In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of. ~ Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
We have just passed the midpoint of our Lenten journey through the desert. This is a ripe moment to pause and reflect on the commitments we made in earnest almost a month ago as ash was smeared across our skin, reminding us of the preciousness of our days.
The human heart is a funny thing, full of passion for spirit one day and then feeling lost or astray the next. Then we may start to berate ourselves for not being better, more committed, more diligent. In that barrage of inner voices that rise up, we often find ourselves so much further away from our heart's desire than when we began. This very act of self-judgment actually distances us even further from our deep longings for peace and rest.
Or perhaps we encounter what the desert monks called acedia, which is translated in different ways but essentially means slothfulness, and has been called the "noonday demon." Halfway through our journey we find ourselves bored. Our spiritual practice wanes, perhaps because we had high expectations about how we would be transformed by now, and so the realities of daily life dull our commitment.
This is why we call it practice. The monks knew that the only response to acedia was to continue to practice. When we feel full of judgment for ourselves, the only response is to continue to practice. We can construct all kinds of ways to abandon the conscious journey and return to a life on the surface of things. These are the temptations of the heart, written about by mystics for centuries, so why should we be surprised that we confront these same struggles as well?
The Lenten journey goes straight through the heart of the desert. In the middle of that parched land where everything comfortable is stripped away, we often find ourselves wanting to run or go to sleep.
Monastic spirituality calls us to return again and again to the practice of showing up, of being still, of opening our hearts to an encounter with the holy. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we hear this story: Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus, "Can a man lay a new foundation every day?" The old man said, "If he works hard he can lay a new foundation at every moment."
St. Benedict in his Rule writes four of my favorite words: "Always we begin again." The desert is a place of new beginnings. No matter how far I stray from my practice, there is always an invitation to begin again. Not just each day, but each moment offers us the chance to lay a new foundation.
In the philosophy of yoga I have become enamored with the concept of tapas, which means fire or heat and essentially is the discipline we need to show up to our practice again and again. There will be days when we don't feel like coming to the mat or the cushion or our quiet corner. There will be days when life seems to actively conspire against this and we begin to believe that the stillness just isn't possible for us or that our lives are too full to cultivate genuine presence. This is acedia talking, a kind of inner dialogue that sabotages our sincerest efforts. When this happens—and it will happen—our invitation is to gently notice this and begin again. We bring the fire of tapas back to our practice, we commit to showing up over and over.
Take some time this week to reflect back on your Lenten commitments and promises. Notice over the past several weeks how you get thrown off your rhythm of practice. What are the circumstances of life that seem to conspire against your best-laid plans? What are the thoughts that rise up in response? What are the judgments you hold about yourself in these moments? Just notice these gently without more judgment.
Then connect to your breath, allow it to be slow and full. Savor a few minutes of silence, drawing your awareness down into your heart and resting there in the infinite source of compassion. Bring that compassion to yourself. Hold yourself lightly, perhaps even seeing the humor in your patterns. Humor is rooted in the word humus, which means earthiness and is also the root of the word humility. Acknowledge that you are human and that to be human means to forget sometimes our deeper desires. Embrace your imperfections as the landscape of your journey, the detours that take you into dark woods sometimes so that you feel lost.
From this compassionate, humorous, and humble place, make a commitment to begin again. Make a promise to lay a new foundation in every moment as best as you can. And when you fall away from your commitment again, return yourself to it gently over and over. Let your breath kindle the fire and heat within you necessary to keep showing up. Let this be your Lenten practice and your life practice, this beginning again and again.