Few people in my life would likely make the mistake of characterizing me as a naturally disciplined or pious person. Zealous, maybe. Pious, no. I’ve tended to live life in a passionate pursuit of a particular direction only to stumble, fall, get back up, and run a different way (not necessarily opposite, just different).
Thus, it has been an interesting experience for me this Lent to spend time reading, writing, and reflecting on discipline and ascetic practices. This stumbling and turning has often felt like an aimless back and forth, but in these weeks of reflection, it has been encouraging to look back and see growth. While the back and forth has been real, what has seemed like “just meanderings” have turned out to have some forward direction.
Father Richard Rohr gives this encouragement, “The steps to maturity are, by their very nature, immature.”
As we look back, each step behind us is going to seem immature, maybe even like a mistake. Hitting our head and saying “God, I was such an idiot back then,” is evidence of grace at work in our lives. The ability to see the ways we failed that were invisible to us at the time, is a sign of our growth in wisdom and discernment. This is often hard for me to accept.
Like the cow patty that was stuck to my big green muck boots this morning, I’ve got an image of grace in my head that isn’t right, but I keep carrying around with me anyway.
I imagine myself in front of the gates of heaven, and every day I pound away with bruised fists and bloody knuckles. Each day, the door remains closed because I have not earned its opening. But I stand there and pound away anyway because I have a belief that someday at my death, that door will open for me even though I don’t deserve it.
Like all damaging analogies, there is a way in which it is true. Grace is like a door that opens to us that we don’t deserve to go through.
The problem is that it takes our actions (all that pounding and waiting) from being understood as flawed and insufficient (which they are) to useless (which they are not).
If grace is primarily understood as the key to unlocking an end of life eternal reward, than the act of living is just a bother to be slogged through in order to get to the good stuff.
An antidote to this thinking that has been (re)introduced to me this Lent (through my time with monks and reading Sloterdijk), is how early monastics were referred to as “athletes for Christ.” Discipline, fasting, and other commitments during Lent can be understood analogously to the exercises and practicing of an athlete.
Grace, in this case, is the state in which we go about our practice of life. We do not live in a state of constant condemnation because we are unable to move from the couch to running a marathon in under three hours on our first day of training. Rather, we experience grace every day that we get off our asses and choose to walk, jog, or run a little bit further. The next day, a little more.
We slowly develop in ourselves capacities that we did not have before. What was once impossible for us now becomes probable. Setbacks? Of course. Injuries? Inevitable.
Will you look back sometimes on how you used to run or play the game and laugh at how bad you were? Absolutely, because you are improving. You now have an eye to see and the discernment to understand the things you couldn’t before.
In this metaphor, the divine does not just function as a gatekeeper to rewards you haven’t earned, but exemplar and coach. You have someone to look up to who has made it through before and that you can imitate. At the same time, there is a helper — a divine trainer during a time of preparation.
In Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett wrote on living through our mistakes, “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
If Lenten commitments, either positive or negative, are thought of in regards to what they accomplish in the moment, they can be a frustrating experience. But if we learn to experience them not just as what they are in the moment, but what they are preparing us for, they can have fuller meaning. Giving up food might open up new possibilities of understanding our embodied selves and our relationship to daily bread. Prayers for friends and loved ones, whether they are ever answered in a mystical sense, might train our thoughts to be more aware of the needs of others throughout the day. Learning to identify the mating calls of the phoebe and chickadee in late winter (as my Aunt Celine recently commented that she loves to do), might not seem a “useful” skill. But learning to hear those calls, or the sound sap makes when dropping into a bucket, can change our relationship with our world as what often fades into the soundtrack of our lives is finally given a solo.
Will we ever reach perfection? No. But are our actions useful and have purpose? Absolutely. Rilke, in The Book of Hours, writes of this experience of giving oneself to an unachievable goal:
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
Looking back on the mistakes of our lives and our previous immaturity should not just produce shame for the ways that we failed. Rather, we can move through that shame and find a sense of encouragement and marks of grace. Our circles, as Rilke writes, are widening.
Yes, there is the place that we won’t reach on our own, a door that we can’t open by our own power. But we can trust that we will be found in a state of grace when we give ourselves to it anyway.
Timothy King formerly served as Sojourners’ Chief Strategy Officer and now writes and farms in New Hampshire. You can read his thoughts on farming, food, and faith at his blog, Almost Home.
Image: Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock.com