Why do we want to make God such a powerful force that works (as we like to imagine) by intervening and controlling situations and making things turn out comfortably for his favorites? What if the true nature and “power” of God was expressed in quite different human metaphors? What if heaven was a place where there were no social distinctions, where the vulnerable was more powerful than the oppressive? Fragility, tenderness, the marginal, the simply beautiful rather than the magnificent? These are much more difficult to believe as symbols of what “God,” the verb, and “heaven,” the non-spatial place, mean. Yet they speak to us with greater truth and leave a deeper impression. They bring us closer to seeing what the truth is by helping us to see things as they truly are in a world where we habitually weave illusions of success to conceal our fears and insecurities. In a day balanced on the twin levers of morning and evening meditation, the strong, true subtleties of life win out over the habits of fantasy. In Lenten days when the spirit of self-control and careful attention to detail sharpen our perception and soften our anxiety, God and heaven come down to earth.
Compassion is more than behavior. It is the way that things are done, the fundamental current through which action flows toward self and others. And the source of compassion is not less than the true self, that irreducible “I” in which the ego has been fully absorbed and therefore is invisible and casts no shadow. When action flows from this non-geographical point of pure identity, it is unconcerned about what it looks like and even about whether it is good or bad in the eyes of others. Compassion is pure action issuing from purity of heart. It is carried along toward others by a force of generosity that is too complete, and too fulfilling for it to worry about what it is going to get in return. We have to learn and relearn to stay centered and be simple. We have to remember when we forget.
Jesus was cared for after he was exhausted by what he went through in the forty days in the desert. He had confronted the dark forces of his ego, urging him to power, self-sufficiency and pride. He had seen through them and did not succumb to the temptation to give up the struggle to be real, to stay real and to deny the easy allurements of illusion. But that can be exhausting at times and, like any human being, he needed to be ministered to. Where do we find this ministry of spiritual friendship and accompaniment in our own lives? Not perhaps in hosts of angels flying down from above, but in the sharing of the pilgrimage ever deeper into the realm of the real. Although the commitment to reality demands solitude, it also opens us up to community. The people we meet in the desert of our solitude are real friends. We recognize each other and value each other but also know we cannot possess each other because the pilgrimage is also a journey into a dispossession of our own selves.
Special status is an illusion in which we take refuge when things are going well. We may even thank God because the storm missed us and hit the next peninsula. When things go badly—when we lose what we have enjoyed or fail to achieve what we have long worked and hoped for, or have the time of pleasure cut short—the special status feels as if it has been withdrawn. Even if it is just life and ever-changing circumstances that cause us to lose what we value—like health—we get a nagging feeling of being picked on. We feel angry at something (a Santa Claus God or the government). We feel we have lost status through illness or even when undergoing tests. There is a sense of superiority that the healthy and happy can hardly help feeling toward the sick and those whom life seems to have treated badly. Yet this sense of being separated and marginalized by fate has a grace. Jesus said he came for the sick, not the healthy. He dined with sinners, not church leaders. So who’s “special”?
In a digital age virtual reality seems more convenient than actuality. Whims can be satisfied on the spot. You can pay extra for same-day delivery. If the name of an actor is on the tip of your tongue, Google can help your memory. When you want out-of-season vegetables you just need to find the right supermarket. In practice, these are perks of twenty-first-century living (in the First World) that we are reluctant to give up. The incremental danger, however, is a creeping distance from the world where disappointment and loss are inevitable. We feel our human rights have been abused when it is merely our consumer desires that have been denied. Contentment becomes a superficial feeling that keeps us permanently vulnerable, disassociated and self-centered. Jesus defended his disciples for not fasting while he was with them. He must have been a joyful and exhilarating person to be with. But he warned them of an impending separation and to be prepared for loss. There is a time-cycle for everything in life that even the best-stocked 24-hour convenience store cannot change. Blake said, “Kiss the joy as it flies.” The practices of Lent, resting on the foundation of the meditating day, help us to be both realistic and happy. The two go together in a way that consumerism can never fathom.
Our five senses and physical life are intricately woven into our spiritual seasons. When our spiritual life is clouded by negative states of mind or recurrent patterns that keep us self-absorbed, our senses too lose their edge. We feel dull, depressed and unengaged with the world and all its relationships, in which we live and breathe. But when we are spiritually awake, our senses pick up the vitality of life and we can smell, see, touch, hear and taste—whether it is ravishing or disgusting, at least we will sense it fully for what it is. The sensual part of our consciousness needs the spiritual and the spiritual needs the sensual. When they are balanced they merge and form a single, perfect language and we experience wholeness.
How can we make the best of this season? Commit more generously and absolutely to twice-daily meditation. Also embrace two other realistic yet hope-filled practices to develop self-control as a way to personal liberty and freedom from anxiety, compulsiveness and fear. One should involve moderation and the other, exertion. Reduce (or drop) something you do excessively—like alcohol or time-wasting. Add something you don’t do enough—like a daily nonjudgmental act of kindness to someone in need or simply being nice to people when they annoy you.
A lot can happen in forty days and forty nights. More useful things will happen if we enter into this period of sweet discipline with open hearts and minds, with conscious attention. It’s not about succeeding, however, but it’s about simply being faithful. That’s when the most interesting, enlivening things happen. It is then that our sense of God is opened, transforming everything.
The forty days and nights of Lent are about simplification, purification, getting priorities reestablished and remembering that God, not my ego, is the center of reality. Whatever discipline you take up for Lent (giving up sweets or alcohol, doing spiritual reading, spending more time with your loved ones, helping someone in need) it is about this—simplification and purification. The ancient word for this discipline was ascesis and it was used as a metaphor from the training exercises of athletes. Lent is a time for spiritual ascesis or exercise, shedding some unnecessary mental fat, toning the muscles of attention and patience.
—from the book Sensing God: Learning to Meditate during Lent by Laurence Freeman, OSB