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Thursday, March 09, 2017

The Last Temptation

I hate Lent.

Or, more accurately, I hate what it’s become. 

Let me explain.

My first call in ministry was as Chaplain at ULowell. It was 1986. The Priest at the Newman Center decided, my first year there, that as a way of modeling Christian behavior, we should do “stuff” together. Celebrations. With food. 

I really think he wanted to help me succeed but that's another story for another time. 

Thanksgiving Dinner was our first effort. It was so great, we decided to do more.

Christmas. New Years. Valentine’s Day. All of these celebrations were great.

Then, he, being Irish, decided we just HAD to do St. Patrick’s Day, complete with corned beef and cabbage, potatoes, onions, carrots, and soda bread. The students were doing the cooking. I even planned to make some green cookies. We were very excited.

And then, I looked at the calendar. St. Patrick’s Day was on a Friday that year. And, it was at the beginning of Lent.

“Hey,” I said jokingly to my priest colleague, “If we do this St. Paddy’s Day thing, we’ll have to ask for two dispensations. One for celebrating during Lent and another for eating meat on Friday during Lent.”

He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll square it with the bishop. We’ll get a double dispensation.”

Did I mention that I was joking?

He wasn’t.

So, later on that day, we talked. We included the students we both had on the leadership counsel from both groups.

They were of two minds. One group – a mix of Catholic and Protestant students – was of the mind that what we were building in terms of relationships across ecumenical lines that would have been inconceivable by their parents was more important than rules imposed upon us by the institutional church.

If we had to ask for dispensations from the bishop, they argued, we ought not have the dinner. They felt the insult of asking for dispensation was worse than the injury of not having a dinner together.

But another group felt that was flawed logic. They challenged us to find the scriptural basis for Lent. And, would we be so kind as to show us when it was, exactly, that Jesus ever directed us to give up meat on Fridays in Lent? 

What was more important, they asked, the relationships we were building together as Christians through these celebrations we could share or the institutional church’s directives about a liturgical season imposed upon us by the church? They felt we should have the dinner and not ask for a dispensation from the bishop.

This made my priest colleague break out in a sweat.

Suddenly, the group started to lean toward not having a traditional meal for St. Paddy’s Day. Part of the group didn’t want to make things uncomfortable for observant Roman Catholics. Another part didn’t want to have to go to the bishop for a dispensation they considered unnecessary and an embarrassing remnant of patriarchy.

For a while the group entertained the possibility that we simply declare St. Patrick’s Day a “moveable feast” and have it after Lent, during the Easter season.

One member of the group reminded us of the last stanza of the poem in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Is that what we were doing? The right thing for the wrong reason? Or were we doing the wrong thing for the right reason?

The best part of the conversation, however, came when we engaged more deeply the ‘penitential’ nature of Lent. It’s a conversation that forever changed the way I look at Lent, the way I observe Lent.

It’s the reason I hate Lent. Or, at least, “Lenten disciplines” that trivialize and diminish the power Lent can have in our spiritual lives.

As I remember we talked about ‘repentance’ which is how the King James Version translates the Greek “metanoia”. But, something gets lost in that translation – like the nuances, the depth of the layers of meaning.

Metanoia, literally means, “change of mind”; more fully, it translates to mean “spiritual transformation”.

Let that sink in for a minute.

That doesn’t mean “sacrifice.” Or even, simply “changing your mind” about something. Well, not necessarily. It means “spiritual transformation.”

So, it was asked, what does giving up ice cream, or wine, or meat on Fridays have to do with “spiritual transformation”?

Over the years, I have heard more metaphorical gymnastics stretched and twisted over “Lenten sacrifices” – things we do ‘without’ as well as things we ‘take on’ – than I care to remember, all in an attempt to justify them as appropriate for Lent.

One person argued that the money saved by not have a latte at the Bistro during Lent would allow him to donate that money to a favorite charity. See? He was being a “better steward” of money! And, clearly stewardship is a spiritual issue. Right?

Another argued that giving up soda during Lent was helping her “cleanse the temple” of her body. See? That’s spiritual, right? That she might loose a few pounds in the process was some sort of ‘proof’ that God approved of her Lenten sacrifice. 

As if, poor helpless creatures that we are, God is the direct cause of weight loss. So, I suppose, it follows that if we gain weight, it’s not our fault, directly. It’s just….. “God’s will”.  Apparently, God seems to will lots of God’s creatures to be ‘chubby’.

Seriously? Is this the stuff of metanoia? Spiritual transformation?

One student in the group said that she felt as if she were watching a modern-day version of the scriptural story of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. (John 4:1-42)

The woman came to the well to get water to quench her thirst, but Jesus offered her ‘living water’. Something deeper. Something more satisfying that would quench the thirst of the soul. Something for which you’d have to dive deep and resurface.

The group began to dive into deeper questions: Is there more to Lent than just penitence? Is there more than just sacrifice? To what end? For what purpose?

A several weeks-long study group ensued to face into questions about penitence and sacrifice and the need for it, especially during Lent.

I’ll save that discussion for another time but it has to do with a discussion about Original Sin and Atonement, Redemption and Salvation.

As Blessed Joe Biden would say, “Here’s the deal”: Lent is not a self-help program. I really hate that for so many that’s exactly what Lent has become.

I find it especially cringe-worthy when I see clergy – and there are many, all over Social Media these days – proclaiming that they can’t go here or there or do this or that or, God knows, eat or drink favorite foods or beverages because, well, it’s Lent, you know.

And, see? See how they are sacrificing?  See how they – even they – are working at being better people and better Christians. 

I fear they have succumbed to what T.S. Eliot described as “last temptation.” It is the “greatest treason” to the spirit of Jesus who said, “Go and find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13).

What if . . . . . 

What if we, like Jesus, allowed the Spirit to lead us into a wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). 

Not The Wilderness. 

A wilderness.

A place we haven’t yet explored? A place as yet unknown to us? A place where we may confront things – demons, perhaps – we have not yet encountered?

A place where we can explore our own vulnerability? A space where we might discover the limits of our spiritual endurance?

What if we set no goals for a pre-determined outcome? No metrics like weight loss or amount of money saved and donated to “charity”?

Indeed, how does this ‘sacrifice’ which leads us to ‘charity’ actually underscore our privileged status and emphasize – but not bridge –the chasm between rich and poor?

What if we came to our eight-week Lenten journey with a real sense of ‘poverty’, with a full sense of our powerlessness and vulnerability and no measurable goals? 

What if we risked getting to the end of our journey not even certain what we had accomplished? (How thoroughly un-American, right?)

What if we simply trusted the Spirit to lead us into temptation? 

Might that look more like a ‘Holy Lent’ to which we were invited on Ash Wednesday?

How would we do that? Well, certainly not by giving up chocolate or wine for 8-weeks.

It would take a great deal of intentionality, with at least the possibility of some time away – a retreat for a time certain – in a place conducive to this deep spiritual work.

That may also be accomplished by committing to a set amount of time every day for meditation.

And/or, reading and reflecting and journaling.

And/or a weekly meeting with an anamchara – a spiritual friend/director – to talk about what you are finding deep in your soul.

And/or establishing a small anamchara group where you can talk about the landscape of your journey and what you are seeing and discovering along the way.

Again – and, I can’t stress this enough – this is not about Lent as a Self-Help Program.

That is what I hate about what Lent has become.

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. 

It’s about trusting Spirit to lead you through an undiscovered, unexplored part of your soul.

It’s about trusting Spirit to lead you to the spiritual lessons you need to learn and leading you back again.

It’s about allowing Angels to tend to you before you begin the next part of your spiritual journey.

It’s about making a commitment to spiritual discipline which is transformative.

It’s about resisting the last temptation and doing the right thing for the right reason.

It’s still not too late to make this Lent truly holy for you.

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