Lent

Finding God in the Depths of Silence

Gumpanat / Shutterstock
Gumpanat / Shutterstock

WHEN I FIRST began to write this article, I thought to myself, "How do you promote something as vaporous as silence? It will be like a poem about air!" But finally I began to trust my limited experience, which is all that any of us have anyway.

I do know that my best writings and teachings have not come from thinking but, as Malcolm Gladwell writes in Blink, much more from not thinking. Only then does an idea clarify and deepen for me. Yes, I need to think and study beforehand, and afterward try to formulate my thoughts. But my best teachings by far have come in and through moments of interior silence—and in the "non-thinking" of actively giving a sermon or presentation.

Aldous Huxley described it perfectly for me in a lecture he gave in 1955 titled "Who Are We?" There he said, "I think we have to prepare the mind in one way or another to accept the great uprush or downrush, whichever you like to call it, of the greater non-self." That precise language might be off-putting to some, but it is a quite accurate way to describe the very common experience of inspiration and guidance.

All grace comes precisely from nowhere—from silence and emptiness, if you prefer—which is what makes it grace. It is both not-you and much greater than you at the same time, which is probably why believers chose both inner fountains (John 7:38) and descending doves (Matthew 3:16) as metaphors for this universal and grounding experience of spiritual encounter. Sometimes it is an uprush and sometimes it is a downrush, but it is always from a silence that is larger than you, surrounds you, and finally names the deeper truth of the full moment that is you. I call it contemplation, as did much of the older tradition.

It is always an act of faith to trust silence, because it is the strangest combination of you and not-you of all. It is deep, quiet conviction, which you are not able to prove to anyone else—and you have no need to prove it, because the knowing is so simple and clear. Silence is both humble in itself and humbling to the recipient. Silence is often a momentary revelation of your deepest self, your true self, and yet a self that you do not yet know. Spiritual knowing is from a God beyond you and a God that you do not yet fully know. The question is always the same: "How do you let them both operate as one—and trust them as yourself?" Such brazenness is precisely the meaning of faith, and why faith is still somewhat rare, compared to religion.

 

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What Happens When the 'See of Peter' is Vacant?

VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI leaving after delivering his traditional Christmas 'Urbi et Orbi' blessing. VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

After nearly eight years since being named to the chair of Peter, Pope Benedict XVI announced this morning that he is resigning at the end of February.

If you live in the post-Modern, post-Christendom uber-hip world, you might not understand the full weight of this morning's announcement.
 
A pope hasn't "resigned" in 600 years.
 
" ... in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is."
As a cradle Catholic who loves the church enough to fight with her when she fails to live up to her Gospel call, the words "the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant" are words that strike a dark loneliness in my stomach and soul.
 

Fasting Like an Old Testament Prophet Gains Followers During Lent

RNS photo courtesy Amy Lester
Amy Lester of Orlando prepares “nutty fruity cereal,” a staple of the Daniel Fast. RNS photo courtesy Amy Lester

Amy Lester has followed Jesus for decades, but her keen appreciation for his sacrifice on the cross came only recently when she started eating like the prophet Daniel.

During Lent, which starts Feb. 13, the 40-year-old mother of two keeps a type of Daniel Fast, which involves eating only food from seeds (vegetables, fruits, unleavened grains), drinking only water and practicing daily devotions.

A similar regimen kept Daniel and his friends free from corruption in King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian court, according to the Bible. Now the Old Testament example guides growing numbers of Christians in the 40-day period of preparation for Easter.

“We set apart a sacrifice in Lent in order to identify, even the smallest (bit), with what Jesus sacrificed for us,” said Lester, who attends University Carillon United Methodist Church in Oviedo, Fla. “He died for me. The least I can do is to sacrifice the foods that are comforting to me.”

Risking Depth and Passion

"EVEN IF I OWNED Picasso's 'Guernica,' I could not hang it on a wall in my house, and although I own a recording of the Solti Chicago Symphony performance of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring,' I play it only rarely. One cannot live every day on the boundary of human existence in the world, and yet it is to this boundary that one is constantly brought by the parables of Jesus." So wrote a great New Testament scholar, Norman Perrin, in his book Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom. I often think about his frankness as I prepare for the transition between Epiphany and Lent. We must soften and make bearable the intensity of the scriptural story to face it every week in church. We can't dive to the depths every single week, and we are right to keep our child-friendliness going.

But we need to risk depth and passion, or run the danger of making the gospel seem boring and predictable. Our churchly betrayal of God lies in our willingness to make the Word seem banal. So perhaps the thing we need to give up for Lent is our avoidance of depth. The scriptures this month will speak to us of faith as the experience of being stressed almost to a breaking point. They will plumb the depths of divine frustration and disappointment. We must clear a space for these wounding and thrilling themes and suspend our strategies for making worship palatable and safe.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ February 3]
Making a Prophet
Jeremiah 4:1-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

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Into the Dark Woods

During Lent I occasionally choose a gospel companion to guide me through the season. I slip in behind one character or another in the Passion narrative and walk with them on the road to Jerusalem. One year it was Mary of Magdala. Another, Claudia, wife of Pontius Pilate.

This year I was drawn to Mark’s “certain young man”—the one who flees naked from the violence in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (14:51-52), leaving behind his linen cloth.

Scholars vehemently disagree about who this young man was. Many deduce that it’s the writer of Mark’s gospel inserting himself into the story. Others say he is reminiscent of King David fleeing from Absalom on the the Mount of Olives. Or that he foreshadows the “young man” in a white robe who will meet the women at Jesus’ tomb.

Whoever he was, in the midst of an encounter with violence, this “certain young man” lost what thin protection he had and fled into the night, into the selva oscura, as Dante calls it, those “dark woods.” Toward what, we do not know.

AS THE HUMAN soul matures, we are confronted with moments that force us to let go of yet another thin veil of self-delusion. The “right road,” the moral high ground, sinks into a thicket of gray.

Two examples from this Lent: An American Army staff sergeant, with four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and probable concussive brain trauma, allegedly pulls 16 unarmed Afghan civilians, including nine children, out of their beds in the middle of the night and shoots them. The thin cloth of protection that allows us to believe “if we weren’t there things would be worse” slips to the ground.

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Elijah at the Table: Pascha and Passover

Wine and Matzoh, Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock.com
Wine and Matzoh, Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock.com

“Easter? Isn’t that over?” I’m already gearing up to hear this, just as I launch into trying to trying to actually make something spiritually of Lent’s remaining weeks, after my feeble efforts, while also anticipating the Feast of Feasts that awaits in a little more than two weeks.

At work, hunched over my vegetarian lunch of channa dal and naan (Orthodox Lent is all about carbs!), I furtively scan florist websites for vibrant bouquets, and think about ordering that grass-fed leg of lamb from the small farmer who sells meat at our local market. I wonder if I get the cute bouquet of bright pink roses with the foam Easter eggs and the fuzzy bunny for my daughter, will the flowers hang on for another seven days to grace our Pascha table?

Songs for the Lenten Journey

Music to aide contemplation as we head into the fifth week of Lent and Holy Week…

I discovered Songs for Lent last year on Noise Trade – the site that trades music for promotion, and maybe a small donation — and I think it’s one of the most spiritually moving and challenging albums of the “Christian music” genre, at least that I’ve encountered. 

There’s something earthy and beautiful about Songs for Lent that elicits a response I believe is lost in contemporary Christian music. It’s raw, simple, transcendent.

Saints Compete for Top Ranking in 'Lent Madness'

Assorted Christian saints images, Wiki Commons; illustration by Cathleen Falsani
Assorted Christian saints images via Wiki Commons; illustration by Cathleen Falsani

As college basketball fans prepare for March Madness, a holier tournament already has Christians rooting and cheering this Lenten season.

For three years running, "Lent Madness" has taken to the Internet as a competition between Episcopal saints in a single-elimination bracket tournament resembling the one followed by March Madness fans.

This Lenten devotional, first created by the Rev. Tim Schenck on his blog, "Clergy Family Confidential," allows readers to learn about and vote for the saints presented daily on the website, with the winning saints moving closer to the coveted prize of the Golden Halo.

"I was looking for a fun way to embrace the Lenten season," said Schenck, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Hingham, Mass.

"Lent doesn't have to be all doom and gloom," said Schenck. His goal, he says, is to help people "connect with the risen Christ during this season" and to "have a bit of fun in the process."

Doing Nothing for Lent

"Me (quiet.)" Photo by Cathleen Falsani.
"Me (quiet.)" Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

Last week, I spent a couple of days listening to Eugene Peterson share stories and precious wisdom from his 80 years on this little blue planet. 

It was a blessing of unparalleled riches to sit at Peterson’s feet (literally — I was in the front row and he was on a stage that put me at eye level with his black tassel loafers) and learn.

For the uninitiated, Peterson is a retired Presbyterian pastor and prolific author perhaps best known for The Message, his para-translation of the Bible and titles such as Practice Resurrection  and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

A native of Western Montana, Peterson and his wife of more than 50 years, Jan, returned to Big Sky Country several years ago to the home his father built on the shores of Flathead Lake when Eugene was a child.

Undoubtedly, it will take me many months — or years — to digest all that Peterson shared with a smallish group of youngish Christian leaders at the Q Practices gathering in New York City. But I can say what struck me most indelibly is how at ease — content, yes, but more than that — Peterson is in his own skin. Fully present. Mellow but absolutely alert, energized, fascinated by the world and the people around him.

Relaxed — that’s it.

The Foolishness and Weakness of God

In this Lenten season we ask what is truly transformative. What practices are potent enough to dissolve the patterns of perception and response etched in the neural circuits of our brains, constantly reinforced by an environment obsessed with competition and the lure of individual gratification? This month’s scriptures suggest that contemplative practice—the art of persistent gazing—is powerful enough when the focus is Jesus, the sign of what Paul calls “the foolishness and weakness of God.” When the Crucified One is the focus of our gaze, meditation can never be for us what much of our “spiritual-but-not-religious” culture is after. All manner of meditative practices are marketed as ways to soothe stress and “bring balance” to our over-stimulated lives. These practices carry the prestige of spirituality, but may actually reinforce our conformity to what scripture calls “this age,” if they merely palliate some of its toxic effects in our individual lives. 

Shouldn’t spirituality be spurring us to address the need for systemic change, not merely helping us to cope? For radical Christians, contemplative discipline is learning to see Jesus with the eyes of the heart in ways of worship and prayer that expose us to irradiation by his way of self-giving, even to death on a cross. We take the risk of being impregnated with a new self, Jesus’ new self. This core identity in Christ imparts new instincts that enable us to decipher God’s secret solidarity with the poor, excluded, and disempowered.

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C.

[ March 4 ]
No One There, Only Jesus
Genesis 17:1-7; Psalm 22:23-31;
Romans 4:13-25; Mark 9:2-9

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