Ash Wednesday: Spiritual R & R – Reconciliation and Renewal
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. It tends to be a day when people think about what they are going to give up in preparation for Easter. Fasting can be seen as a convenient type of dieting. Almsgiving can be reduced to cleaning out the closets.
However, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are ancient practices in societies and religions all across the world. They are ways to produce altered states of consciousness and encounters with the divine. In the Christian tradition they are part of the “via negativa” or negative way. Generally, we tend to see this type of deprivation against the historical backdrop of hermits in the desert rejecting the “flesh” of worldly temptation and indulgence. Of course this conflicts with our consumer culture of comfort and instant gratification. It also conflicts with a more positive psychological model in which the focus on human weakness is replaced with a focus on human self-fulfillment and actualization.
In the secular model of well being, human and social limitations can be overcome by refocusing our attention and modifying our behavior. Hammering down our feeling and emotions – especially sexual ones – is sometimes seen as harming mental health. By denying our interior tensions and conflicts, we can fail to confront the real challenges we should be facing in our psychological development.
Lent itself is an old word for Spring – that time when the world comes to life again. The “via negativa,” the more traditional model of asceticism (an interesting Greek word for athletic training), and the contemporary model of self affirmation are not really opposed. They can actually be healthy correctives. If we focus exclusively on restraining ourselves we not only ignore opportunities for growth, we can also ignore what God is calling us to do. Focusing only on my needs and self-fulfillment can also lead to such an inward narcissistic self-absorbed focus that we cut ourselves off from true happiness.
In subsequent posts, as we journey through Lent, I will share with you some more reflections on being happy, holy, and healthy. This is a wonderful season for reconciliation with ourselves and others and a time of renewal for our call to serve and to engage in the coming of the Kingdom – the age of justice.
So.. what am I going to get for Lent?