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.
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.
[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