Thursday, February 7, 2013

Getting ready for Lent


One of the most difficult things about Lent for me, and apparently many others from the number of people who have asked me about it over the years, is choosing a Lenten discipline. A Lenten discipline is a spiritual practice – either giving up something (e.g., meat or chocolate) or taking on something (e.g., saying Morning or Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer daily) – that a person commits to following during the forty days of Lent that span the period from Ash Wednesday until Palm Sunday.

Some people adopt the same discipline every year, an approach that avoids a potentially difficult. Considerate individuals who live with other peopl generally attempt to select a discipline that will not create relationship difficulties, e.g., deciding to become Vegan in a household where meat is the main course for most meals. Other persons seek a discipline that they think will be both practical and realistic, e.g., a night owl might want to think twice (or even three times!) before committing to rise at 4:00 am for two hours of physical and spiritual exercise every morning during Lent.

Yet another approach to selecting a Lenten discipline is to reflect on why you wish to adopt it, i.e., what you hope to gain from observing a particular rule or engaging in a particular practice for forty days. Last year, I wrote about this, suggesting that a Lenten discipline might be an excellent opportunity to cultivate a character habit or trait that you think might make you a better person, i.e., more like Jesus (cf. Ethical Musings Importance of Character).

Still another perspective on choosing a Lenten discipline is that the practice or rule will hopefully draw one more deeply into the spiritual life, move one along the path toward God. Do you adopt your Lenten practice or rule with an expectation of magic, mystery, or mysticism?

Magic promises assured results through correct manipulation of things and proper application of power, usually through ritual. Wicca, a modern nature religion, claims to teach its adherents how to produce beneficial outcomes through manipulating things and conducting rituals in accordance with their teaching. In fact, the Wiccans have more in common with alchemists than with religion. Medieval alchemists' greatest interest was in turning base metal into gold, a challenge that attracted such luminaries as Newton, much to the embarrassment of genuine scientists.

Magic is either bunk or illusion. Nobody can saw a person in half and then reassemble the parts into a whole, unscarred and uninjured. Alchemy and most of the Wiccan teachings that I've read are pure bunk: no amount of manipulation of the specified things when accompanied by the allegedly appropriate ritual properly performed can produce the promised results.

Although we may wish, even sometimes truly and profoundly desire, our religious practices to be magic, they are never genuine magic. No amount of right belief, right prayer, right giving, right worship, or right anything else can guarantee that God, another person, or any other element of creation will act according to our aspirations. God, as I have written previously at Ethical Musings, is not a celestial vending machine whom people can manipulate by depositing the right "coinage" (prayers or spiritual practices). A "vending machine" God is anything but the dynamic, loving creator of the cosmos.

Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, and a host of other novelists have popularized the genre of mystery. Some of these authors were Christians, who like Dorothy Sayre and Kate Charles, followed the Anglican branch of the Christian path; others, including G.K. Chesterton (who is remembered in the Episcopal Church's annual commemoration of persons who have lived the Christian life writ large), travelled different branches of the Christian path.

Mystery, whether it connotes fiction, unknown facts that are relevant to science or another field of inquiry, or questions about the future, delves beyond magic. Mystery poses a question or questions, often presuming that answers will become accessible, given sufficient time, diligence in searching, and intelligence.

Genuine religion suggests that some mysteries exist for which the answers are so sublime, so ineffable, that highlighting the mystery is as close to an answer as is possible. For example, a god describable in human language – not in abstract nouns that lack a referent and are therefore but signs that point to mystery but through concrete nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs – is not divine, but an idol, reduced to the finite scale of human linguistic referents.

On occasion, a person may move beyond the mystery into a moment of encounter with the divine, perhaps experiencing an overwhelming love, oneness with nature and all creation, or the bliss of an indescribable inner peace. Known as mystical experiences, brevity, ineffability, transcendence, and a noetic quality are four marks that characterize such moments.

Daily meditation is the most commonly identified means for cultivating mystical experiences, heightening one's awareness of the world within or without through focused attention (for more on meditation, see Ethical Musings Meditation - a form of prayer and path to human flourishing).

However, there are several other entry points for those seeking a mystical experience, i.e., personal encounter with the Holy. Contemplation – a form of reflection – is one such entry point, whether of nature, spiritual writings (to include scripture), art, or music (for more on contemplation, see Ethical Musings Contemplation).

Moments of intense love for another person can provide another entry point. The Song of Solomon, a prima facie love poem between a man and a woman is also a testament to the power of such love to move one beyond the mysterious acceptance, affirmation, and unity experienced in human love to the mystical acceptance, affirmation, and unity experienced in God's love for us. The great Jewish philosopher and mystic Martin Buber described this type of relationship as an I-Thou relationship, in stark contrast to the I-It relationships that predominate. We can find these moments with one whom we love as parent, partner, friend, or child; we can find these moments with one whom we serve, our neighbor whom we love as we love ourselves.

In the past, have you chosen a Lenten discipline out of habit, convenience, or practicality? Have you chosen a practice or rule, something to give up or something to do, hoping to produce magical changes in yourself or God? Has your journey taken you deeper, moving you into the realm of mystery, challenging you to search for answers and to learn to live in the silence? Is this the year in which you want to go even deeper, to seek the One who is sensed but not grasped, experienced but not named?

If so, then choose a Lenten rule or practice that will help you to travel from magic to mystery or from mystery to mysticism.

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