An Ash Wednesday Meditation

One of the great and enduring graces of our tradition is the liturgical year.  Following a meaningful and coherent cycle, we are led through the celebrations of the Christian year that are informed by the events of Jesus’ life.  Ash Wednesday, as you all know, marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period that precedes Easter.  And if Easter is the pivotal point of our faith, Lent is the time of preparation when we do the spadework and the cultivation for something very new to emerge at Easter.

Although there are many things we can’t control in life (most, actually), I have always believed that the preparatory work of Lent really does influence our experience of Easter and the meaning Easter has for us.  Lent, I believe, is a great and wonderful gift.  But to receive its greatest blessing we must reach for its deepest meaning.

But learning how to move meaningfully through Lent is not necessarily either clear or easy.  Mostly this is because Lent has become a caricature of itself.  We give something up for the forty-day period—call it a fast—and hope that it will do something for us.  Unfortunately it usually doesn’t, and we are left awash in disappointment and disillusionment.  Mostly this is because we are not aware of our hidden motivations to use spiritual experiences like we use everything else—to convince ourselves that we actually can control something or earn something or merit ourselves—even if it is only for forty days.  Of course, that kind of reasoning turns the true meaning of Lent around a full 180 degrees.

But really, we should know that spiritual realities—although they use the stuff of everyday life—are of a different order altogether.  It’s not like we can simply add up the little things we do and think that they will get us to a better spiritual place.  It just doesn’t work that way.  In fact, instead of doing more in order to make our spiritual lives more meaningful, I will be suggesting that we do less.  But let me get there step by step.

What if we were to look inside of Lent and see its deeper meaning?  I know there are all kinds of erudite theological books that propose to do just that, but there is another—a more unassuming little volume—that opens up the meaning of Lent as no other book I have ever read.  And this book doesn’t even propose to be about Lent!

Of course, the book to which I am referring you have heard me mention many times before. It is entitled Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons (1958-2002). The author was a professor of Humanities at Lake Forest College. When he was diagnosed with ALS (usually known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), Simmons left his teaching position and retired to his small New Hampshire hometown, where he wrote this book of twelve essays—reflections on life and living, death and dying.

Although I had read it previously, this book had particular meaning for me when I re-read it while I was recuperating from my cardiac surgery six years ago.  It eloquently expressed both the difficulties and the blessings I was moving through.  And I have returned to it every year since.  If you do nothing else this Lent other than read this book, you will find your life enriched and deepened.  And the letting go of Lent—which is, fundamentally, the subject that this book tackles—might bring you to an Easter joy and freedom that can only be found by relinquishing some of those things without which we fear we could not do without.  But, of course, here is the Gospel mystery that is fraught with paradox—that we find our lives by losing them.

In one of his essays, Simmons uses a Zen story that might serve as an appropriate introduction to our entry into Lent:

A man who was walking across a field was spotted by a tiger that, hoping this was dinner, starting chasing him.  Running for his life, the man ran as fast as his feet could carry him, but the tiger kept gaining on him.  The man was chased to the edge of a cliff, and, alas, he had no other choice but to leap.  The only chance to save himself was a branch sticking out of the cliff’s face halfway down.  The terrified man grabbed the branch and clung on to it for all he was worth.  Looking down, however, he was totally undone by what he saw: another tiger!
Then the man saw growing out of the cliff a small plant.  It was a strawberry plant, and there on a branch was one, lone ripe strawberry.  Letting go with one hand, the man found that he could stretch his arm out just far enough to pluck the strawberry with his fingertips and bring it to his lips.
How sweet it tasted!

You have probably been through a tight time or two in your life.  And probably from your experience in having gotten through that time you likely could have derived a couple or three nifty little learnings, like:  “we mustn’t wait for disaster to strike—we should stop and smell the coffee right now,” and “even when disaster does assail us, we can always count our blessings,” and “it’s always our choice to see the glass half full or half empty.”

But the Gospel takes us deeper than all those pithy sentiments, and Philip Simmons is able to point to that depth.  He rightly acknowledges that life is not a problem to be fixed but a mystery to be lived.  And what is it we are being asked by this mystery?  To be present—to be fully present—and to hand ourselves over to it.  In other words, we find the fullness of life by letting go of all our supposed solutions and trite explanations.  This letting go, Simmons declares, is the first step in learning how to fall.

And so instead of a flashy list of remedies to life understood as a problem, Simmons offers us what he calls mystery points—counterintuitive considerations to turn our worlds upside down.  Here they are:

  • If spiritual growth is what you seek, don’t ask for more strawberries: ask for more tigers.
  • The threat of tigers and the leap from the cliff are what give the strawberry its savor.  They cannot be avoided, and the strawberry can’t be enjoyed without them.  No tigers, no sweetness.
  • In falling we somehow gain what means most.  In falling we are given back our lives even as we lose them.

In thinking about Lent as the preparation for Easter, we might be tempted to think that, just as Jesus rose from the dead and overcame the fear and hatred that got him crucified, so too might we eventually triumph over all the forces that oppose us.  Although we are coming to accept the fact that we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, most all of us hold out the hope that God can do what we cannot and that ultimately God will bring us vindication in the final end.  Undoubtedly that is true.  But understanding things on that level in that sequence puts us way ahead of ourselves and keeps us from the fullness of this present moment (and the strawberry).

Without disclaiming this kind of ultimacy, I nevertheless have to say that Lent is really about something else altogether.  Yes, there may well be some ultimate triumph inherent in the life of faith, but that is not its means and that should not be its motive.  No, there is something deeper.  In Lent we have the opportunity to find the fullness of life in the falling itself.  In Lent we can strive to live more fully in the mystery and work intentionally to give up our efforts to control by needing to understand and figure it all out.  More than assuming that we will automatically come out in one piece on the other side (that is, the Easter side), in Lent we can find something akin to the hidden victory in the vulnerability of the falling itself.  And that is the deep truth that is spoken when the ashes are imposed on your forehead.  It doesn’t mean that you are a sinful wretch; it means that as a human being you are marked with the vulnerability of finitude.

For the truth of life is that we are falling—falling in ways that are painfully obvious, falling in ways that we have yet to discover.  It’s tigers above us, tigers below.  But there is in the midst of the falling that red, ripe strawberry.  Will we reach out to enjoy it?

It just may be that the Kingdom that Jesus is calling us to is not defined by “victory” in the usual way we think about “victory.”  If this is so—and I really think it is—then giving up something in Lent to prove ourselves worthy or to earn some kind of vindication in the end actually cuts against the deepest and truest meaning of where Lent might bring us.

I invite you to mark a very different kind of Lent. Let us, then, explore together all the myriad ways in which we are falling.  This is an exploration in vulnerability—a shared vulnerability.  And instead of being a grossly morbid and gloomy exercise, we may just find grace emerging—and strawberries!