The challenge of Lent is to go deeper into our own hearts despite the distractions, to go beyond the religious differences and the pettiness of the world around us, and seek union with God above all else, writes Joanna Thyer.
BY Joanna Thyer*
I have always found Lent to be a strange time, a time that mimics the journey into the desert with Jesus, a journey into the unknown. The complexities of life and the world seem more vivid somehow and the unpredictability and ambiguity of life seems to present itself with more urgency.
February, being the early stage of the year, also often has an air of franticness about it, since for most people the holidays are usually over, and everyone is back into the merry-go-round of work and business. This year has had a particularly anxious start, with the plight of refugee children in detention and the crisis situation in Syria unavoidable realities.
I find it interesting that some people choose to mark the Lenten period by giving up something like chocolates. For me, often the hardest thing to do is to give up one of the greatest temptations – seeking distraction in the world around one – and instead focus on prayer and meditation and other spiritual practices.
Prayer and meditation help us enter into the story of Jesus’ passion and the common journey we share, the story of our own lives. They also help discern the role of intuition and the place of the heart in our world.
Messiness and suffering are part of the fabric of life and part of the Lenten experience. Through Jesus’ journey, and the Lenten observance of letting go of attachments, we can also acknowledge, like Buddhists do, that impermanence is the eternal reality. (The Ash Wednesday blessing of “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return”, echoes this). Lent then becomes a natural process to take part in.
Many famous theologians, mystics and writers have explored these themes. The Jesuit philosopher, palaeontologist, theologian and mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a devotee of cosmic theology and wrote about the new phase of evolution on Earth – the growth in the level of human consciousness. He famously espoused the idea that “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience” (from The Joy of Kindness).
De Chardin’s interest in evolution and palaeontology led him to speak about the “Omega Point”, which he saw as the goal point which all of creation was being pulled towards – a theme highlighted at the Easter Vigil. Similarly, in Pauline philosophy in the New Testament, the Omega Point can also be understood as God, or the Christian logos, and our consciousness growing along with a more complex universe towards God.
De Chardin encapsulates beautifully the turmoil and distraction that is often present during the Lenten season. For some, it can be like Jesus going into the desert to be tempted. “Urges,” he wrote, “come at us from the four quarters of the world, pass through our consciousness at every moment…. They will merge into the most intimate life of our soul, and either develop it or poison it.” We have the potential to feel either “delight or anxiety”, through “the continuous process of elaboration which all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to become spirit” (from The Divine Milieu).
De Chardin died of a heart attack in New York on Easter Sunday, 1955, the day he had allegedly said to his friends, he wished to die. A man who clearly understood his own life journey as a metaphor for that of Jesus, yet had a tumultuous relationship with the Church, (his works were banned by the Vatican on many occasions), said that “We are only truly understood through our history”. So Jesus’ journey into the desert which we mark by the season of Lent, may also be understood as a journey into greater cosmic consciousness.
Thomas Merton also wrote: “our destiny is to go beyond everything, to leave everything, to press forward to the End and find in the End our beginning, the ever new beginning that has no End” (from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander). Another mystical Jesuit, Karl Rahner, also wrote that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or nothing at all” (from Foundations of Christian Faith). St John of the Cross used to speak of the “pursuit of nothing” or “no thing” – where everything is seen as nothing compared to God.
Fear and anxiety goes on around us and is fed to us on a daily basis. Yet still Lent is a desert experience that calls us to get closer to God. So as well as setting aside time for prayer and meditation, and doing healthy spiritual practices like taking stock of relationships and so on, we might also befriend our wounds or brokenness and accept the imperfection of ourselves and our world as part of a process.
The challenge of Lent is to go deeper into our own hearts despite the distractions, to go beyond the religious differences and the pettiness of the world around us, and seek union with God above all else.
Perhaps one of the best Lenten observances is to adhere to the simplicity of St Ignatius’ prayer: “Take Lord and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will – all that I have and call my own – You have given it all to me, To You Lord, I return it, Everything is yours, do with it as you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me”.
* Joanna Thyer wrote three Lenten programs for the Sydney Archdiocese from 1999-2001. She was until recently a hospital chaplain and is now working as a Multi-Faith Chaplaincy Coordinator for the University of Technology, Sydney, as well as being a part-time Coordinator for CatholicCare’s Tree of Hope program. Joanna is also a published author; her most recent work is 12 Steps to Spiritual Freedom, (Loyola Press, 2014).
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