We are at the beginning of another Lent. That means something if you are within the Catholic/Orthodox framework. This is an important time for spiritual and liturgical reasons. It is a time of clarification of our priorities and our vision and our self-understanding. This is also at the heart of monastic life, and the monk is the quintessential “Lent person.” This also happens to be one of my favorite times!
Now Lent can be understood in different ways, and in fact some of this can be very truncated, very superficial, even very distorted. Unfortunately this is mostly true of a lot of traditional religiosity. In my youth I was very much a devout follower, but as I got older I began to question more and more of it. It is not that there aren’t great and profound truths in what I like to call “old school spirituality,” but it is so laden with misconceptions, misunderstandings, superficial concerns, etc., etc. And so many people are burdened by a language they are so eager and docile to accept. Granted, this is less true today than a few decades ago; but it still afflicts us in many ways.
The roots of the problem is in our reticence to “question all authority”—as that old bumper sticker says. The authority both of persons and the language of our tradition. In the case of religious traditions, practices and structures, this becomes critical. Otherwise we can easily become enveloped in a fog of superficial mythology and our spiritual path reduced to simply “trying to be a better person.” In some cases we can be seriously fooled and badly damaged interiorly. Recently I saw a report about Jean Vanier, that he was involved in the sexual molestation of a number of women associated with his community of disabled people. He and the Dominican priest who built this community were hero-worshipped as almost saints, but it turns out there was a “dark side” to this story. One writer who detailed this sad story correctly points out how certain ecclesial attitudes and structures and language enabled and shielded this situation.
The hero-worshipping of Vanier and his Dominican cohort is a symptom that can be found in all religious traditions(that’s how certain Buddhist teachers got away with The religious dynamic in us somehow always drives us to put certain people and certain religious language and religious structures on a pedestal. History shows us that is a big mistake with all kinds of serious consequences. By the way, the “questioning of all authority” is not antinomian or anarchic, and it is as old as the hills. Read the Desert Fathers, for example, and you’ll find it there all the time—not of course if you institutionalize their words and turn them into a “fossil record” of conventional piety.
But getting back to our Lent…. What is this all about? Old school spirituality speaks of “penance, prayer, and fasting.” We also hear about “giving-up” stuff during Lent. That was real big when I was a kid in the ‘50s. We also get a good dose of what I call “cross-language”—from the Gospel, using that historical moment of Jesus’ crucifixion as a metaphor/symbol of something else. Ok, all this language has an authentic sense to it and it can serve a true spiritual purpose. But….how truly sad it is to see that mostly it is handled in a very superficial way and at times in a very distorted way that ultimately leads people away from the depths and mystery of the spiritual journey.
Consider the following insight from a book on Plotinus (Return to the One):
“A person’s illusory and shifting sense of individuality thus must be distinguished from a true sense of self. If one traces his or her I-ness back to its source, as one would trace a line (or radius) back to the center of the circle from which it emanates, then the core of one’s self will be found to be identical with the core of everything.”
Yes, and this insight is at the heart, one way or another, of all the major spiritual traditions. Our real identity is not this “solid” isolated self entity that relates to all else via external relations. Rather we are essentially a pure relationality—not an isolated entity (this is at the heart of the Buddhist no-self doctrine and as my Thomistic philosophy professor put it, our self is like a tunnel at one end of which is this sense of “I” and at the other end, if we look deep enough, is the ultimate reality which we call God and the two are this one tunnel of relationality). Both Aristotle and the Dalai Lama say that all human beings seek to be “happy,” but if they have a mistaken sense of self their search for happiness will not only be frustrated but actually may cause more suffering and darkness to themselves and to others. When we begin to realize the interrelatedness that IS our self, this also affects all our understandings of ethics, morality, politics, economics, etc. So the real meaning of Lent isn’t about “preparing for Easter,” eating fish on Fridays or “giving up” something or going to church more often or even “trying to be a better person” whatever that means, but it has to do really with getting our priorities right and focusing on what is our core identity. When we finally do get to Easter, we finally get to that symbolic point that is beyond all language, all concepts, all images…the Resurrection in Christian terms, where the Risen Christ manifests to us the meaning of our existence which is not bound by death or any other limitation of identity. Paul has his moment on the road to Damascus….”Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me”—Paul discovers himself not as this individual trying real hard to “keep the Law,” and he is a real zealot at that, but now he finds a whole new sense of being—not “I” but “Christ.” So, in the words of the Upanishads, our true Lenten journey is a journey from the unreal to the Real.