Ash Wednesday - 26 February 2020
Despite the coronavirus, and perhaps a bit of a collective hysteria amplified by the Italian news media, I managed to get my flight back from Turin and be here with you today. On my way back to London I was trying to make sense of this contagious infection that has already had so many victims in different parts of the world, and especially in China. And I realised that the coronavirus, as well as other lethal illnesses barely mentioned in the news, can be interpreted symbolically. I’m not talking about epidemic diseases that used to be taken as some sort of divine punishment for our sins. Frankly I’m quite skeptical about this apocalyptic view of the world, where God’s wrath would come to us in the form of a pandemic, as some preachers said in the past. In my view that would be foolish.
Perhaps now we can see these diseases more as a symbol of our human condition than as a divine punishment. It seems to me that they show us our frailty. They reveal our fundamental weakness as human beings. So there is no better liturgical occasion than Ash Wednesday to reflect, meditate and pray on this essential truth about ourselves and our humanity. Moreover, my feeling is that Ash Wednesday is the right time for us to cast a contemplative eye on what makes our Lenten journey so deeply human and godly at the same time.
From this perspective we are invited to contemplate our pain. Whether psychological or physical, or both at the same time, we realise that pain becomes suffering. The celebration of Ash Wednesday seems to challenge this experience of pain. It tells us that suffering is what our minds do with pain. As soon as we become aware of this, we step into a different spiritual land, where suffering can be seen as a spiritual event more than an inevitable part of our human condition. I have to confess that I always feel moved by the testimony of many of you who suffer in silence without complaining, exorcising your pain with a sense of humour. However, I also know that sometimes that same pain can become unbearable suffering, which may blur our sense of purpose to the point that we don’t know anymore whether life is worth living. I may be wrong but my humble experience tells me that we are no less Christian if we recognize this dramatic experience.
And Ash Wednesday is the right time to do it.
We are at the beginning of our Lenten journey, which gives us time to pause, to invoke the Holy Spirit, and to listen to the Gospel. What does the Gospel say to us? How does it talk to our hearts and minds today in our frail human condition?
Every year we come to receive the ashes on our foreheads and to hear the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is such a simple and powerful prayer! When the priest says: “We are dust.”, and marks the sign of the cross on our forehead, we are acknowledging our fundamental vulnerability and weakness before God and before our community of faith. At the same time we are also invited to accept our fragility. This is not just a simple act of awareness about our human condition, but an opening of our hearts to the Holy Spirit that enables us to acknowledge our pain and human frailty, not just as suffering, but as a spiritual revelation of the love of Christ in us. This way our human suffering becomes a spiritual journey from the very moment the Spirit of God and our spirits mysteriously combine to make sense of our vulnerability, weakness and mortality (Romans 8,16).
I think it is good to remember that the word patient, that we use to define someone who is ill, has a Latin origin, and means “the one who suffers”. I’m sure you all know friends and family who are going through difficult times because of their pain and suffering. The original meaning of the word patient reminds us that we are all spiritual patients. Most of us suffer from some physical or psychological pain, and often both, because our minds and our bodies are not separate entities, and what happens to the body inevitably affects the mind, and vice versa.
This is my first reflection and invitation to prepare ourselves to live our Lenten journey.
A second reflection is a meditation on today’s Gospel.
Last week I was in the beautiful monastery of Bose, a farm transformed into a monastery in the late ‘60s near Turin in the north of Italy. It is a peaceful place to go on Retreat. There is a splendid view of the Alps from the monastery, and you can enjoy the beautifully sung daily prayer in one of the few ecumenical monastic communities in the world. The atmosphere of prayer, silence and peace is amazing, not to mention the hospitality and the monk’s craftsmanship in ceramics and icon painting. I was grateful to God for this opportunity to pray, reflect and meditate, and I am conscious that my retreat was a preparation for this time of Lent that begins today. I mention this because thanks to my stay in the monastery I rediscovered the beauty of lectio divina and experienced the richness of the monastic tradition of reading, meditating, praying and contemplating the Gospel. The monks, who have it as daily practice in their monastic life, made me see it’s greatness and surprising simplicity.
My humble contribution to our spiritual journey leads me to notice how deeply transforming Jesus’ words are. The method of the lectio divina is fascinating because it helps us to read the Scriptures with fresh eyes. The invocation of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of this practice helps us to focus as we read a passage that we have read and heard many times before, clearing our minds of prejudices and preconceptions. The usual temptation as soon as we start reading, is a bit like this: “I already know this passage”, I already know how it ends”, and therefore, sometimes unconsciously we blind the eyes of our hearts and find we cannot see the mine of meanings that opens before us.
First we must let the Holy Spirit do His work and we will discover that this Gospel challenges every part of our souls. Then we read and ask: what does the Gospel say? and : What does it say to us?
At a first glance, we could ask what is wrong with showing that we are committed to giving alms, praying and fasting? Jesus makes the same point about the traditional practices of Lent:
“Don’t be like the hypocrites (…). Amen. They have received their reward (...). And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
The same wording is repeated three times for each practice: giving alms, praying and fasting. Hypocrisy seems to be key in his representation of these three traditional practices as something that must not be tolerated. Why? Well, because in Jesus’ understanding it is linked to vanity, and the desire of the Pharisees to be admired. It is status anxiety that leads them to hold in high esteem the appearance of what they are doing, and the admiration they get from others for appearing to do it, more than the activity itself. There is a serious lack of authenticity in their practice, a complete absence of spirituality, which becomes odious when they do it only for show.
Instead, Jesus directs us to listen to his Word with the eyes of our heart wide open. “When you are trying to be good” -and commit yourself to social transformation- “don’t make a performance out of it.” (The Message, by Eugene Pettersen) Jesus seems to suggest that the first step of our spiritual journey is: get your ego out of the way. Our negative thoughts and feelings are the dross that clutter our hearts and minds. Perhaps what Jesus wants to tell us is: “Don’t throw yourself into charity work to get social recognition, but to be compassionate toward others as God is compassionate toward you.”
When you pray, “find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God.” (The Message, by Eugene Pettersen) This is a call to search for silence, to find our own monastery in the world we live in. There might be someone who feels called to be a monk, like the ones I met in the monastery of Bose last week, but most of us aren’t! Therefore, we need to find our contemplative space to nurture our inner life, our one to one dialogue with God.
Finally, Jesus invites us to fast, which may need to be explained to make sense of its importance while we set off on our spiritual journey to Easter. One of the things I learned from the monks is the reason why they have their lunch in silence. One of them explained to me that it is about taking our relationship with food as a metaphor for our relationship with people. That intrigued me, because I always thought that the point of having silent meals was silence! Instead, the monks gave me something to reflect on. “Look at the way we eat our food.”, they say. Sometimes we devour it, or eat voraciously as a way of freeing ourselves, almost unloading ourselves, from the tensions of a frustrating meeting, or a difficult conversation. Or perhaps, instead, we take time to taste the food that someone else has cooked for us, and we savour it. The monks made me aware of the connection between the way we relate to food and the way that we sometimes relate to people. We can devour them with our aggressiveness or savour them when we perceive them as friends. The point here is not about being moralistic about our relationships, but using fasting as spiritual awareness of them, of the way we relate to one another. In that sense awareness can lead to the spiritual healing of our relationships.
I started by saying that we are called to live our pain and suffering as spiritual events, which is certainly a challenge. In today’s Gospel Jesus gives us the means to support our spiritual journey towards Easter. Even more He shows us the way to live a life with integrity, and to fight the sin of hypocrisy first in our personal life and second in the life of our community.
In our spiritual journey towards Easter Jesus invites us to long for humility and integrity, because we have already experienced the hypocrisy that creates a false view of the world and distorts the truth. This can only lead to destruction.