Ash Wednesday Isn’t for Heroes

Giovanni Bellini, Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (1460)

Yesterday’s come-from-behind Olympic victory by Shaun White in the snowboarding halfpipe was both thrilling drama and breathtaking athleticism. Following a failure to medal in the last Olympics and a serious injury in competition just four months ago, his triumph fit the classic pattern of the hero’s journey: an arduous path “through many dangers, toils and snares” until the prize is won. But the hero’s journey, however inspiring, is not our Lenten theme. We walk a different way, practicing self-compassion in the dust and ashes of our own defeats.

Every Ash Wednesday, my favorite Winter Olympics story comes to mind. Readers may recall it from a 2016 post, but I offer it again here, prefaced by Mary Oliver’s Lenten antiphon:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.[i]

In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater Dan Jansen, the best in the world, was the consensus pick to win the 500 and 1000 meter events. On the morning of the 500 final, he learned his sister had just died from leukemia. His focus clearly elsewhere, he fell on the first turn of his race and never finished. He would also fall and fail in the 1000 meters. At the 1992 Olympics, he again failed to win the medals expected of him. The 1994 Olympics offered him one last chance, and he came to the line of the 500 meter race as the clear favorite, the only skater ever to break 36 seconds, which he had done four times. But after one slight slip on the ice, he finished out of the medals yet again.

Ash Wednesday came just after that race, and during the liturgy I reflected on Jansen’s story in my homily. Although Jansen would finally win a gold medal a few days later (in the one race where he was an underdog), it was his “failures” that resonated with people. After the liturgy, a therapist in the congregation told me that many of her clients that week had talked with her about Jansen’s story, and how much it moved them. If the world’s greatest skater could fall, then maybe it was all right for them to fall as well. You don’t have to be a hero, only your own flawed and unfinished self, letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In his youth, the poet David Whyte was hiking in the Himalayas when he came to a deep chasm. The only way across was a rickety old rope bridge with many missing slats. Although he was a confident, experienced mountaineer, he suddenly froze at the prospect of traversing the abyss on so treacherous a path. He sat down on the ground and stared at the bridge for hours, unable to proceed. “There are times when the hero has to sit down,” he said later. “At some bridges in life the part of you that always gets it done has to sit down.” Then an old Tibetan woman came along, gathering yak dung for fuel. She walked with a limp. “Namaste,” she said with a smile. Then she turned and limped across the bridge. Immediately, without thinking, he rose up and followed. Sometimes, he realized, it is “the old interior angel,” the unheroic, limping, unequipped part of ourselves, that gets us to the other side.[ii]

Remember that you are dust, and no hero. Whether your Lent will be a time of giving up, going deep, or reaching out, may it always be done with a generous measure of self-compassion.

 

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in Devotions (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 347.

[ii] Remembered from a David Whyte talk in the 1990s.

Ash Wednesday: A time for self-compassion

 

Alleluia ashes 2sm

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again.

– Etty Hillesum[i]

 

Hillesum’s evocative image expresses the duality of the Lenten season. On the one hand, God is not the end product of spiritual attainment, something brought closer through our own efforts. The deep well of divinity is already present within us, “more intimate to me than I am to myself.”[ii] We don’t have to go somewhere else to find it. Lent is a time to tune in, go deep, and pay heightened attention to the Presence we often miss.

At the same time, our awareness of – and relationship with – this Presence may be hindered or obstructed by any number of things, requiring some real digging on our part. The trouble is, that digging can quickly become a self-improvement project, with Lent’s success judged by the quality and success of our efforts. We imagine a more spiritually heroic self, and strive to make it come true.

The ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers, who fled the corruption and distractions of their culture to seek a holier life in the wastelands beyond Empire, might seem at first glance to be overflowing with heroic aspiration. A typical regimen would be to “get up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and commandment of God. Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress, be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes… Do your work in peace. Persevere in keeping vigil, in hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, and in sufferings.”[iii]

Such rigorous spiritual practice wasn’t for the halfhearted. But it risked the competitive sin of pride. Paul of Pherme, for instance, undertook the project of “continual prayer” – 300 prayers per day, keeping count with a pile of 300 pebbles in his lap. After each prayer, he tossed away one pebble. But he was crestfallen to learn of a certain woman who had been saying 700 prayers per day for thirty years! He would never catch up. Another desert father, Macarius the Alexandrian, warned Paul that his spiritual life lacked both balance and humility. But Macarius was no moderate. He once did penance for swatting a mosquito by moving to a swamp to endure six months of insect bites, without ever raising a hand in defense.[iv]

Thankfully, the extremists were not the norm. More prevalent was a spirit of deep humility about one’s capacities. John Climacus was a seventh-century monk at Mt. Sinai. His image of the spiritual life as a “Ladder of Divine Ascent” was later pictured in a famous twelfth-century icon.

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine's Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

If you have ever climbed a very tall ladder, or done any rock-climbing, you know the degree of both effort and risk involved. John’s image makes it very clear that the spiritual life is strenuous and challenging. “We need to exercise ourselves greatly,” he wrote, “to lay upon ourselves many hidden labors after a life of negligence.” But then he said,

Be of good heart. If the passions lord it over us and we are weak, let us with great confidence offer to Christ our spiritual weakness and our impotence . . . He will help us irrespective of what we deserve, on the sole condition that we descend continually to the bottom, into the abyss of humility.[v]

So we don’t have to be heroes after all. What a relief! Humility, not heroism, is the way up the ladder. As the Rule of Saint Benedict teaches us, “by trying to climb we descend, and by humility we ascend.”[vi] That’s why Ash Wednesday strikes just the right note for the beginning of Lent. It brings us down to earth as creatures of ashes, dust and mud, undermining any pretensions of Promethean heroism. The Lenten journey is come-as-you-are.

Mary Oliver puts this perfectly: “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”[vii] Or as Simone Weil suggested, self-compassion means to “accept what one is, at a given moment, as a fact – even one’s shame.”

In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater Dan Jansen was favored in the 500 and 1000 meter events. On the morning of the 500 final, he learned his sister had just died from leukemia. His focus clearly elsewhere, he fell on the first turn of his race and never finished. He would also fall and fail in the 1000 meters. At the 1992 Olympics, he again failed to win the medals expected of him. The 1994 Oympics offered him one last chance, and he came to the line of the 500 meter race as the clear favorite, the only skater ever to break 36 seconds, which he had done four times. But after one slight slip on the ice, he finished out of the medals yet again.

Ash Wednesday came just after that race, and I reflected on Jansen’s story in my homily. Although Jansen would finally win a gold medal a few days later (in the one race where he was an underdog), it was his “failures” that resonated with people. After the liturgy, a therapist in the congregation told me that many of her clients that week had talked with her about Jansen’s story, and how much it moved them. If the world’s greatest skater could fall, then maybe it was all right for them to fall as well. You don’t have to be a hero, only yourself, letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In his youth, the poet David Whyte was hiking in the Himalayas when he came to a deep chasm. The only way across was a rickety old rope bridge with many missing slats. Although he was a confident, experienced mountaineer, he suddenly froze at the prospect of traversing the abyss on so treacherous a path. He sat down on the ground and stared at the bridge for hours, unable to proceed. “There are times when the hero has to sit down,” he said later. “At some bridges in life the part of you that always gets it done has to sit down.” Then an old Tibetan woman came along, gathering yak dung for fuel. She walked with a limp. “Namaste,” she said with a smile. Then she turned and limped across the bridge. Immediately, without thinking, he rose up and followed. Sometimes, he realized, it is “the old interior angel,” the unheroic, limping, unequipped part of ourselves, that gets us to the other side.[viii]

Remember that you are dust, and no hero. Whether your Lent will be a time of giving up, going deep, or reaching out, may it always be done with a generous measure of self-compassion.

As Mary Gauthier sings so beautifully, we could all use a little mercy now.

 

 

Related posts

George Herbert: Heart work and heaven work

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

[i] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), August 25, 1941 (two years before she died in Auschwitz)

[ii] St. Augustine, Confessions III.

[iii] The Apophthegmata (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 199-200

[iv] ibid., 288

[v] John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, 1st Step, 17, in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New York: New City Press, 1993), 152

[vi] ibid., 156 (Rule of St. Benedict VII)

[vii] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 110

[viii] From a talk given by David Whyte in the 1990’s

 

Solitude (Part 2)

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

This evening, an inner light shone up from within, and a voice called, “Come to me, trust me, depend on me. You cannot do it yourself. You’re trapped where you are, and your struggling efforts to free yourself enmesh you more deeply. Come to me.” “Yes,” I answered, and surrendered. Yet my pride was soon fighting back. This is the work I came to do.

— Robert Kull[i]

In Solitude (Part 1), I described one man’s experiment of living in total solitude for one year on a remote island in southern Chile. On this Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Christian retreat from habitual living and pesky attachments, it seems a good time to ask what Robert Kull’s experience might teach us about spending time in the “desert.” What happens out there? Will it change us?

Kull has few pretensions about being a hero. One of his first journal entries expresses a feeling of utter weakness and vulnerability: “Alone. A tiny solitary speck completely vulnerable in the face of an infinite universe intent on my annihilation.”[ii] Over the next twelve months he suffers frequent bouts of anxiety, loneliness, rage, depression, emptiness, grief, and self-doubt – all those demons that have nowhere to hide without the constructions and distractions of the social world. “What is this core I’m knotted around?” he wrote after three months. “What painful wound am I protecting? I want nothing to touch me there – but rain, wind, cold, and Cat [his feline companion] keep battering the walls I build.”[iii]

The solution, as he must learn over and over, is not to fight and overcome his human condition, but to surrender: “My goal in the wilderness was not to conquer either the external world or my own inner nature, but to give up the illusion of ownership and control and to experience myself as part of the ebb and flow of something greater than individual ego.”[iv]

He was never entirely free of the hero’s quest to attain a goal, to find the Holy Grail of a perfected self. “It’s painful to feel I’m failing,” he wrote halfway through his year.[v] He worried he was just going round in circles instead of making real progress. He felt like Sisyphus. But isn’t that how the soul dance goes? It’s not the attainment of a final cure for what ails us, but a lifelong process of continual care and self-compassion. As the monks say when asked what they do all day in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up.” Or as a Zen patriarch once put it, “One enlightened thought and one is a Buddha, one foolish thought and one is again an ordinary person.”[vi]

We should rejoice that enlightenment and foolishness (or grace and sin) remain so intertwined in this life. It reminds us that grace is a gift, not a possession. It frees us from pretension and pride, and makes us ever grateful.

In his last days on the island, Kull wrote:

I’m not sure what enlightenment is, but I believe there have been moments. If so, enlightenment is not something I can get. It’s the process of abandoning myself to the world. There have been times when, like a clear bell, I could hear the sound of one hand clapping and feel the sacredness of everything. It’s the sound of the world, once I remember in my heart that there is truly nothing to get. What I’m looking for, I already have.[vii]

In his year of solitude, Kull experienced many moments of enlightenment to go with the many foolish ones. Some of his best thoughts are framed in the language of his adopted Buddhist tradition, but his struggles with self-will and ego are resonant with Christian spirituality as well. “Surrendering the ego to Something Greater is at the heart of spiritual practice, and the process is endlessly subtle and challenging.”[viii]

Kull’s wilderness year did not fix him. He returned home still a work-in-progress. But he had definitely been changed by his sojourn in solitude, and the meaning of that change will only be revealed over the rest of his life. As I often heard when I walked the Camino de Santiago, “when you reach Santiago, your real Camino begins.”

Kull’s relationship with the wind is my favorite example of his spiritual growth. When he began his year in the southern summer, the winds were intense and seemingly endless. If you have ever camped in high winds, you know how wearying, even terrifying, a continuous barrage of turbulence can be. For a long time, Kull regarded the wind as his enemy – an attacking, malevolent force trying to break him down. But as he gradually learned to surrender to the world, to accept the way things are and not take them personally, he recognized the wind had been his teacher all along. In his final weeks on the island, he began to fly a kite on calmer days. The wind had become his playful companion.

For those of us beginning our Lenten retreat today, Kull’s valuable experiment in solitude has much to teach us. The subtractions of retreat – doing without, giving up, setting aside, getting away – can free us from the clutter, noise, addictions, distractions and deceptions that drown out the still, small voice calling our name in every moment. And the unaccustomed hardships of the “desert” – severity, deprivation, emptiness, loneliness, demons – can break the spell of self-sufficiency, returning us to the honest condition of primal need. Few of us will spend a year on a Patagonian island, but a faithful keeping of Lent may take us to a place of similar learning and growth.

Perhaps the best thing we can take from Kull’s journals is the gift of self-compassion. We don’t have to be heroes. We don’t have to be cured. We don’t have to pretend at spiritual competence or perfection. We don’t even have to be “good,” as Mary Oliver reminds us. We “only have to let the soft animal of [our] body / love what it loves.”[ix] And every now and then, as Kull duly notes, we get it: “Finally I am – if only briefly – the flowing All.”[x]

Tonight I will kneel in church for the imposition of ashes. A priest will trace a charred cross on my forehead and say to me, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

What a relief! Only dust, neither hero nor angel. And yet, is not dust the very material God selected to fabricate a physical image of the divine self? This dust may yet shine with glory not its own.

Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’ry where.[xi]

[i] Robert Kull, Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes – A Year Alone in the Patagonian Wilderness (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008) 98

[ii] Kull, 4

[iii] Kull, 70

[iv] Kull, 47

[v] Kull, 141

[vi] Hui Neng, Sixth Zen Patriarch, q. in Kull, 288

[vii] Kull, 293

[viii] Kull, 271

[ix] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992) 110

[x] Kull, 283 (italics mine)

[xi] George Herbert, “The Temper”