One of my spiritual teachers, Gerald May, describes the spiritual journey in terms of taking time to pause, notice, open, yield and stretch, and respond. This is good Lenten advice. Lent is about mindfulness and opening to our current reality in all its fullness.
A few wise colleagues responded to last week’s Lenten question – “Practicing a Progressive Lent: Simplicity and Celebration” – with the concern that repentance is essential to experiencing grace and that Ash Wednesday provides an opportunity to recognize and name our imperfections. Although repentance wasn’t my focus, I agree with my friendly theological correspondents, and gained from their observations. Theology is always bigger than one perspective: in fact, there is often more than one right answer to life’s most important questions. Last week, I wanted to disengage Lent and Ash Wednesday from unnecessary guilt and focusing on often inconsequential individual sins to the neglect of wider social ills that good people like ourselves and our leaders often create or implicitly support. By focusing our guilt primarily on our relationship to God, we often forget the appropriate guilt of remembering our role in hurting the creatures – our fellow humans and the non-human world.
Lent is a time for self-awareness and mindfulness as a prelude to repentance and transformation. The spiritual practices of Lent enable us to look at the whole of our lives, the heroes and villains, the compassionate and apathetic, the self-aware and ignorant. In an interdependent universe, what we do makes a difference and, though we cannot lose God’s grace, we can limit and defer our experience that grace by our conscious and unconscious behaviors, traditionally known as sins of commission and omission. None of us can throw the first stone; we are all implicated in the social and relational ills of the world. We all cause pain, often innocently and ironically when we are trying to do or say the right thing.
One of my favorite songs is Billy Joel’s “An Innocent Man,” in which the singer-song writer proclaims that he will do almost anything to restore the spirit of a beloved love. I appreciate Billy Joel’s sentiments, but as one innocent man to another and one who tries to respond – and occasionally and unfortunately “fix” the pain of others, I recognize that none of us are innocent men or women, even when we’re trying to do our best. Good therapeutic advice to those who attract guilt feelings magnetically is, “I’m not responsible for your feelings. Just what I intend and do.” There is a lot of truth in this, however, there are times when even our attempts to edify, affirm, or care cause pain, given the emotional experiences that our companions bring to relationships. We can affirm honestly that we did not intend harm, pain, or discomfort, but pain was experienced just the same, and we need to acknowledge this and express our sorrow for unintentional hurt.
Mindfulness is central to the Lenten experience. I encourage you to consider a daily examination of whether or not you have been faithful to your spiritual vision. My relational vision is to bless everyone I meet. But, as I go through the day, I take notice of how near or far I am to living the vision. Often I fall short. Self-awareness opens us to new possibilities for transformation, traditionally described as “repentance,” turning around to take a more healthy and life-affirming path. When we have a vision to serve as our spiritual GPS, we can turn around to take a new path with every second of life.
There is no need for shame or unwarranted guilt. God’s affirmation of Jesus, “you are my beloved,” also applies to you. And nothing can separate us from God’s love. Spiritual stature, as one of my teachers, Bernard Loomer asserts, emerges from embracing the totality of life and placing in God’s caring and transformative love. This creative mindfulness gives us hope for change and fulfilling our vocation as God’s partners in healing the world.