Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Just Passin' Through - Ash Wednesday Meditation

It's not by coincidence that our ancestors in the faith were a Pilgrim People, wandering for 40 years through the Sinai Peninsula. Their journey through the desert, both literal and historical, is relevant to us today, as a parable that's allegorical.

All of life is a kind of purification; a breaking of the self that's meant to blossom into selflessness, a stripping away of all encumbrances. Life is meant to be a walk that turns into a run, the crossing over of a Red Sea of suffering and slavery to a new birth; it's a darkened and dangerous path that breaks open into fertile fields of supernatural milk and honey.

As the great sculptor Michelangelo once said, "beauty is the purgation of superfluities." The desert has a way of cleansing us of excess clutter. We must travel light or trudge behind! The nomadic life and the daily manna of the Children of Israel are all reminders for us not to settle down in this world. Even the Presence of God, the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, was always on the move, never stagnant. Today the very word we use to describe ourselves as members of a parish, "parishioners," retains that ancient meaning of movement and unsettledness: "paroikos" is the Greek word that translates as pilgrim and\or exile. We're strangers in a strange land, or at least we should feel so.

Enter the Evil One....

If the truth about our destiny is that we are meant to pass through this world on the way to the next, what would the devil's strategy be? To nail us down to earth, of course! Cut the strings to Heaven. To cloud the mind of any metaphor, musing, or memory of that Other World and get us down to the serious business of busyness here and now. Such was the advice given by Screwtape, C.S. Lewis' senior devil who trains his nephew in the art of tempting humans (read the book "Screwtape Letters" for some amazing insights into these murky waters).

"Prosperity knits a man to the world," says the demon, "He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home on Earth, which is just what we want."


The Antidote


In short, the key in life is to "keep on keepin' on." Walk the walk! When the fiery serpents bit the People in the wilderness, it was because they stopped walking and started whining. If we are to remember our destiny, keep a clear head about us, and not settle too deeply into the soil of this world, we should keep our minds on things of heaven. We should look up! Look to those things that are above, as St. Paul says. The Devil hates that, hates every breeze that flows from heaven.

"Even if we contrive to keep them ignorant of explicit religion," Screwtape continues, "the incalculable winds of fantasy and music and poetry — the mere face of a girl, the song of a bird, or the sight of a horizon — are always blowing our whole structure away... The Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must wish for long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unraveling their souls from heaven and building up a firm attachment to the Earth..."


Let's take fair warning from these words. Let's look up! Keep moving! Never settle only for earth when heaven is offered! Look up and see your redemption near at hand in every sweet sacrament and sign here below; in music, poetry, prayers and the people who point us up! But don't stop just yet. The journey of Lent is about reading the signs rightly, and nothing says "Home" but Heaven.


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