strengthen us. We can call on St. Michael and his army to defend us. All of this is orthodox. It’s nothing new, but modernity casually puts it aside.

As I look around the catholic church today, I often wonder if we have forgotten how to see. Are we invested in too much of the modern spirit that we forget the Spirit of God? Are we so set on ‘not offending’ that we mirror the culture instead countering it? Are we so immersed in the ideology of inclusion and tolerance that we have forgotten Love? Love in the sense that not every idea, behavior, or thought should be given equal value or consideration. Put Biblically, we must practice discerning the spirits. We cannot do this on our own. We need the sacraments. We need prayer. We need study. We need God’s help.

In the story of Jacob’s ladder, we find Jacob wrestling with the angel. Afterwards he proclaims, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” That may be postmodernity’s mantra. God isn’t in the sacraments. What you need is additional counseling. God isn’t in nature. You only need to study biology. God isn’t real. Mankind created Him. But aren’t these classic temptations from the ‘father of lies’…who desires to violently divorce, separate, dis-order, to set one against the other and God?

Let me go on record and say: Good is real. Sin and evil are real. They reside in us, and in the world. To give into the modern religion of relativism is to claim that there is no Truth, and taking this ideology to its final argument will show that there is no meaning to life. This leaves one in a state of perpetual nihilism that is very hard to overcome. As Christians we claim that these dualities (good and evil; black and white) are finally reconciled in and by and through Christ. We are made one in His Love. In the end, we are not separated because of His Love. Remembering this oneness, and living into this Truth gives us (and the world) hope. It may be an audacious hope, but our faith tells us it’s there.

I started out this blog by musing on the metaphor of a priest as journeyman. Together, let us journey with one another with God in our hearts, and all the angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven forever defending us, protecting us, and fighting always for the Good.

[1] Bishop Robert Barron, Word on Fire Ministries, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/revisiting-the-spiritual-warfare/448/

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Theology defined: The study of the nature of God. AND/OR The study of the Divine.

You cannot study the Divine WITHOUT examining the self. The self defined is what? Who? A hero? A heroine?

Why not view one’s VERY SELF as a hero going on a quest thereby discovering the Divine?

This is a blog about the self. This is a blog about the DIVINE. This is a blog about the hero’s journey: The Hero with a Thousand Faces.