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Sunday, March 06, 2011

Alchemy

Any day now, one of our daughters will call and we'll have the same conversation we've been having every year about this time for, oh, the past ten years or so.

"Mom," she'll ask, "What are you giving up for Lent?"

And, I'll say, "Well, I haven't yet decided what I'm taking on for Lent."

"Oh, Mom," she'll say, "you know what I mean. What are you giving up for Lent?"

This year, I'll say, "I'm thinking about taking lessons in rug hooking."

"Right," she'll say, with no less than a small amount of impatience in her voice that daughters often have with their mothers. "I'm thinking of walking to work."

And, I'll say, "That's great, my darling. And, how will this make you a better person? A better Christian?"

And, she'll say, "Because it will remind me of the cross. Isn't that what Lent is really all about?"

It's not her fault. We sent her to Roman Catholic schools.

"I think that's one of the classic definitions of Lent," I'll say. "The real point of Lent - indeed, of the cross - is so you'll become a better person. A better follower of Christ."

"Mom," she'll say with exasperation creeping into her voice, "how will rug hooking make you a better person - a better Christian - than my walking to work or giving up chocolate?"

"It won't," I'll say. "You can't become a better person or a better Christian just by doing something for eight weeks and then never doing it again. However, if that something leads you to consider things about your life that you want to permanently change, then that's a good thing."

"Okay," she'll say, "I'm going to start walking to work for Lent. I won't do it after Lent, but I'll do it during Lent. And yes," she'll sigh, "while I"m walking, I'll think about things I want to change about myself so I can be a better Christian and a better person. Okay?"

"You're a Rock Star," I'll say.  I'll say it like I mean it. Because I do.

This morning's gospel (Mark 17:1-9) is about the Transfiguration of Jesus. It's a remarkable, almost fantastic story about a journey high up to the top of a mountain with Jesus, John, James and Peter. While they were there, Jesus was transfigured right in front of his three disciples, "and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white."

Not only that, but Moses and Elijah showed up and started talking with them, all natural-like, as if it were an every-day occurrence. Peter even tries to set up accommodations for them. And then, through a "bright cloud" they heard a voice saying, ""This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

That's either the report of a miracle or one heck of a "Rocky Mountain high."

The story is told as the last of the miracle stories of the Season of Miracles - The Epiphany - the stories of the manifestation of the divinity within the humanity of Jesus.

It is an important story to tell before Lent begins this week, on Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded of our mortality.

I think it's important to be mindful of the balance of the two season - Epiphany and Lent. We have a divine spark within our mortal frames - as we travel the pathway that leads, ultimately to the Empty Tomb.

I was reminded, this morning, of something one of the littlest ones in my former community of faith said - oh, about five years ago - on Shrove Tuesday.

After all the pancakes and syrup, the scrambled eggs and sausages had been served at the Shrove (‘Fat’) Tuesday Supper, I gathered up all of the old, dried palms which had been brought in or had been stored since the last Sunday of Passion, and began burning them in the small outside kettle grille – the same one, by the way, we use to start the new fire of The Great Vigil of Easter.

Some of the little kids gathered around, sitting on the stairs, as my seminarians and other members of the church carefully tended the flame.

We marveled as the flames occasionally fanned down and the embers would circle round and round, causing a fantastic glowing effect in the darkness of the kettle, lighting and warming the darkness of that cold February night.

“Look!” said one of our very astute four year olds, “There are stars in the ashes!”

Isn't that simply wonderful?

Which got me to thinking.

I recently read an article which stated that scientists are now convinced that we – the composition of our bodies – have more in common with stars than the earth. I like that idea. I like it very much.

We have the capacity to do wonderful, amazing things. We also have the capacity to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty.

If we focus only on the "wretchedness" of our mortal beings - or, only on the "superiority" given to us over all the other creatures - we can lose sight of our place in the cosmos.

Being mindful of our potential to do good and bad helps us to be more authentic human beings. It helps us to be able to laugh at ourselves, the way we can giggle at Peter's bumbling attempts to deal with his own astonishment at seeing Moses and Elijah on that mountain top.

It also helps, when we're cowering on the ground, groveling in our own unworthiness in the presence of God, to hear the words Jesus said to his disciples, ""Get up and do not be afraid."

We have been made worthy, in Christ Jesus, to stand before God.

There are stars in our ashes.

There's lots of talk these days about "seeking the light" and "dwelling in the light" and "being fully present". Just check out some of the shelves in your local bookstore near the stacks labeled "religion/spirituality/psychology/self-help".

Rug hooked by Emily Robertson
As you read some of the "New Age" stuff, you can hear the philosophy of Alchemy and the ancient quest for the Philosopher's Stone - a substance said to be capable of turning base metals, especially lead, into gold.

It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality.

In the Middle Ages, Alchemy was the evolution from ignorance to enlightenment, and the Philosophers Stone represented a hidden spiritual truth or power that would lead to that goal.

Psychologist Carl Jung saw Alchemy as a Western proto-psychology which could lead to the desired psychological path of individuation - the theory, in developmental psychology, which describes the process through which a person becomes his/her 'true self'.

Jung viewed Alchemy as comparable to a Yoga of the East, and more adequate to the Western mind than Eastern religions and philosophies. The practice of Alchemy seemed to change the mind and spirit of the Alchemist.

You'll find a wonderful example of this in the story of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Alchemist details the journey of a young Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago, who, having had a dream he believes to be prophetic, journeys to Egypt to find treasure.

Along the way, he meets several characters, and encounters love, danger, opportunity, disaster and learns a lot about himself around the impact he had on the people he met.

One of the significant characters that he meets is an old king named Melchizedek who tells him about discovering his personal legend: what he always wanted to accomplish in his life.

"When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it," says Melchizedek. This is the core philosophy and motto of the book.

In the introduction of the book, Coelho writes:
"If you believe yourself worthy of the thing you fought so hard to get, then you become an instrument of God, you help the Soul of the World, and you understand why you are here."
So, this year, when my daughter calls and asks, "Mom, what are you giving up for Lent?" I'll say, "Well, I know I can't be a Rock Star, so maybe I'll try to be a 'Lead Star'".

And, she'll say, "Oh, Mommmmm! I think you're finally losing it."

And, I'll say, "Actually, I think I've finally found it."

And, she'll say, "Whaaaat?"

And, I'll say, "I'm going to start a journey and enter a "bright cloud" where I can find the 'lead' in my life and turn it into 'gold'. I'm going to shift through the ashes, so I can find the stars I know are there, too. Perhaps those stars will help me as I sift through the ashes and find the Philosopher's Stone."

Rug Hooked by Emily Robertson


Maybe that will come to me as I do something mindfully mindless like hooking a rug.

Maybe it will come to me if I commit myself to "walking meditation" every day.

Or, perhaps it will come to me when I get more disciplined about turning the projects I went to EDS to accomplish and actually produce something that will be helpful to others.

I'm not quite sure how I will accomplish my goal. I only know I have to begin. In some ways, I think I've already begun.

That's part of the message I get from the Alchemy of Jesus which led to his Transfiguration. What I know about his journey is this: after the Transfiguration, came the Cross and the Resurrection.

I have no doubt that the Alchemy of my Lenten Journey will follow a similar path.

Just don't tell anybody about it until after I've raised the dead things in my life into something that is filled with life and has made me a better person and a better Christian.

I can only hope that, at the end of my journey, I will hear the voice of God saying, "This is my Beloved Child, with whom I am well pleased."

12 comments:

whiteycat said...

Wonderful, Elizabeth! Thanks for this fuel for the journey.

renzmqt said...

Thank you for a wonderful and thoughtful post. Last night I watched The End of The Affair, based on the Graham Greene novel, so I've been thinking about "the strangeness of God's mercy" (from the Cambridge reference on Greene).

Was having difficulty getting going today, put on some eighties music only to be left feeling old. Switched to some old time gospel music. This began to perk me up emotionally and physically. I'm sure the coffee was kicking in as well.

Checked into google reader and read this post. I laughed out loud, loud and hard, at your comment about your daughter and Catholic school.

Also got misty eyed by the end. Once again feeling the Holy Spirit at work in my life, giving me a gentle push out of the bleak feelings.

I've saved this post on my reader so I may reflect on it throughout Lent. Thanks again.

it's margaret said...

You said, "What I know about his journey is this: after the Transfiguration, came the Cross and the Resurrection."

Praying about the Transfiguration this week took me to non-linear places --the Transfiguration --the Christophany-- is a revelation of the Resurrected Christ before the cross happened.... He said, I AM Resurrection.... so, always....

...something like that...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, whiteycat. Some of my best sermons are the ones I need to hear.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Renz - Has Skittles arrived yet? You've both been in my prayers.

If you haven't already, I encourage you to read The Alchemist. I think it's just what you need right about now. I used to use it in my Public Practice of Ministry course at Drew. You'll get a heck of a lot more from it than you will this post. Promise.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Margaret - Yuppa. Non-linear thinking can often take you deeper into the Truth.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

BTW, the pictures of the hooked rugs are by Emily Robertson, an artist who came to speak to our class about Art and Spirituality. Aren't they brilliant?

romelover said...

Beautiful. You'll love hooking rugs...I found it prayerful and creative all in one.

I'm going to practice Rembrandt's drawing techniques (such as I can) as a daily meditation. I'm with you in those kinds of things.

Not sure it'll make me a better person, but it WILL make me a better artist. And that is part of my journey!

This was a beautiful meditation and preparation for Lent.

Thanks.
chrissie

it's margaret said...

they are brilliant and wonderful! I hooked (ha!) for awhile --it is very good for the soul.

renzmqt said...

Skittles is thoroughly enjoying herself with the grandparents in the suburbs of Chicago - she has acclimated nicely to sharing the house with another dog and has recovered from her two week plus stay a the vets and the long trip to Chicago last week.

My dad drives school bus to keep occupied and he loves the kids so he is waiting for spring break in about two weeks. He will bring Skittles and stay for a few days. She can continue to sleep with him while getting used to the abundance of animals before he heads back home.

Thanks for the prayers.

SCG said...

I was drawn to read this post because of the term "alchemy" and how appropriate that has felt in my own recent twists and turns along this bizarre trip with God. Wonderful entry! And I enjoyed "The Alchemist" when I read it in massage school (because I needed something to break up the reading of anatomy and kinesiology textbooks!)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, SCG. Glad this spoke to you. It's certainly been this way in my life.