Year B, Lent 4 March 15, 2015 Carole Seeley
First, the disclaimer. I’ve said before I’m not here to sermonize or preach or explain scriptures – I’ll leave that to the priests who are well-trained to do so. Which is why I’ve been more comfortable saying that what I do is “homilizing.” Well, until I looked up “homily” in the dictionary, which includes this definition: “solemn moralizing writing or talk, especially a dull, boring, often long one.” Oh well… so I’ll just say I’m sharing thoughts about my Lenten journey and hope they will be neither dull nor boring!
I went to the morning prayer service on Ash Wednesday. I usually do. It’s one of the “right transactions” that Richard Rohr suggests may be part of the shadow self; the part that we don’t want to see, that we’re always afraid of and don’t want others to see either. So we do the right things, say the right words, all the while hiding the shadow, especially from ourselves. As I sat there, willing my mind to shut up and pay attention to the stillness, I heard these words as Spirit dropped them into my heart.
Come away with me. Let us go into the empty places in your soul that you may find me again. You have wandered in the world for so long, you don’t even remember what you have lost. Come away with me. You have traded the riches of your soul for the glitter of easy promises and false hope. You have followed your ego into the snare of self-deception and broken dreams. Come away with me. Unstop your ears and open your eyes to the sight and sound… the pain of suffering and sorrow of those you have walked over and around in the pursuit of your own self-importance. Come away with me. Sit with me. Be with me. Let me cradle you with my comfort and fill your lonely heart with my love. Come away with me. Let me walk with you and share the wonder of your journey as you find me again.
Forty years ago, I was in a desperately hopeless space; I had reached the end of myself and decided I no longer wanted to live that way, or any other way either. God called my name and introduced me to his most precious son. I was dazzled and beguiled by the promises and agreed to accept his invitation. In short, I had a crush on Jesus. But even then, I left the back door open – an escape route – just in case. After a lifetime of betrayals and broken dreams, I was conditioned to not trusting anything or anyone. And so, when the first flush of love wore off, I turned my back and went my own way. But though I left God, he didn’t leave me. He is the God of second chances, and every so often, he’d whisper in the quiet of the night, speaking to my brokenness, patiently waiting to see if I would respond. I’d periodically go through the motions, but they were feeble efforts at best.
I noticed a real stirring a couple of years ago, but I was still afraid and lacking the faith to make a total and complete commitment. Oswald Chambers, in his own inimitable style, points out that “God gives us a vision, then he takes us down into the valley to batter us into the shape of the vision. And it is in the valley that so many of us faint and give way. The life of faith is not a life of mounting up with wings, but a life of walking and not fainting.”
After months of striving on my own, this year it seemed I was being called to a deeper place. Where last year’s Lenten journey was about trying to find my way home, this year’s is about finding myself in God.
On the first Sunday in Lent, we are told that Jesus was baptized by John and acclaimed by God as his beloved son. Unlike those of us who are baptized into the family of God and welcomed with celebrations of joy – gifts may be given, families gather for festive meals, often cake is consumed – but Jesus was instead immediately driven out into the desert, and I don’t think he was being chauffeured in a limousine. He wasn’t being sent out to find himself. He already knew who he was. I personally think it was about proving he knew what was coming and that, despite the unimaginably high cost, he had the chops to pull it off without anything Satan was offering him. No boasting, no empty promises. Just the quiet certainty that he could and would do what had to be done to fulfill his mission, which was to blast the hinges off the doorway to radical transformation. I don’t think, either, that he was whining and complaining, “Why have you brought me out to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and I detest this miserable place,” as the Israelites did on their way to the Red Sea.
I wish I could say I embarked on my own journey without complaint, but I’d be lying. I objected. Strenuously. I didn’t want to give up something I love doing in order to walk into the silence that would impel me to confront my true self. In keeping busy, being engaged in things that bring pleasure or at least distraction, I lost touch with my soul and, as Henri Nouwen suggested, became “little more than a spectator in a lifelong show.” “Silence is the discipline,” he said, “that helps us go beyond the entertainment quality of our lives. There we can let our sorrows and our joys emerge from their hidden place and look us in the face, saying: ‘Don’t be afraid; you can look at your own journey, its dark and light sides, and discover your way to freedom.’ ”
But God would let me go my own way, if that’s what I had chosen. I kept saying, “Help me, help me – I don’t know how,” but I think it’s more to the point that I was really saying, “Do it for me. I don’t want to do the hard work.” Transformation is not forced on us. It is by invitation only. It is a contractual, bilateral agreement, a covenant, between God and me. If I do my part, he – who is rich in mercy – out of the great love with which he loves me, shows his immeasurable grace in kindness toward me in new life through Jesus.
And so I cautiously took the tenuous first steps out onto the path, the journey into my own wilderness, barely able to hope that true transformation is possible. I struggled with each step, feeling mired in the deep sand of that desert place. I knew I couldn’t go back, even if that meant only to stop and wait until I knew it was okay to move forward again.
Gradually, the ground became firmer. Both Nouwen and Richard Rohr speak of the dark side –what Rohr defines as the “shadow self – the separated, autonomous ego self, which can take negative or positive forms, both equally delusional: self-hatred or self-inflation.”
Another step. I was able to see that I am guilty of self-diminishment. I have, for at least half a century, believed the part of my parents’ legacy in which the perception I held is that I was never good enough. It was the plot, the subtext, and the language of the story that defined who I was. Perhaps it was a sort of narcissism or reverse pride that led me to covert dénouement in embracing my worthlessness and self-sabotaging any positive memories and experiences. My unwillingness to look beyond my old pattern of seeing is what kept me from living in a place of joy. I chose misery. I filtered out all the colors and saw only the gray. For me, it is the longest shadow cast by pride. Samuel Moor Shoemaker wrote, “Nine-tenths of our suffering is caused by others not thinking so much of us as we think they ought to. If you want to know where pride nestles and festers in most of us, that is right where it is… it is not the opposition of others but our own pride that causes us the deepest hurt.”
In admitting my refusal to acknowledge my creation in the divine image of God, my uniqueness, the gifts and skills he gave me, I began, also, to wonder how he must feel in those shadowed moments of my small-minded pride. I think, with almost unbearable sadness, how deeply hurt I am when my children seem to ignore me and have no room for me in their lives, or – in the case of one of them – has rejected my presence in her life at all. This grieving pierces my heart. The Act of Contrition that we say contains the words, “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” More than that, I know I have not loved myself as God loves me, I have rejected his love… and I am bereft. I once said to a friend, “There are some wounds, I think, that cannot be healed.” She replied, emphatically, and with utter conviction,
“Anything can be healed. Anything. Believe it.” And so, another. I choose to believe. I am God’s beloved daughter, in whom he is well-pleased. There is a beautiful song, sung by Shaina Noll, the words which I find deeply moving: “How could anyone ever tell you You are anything less than beautiful? How could anyone ever tell you You are less than whole? How could anyone fail to notice That your being is a miracle, How deeply you’re connected To my soul?”
Henri Nouwen also described silence as that which creates “space for the softer, gentler voices of the light… that have been speaking to us since before we were born, and they reveal to us that there is no darkness in the one who sent us into the world – only light. They are part of God’s voice calling us from all eternity: ‘My beloved child, my favorite one, my joy.’ ”
The Psalmist, who wrote often and eloquently of his own failures, shortcomings, and sins, wrote also about God’s grace with exquisite beauty and truth. When I am called to hold the mirror before myself and really see, I am reminded of the words: “For thou didst form my inward parts; thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” and I am humbled by the vastness of such unconditional love.
The path continues to unfold. I am encircled by a paraphrase of St. Patrick’s breastplate in The Edge of Glory: “Christ behind me. There he walks in your past. He walks in all the dark rooms you pretend are closed, that he may bring light. Invite him into your past. Experience his forgiveness, his acceptance of you. Offer especially all that you are ashamed of… all that you wish to forget… all that still pains and hurts you… all the hurt you have caused others. Walk there in the places you are afraid of, knowing that he walks with you and will lead you on. God can take events of the past and weave them so skillfully into a new plan for us that not only do we find there is a future for us after all, but it is as if there have been no wasted years.”
The past is gone. The egg is scrambled far beyond being made whole again. I dissociated from three decades of adulthood. I lost the job I most loved. My relationship fell apart. My happy-ever-after wasn’t. The journey lies in discovering that loss can break us apart or open our eyes to see the threshold it creates in our lives and hearts for being more of who we are. T here is something working in us, and we dare to imagine transformation. Time works its magic. Healing happens when we’re not looking, and we’re pulled back into the warm chaotic messiness of life. We realize that we are life, choosing life. We have a choice. We can shrink in the face of suffering or we can inhale deeply, enlarge our capacity to meet it all – the joy and the sorrow – and simply breathe into God and let it be. Amen.