IN LENT, the church asks us to undertake a period of self-examination, fasting, and repentance, although it usually stops short of saying what it is in ourselves that we ought to examine with particular attention. When we give up chocolate, or potatoes, or an evening tipple, one has the sense that we miss the mark, if we are even trying to hit it.
In his wonderful book, Unapologetic, Francis Spufford gives the following account of humanity’s conundrum:
We are creatures who don’t get to decide what we are, whose natures are always partly hidden from our conscious understanding, who always pull several ways at once. It’s an insight that can be restated in radically different analytical terms, and still have the same implications for experience. You can put it, as Freud did, and say that there are unconscious processes which resist and subvert conscious intentions. You can think of it in terms of evolutionary biology, in which case one of the best expressions of it is the geneticist Bill Hamilton’s wonderful description of the human animal as ‘an ambassador sent forth by an unstable coalition’. Or you can quote St Paul: ‘What I would not, that I do. What I would, that I do not.’ Wherever the line is drawn between good and evil, between acceptable and unacceptable, between kind and cruel, between clean and dirty, we’re always going to be voting on both sides of it, despite ourselves. Not all of us, on every subject all the time, of course; but all of us on some subject or other some of the time.1
Spufford’s insight here is not very far from that of old Thomas Cranmer, when he bid all Anglicans confess that “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.” We’re not bad people; we’re not the worst of the worst. Quite the opposite. We’re just ordinary, middling humans, error prone and sloth prone, liable to muck it up often just by trying to do the right thing whilst also looking out for number one. It’s not that there’s no health in me, or in you; there’s no health in us. The confession at Mattins and Evensong is general, after all, and we say it on behalf of ourselves, individually and collectively.
We who say it finish that General Confession with a petition That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life. When we pray for sobriety, perhaps we ought to consider this less often as having to do with alcohol than with our tendency toward self-delusion, toward the little vanities that convince us that we don’t need anyone, that we are owed certain things by the world, that we are our own masters, all of which separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ. The operation of the Christian in Lent is to examine and repent of that pride and those petty vanities, to look ourselves soberly in the mirror, with reproach but without loathing, with honesty but bearing in mind the mercy that God has shown to his creatures.
In this sense, on Ash Wednesday, it is not the act of submitting to the imposition of ashes that is the significant act, but the deliberate seeking out of those ashes. This is why so many of those who advocate for the utter nonsense that is “ashes to go” get it so wrong. The ashes are but a symbol, albeit a sacramental one: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual motion of the soul. This is not to say that symbols don’t matter; they do. But absent the turning of the heart, what good are the ashes? We might say that people are busy, that they just can’t get to church, that a million things get in the way, and all of that might be true. But as Scotty quoted Kirk in Star Trek: Generations, “It’s like you always said. If something’s important enough, you make the time.”
Our churches should be open all day, and a member of the clergy (of whom we have gobs) should be sitting there, all day, with his surplice and his bowl of ashes, ready for anyone who might come through the door seeking to hear the words that mark the beginning of Lent: Memento homo quod cinis es et in cinerem reverteris. Remember, O Man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. These are stark words, and the Christian, the seeker, must desire them for herself. For as we know, penitence cannot be compelled, and as we forget, it can’t be instilled on the cheap.
And if the penitent really can’t get to church?
It’s not the ashes that matter, it’s the turning of the human heart. For the turning heart has begun to seek after something other than itself, has begun to fumble, inarticulately and haltingly, toward the God in whose Christ is our Easter hope. The grace that empowers us to turn at all is in the gift of God alone, and you can’t give that out on the street corner.
TURN thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, Be favourable to thy people, Who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying. For thou art a merciful God, Full of compassion, Long-suffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, And in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, spare them, And let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, And after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; Through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (London: Faber & Faber, 2012), 32-33.
A meditation for Ash Wednesday.
“But you, practical man, have lived all your days amongst the illusions of multiplicity. Though you are using at every instant your innate tendency to synthesis and simplification, since this alone creates the semblance of order in your universe — though what you call seeing and hearing are themselves great unifying acts — yet your attention to life has been deliberately adjusted to a world of frittered values and prismatic refracted lights: full of incompatible interests, of people, principles, things. Ambitions and affections, tastes and prejudices, are fighting for your attention. Your poor, worried consciousness flies to and from amongst them; it has become a restless and a complicated thing. At this very moment your thoughts are buzzing like a swarm of bees. The reduction of this fevered complex to a unity appears to be a task beyond all human power. Yet the situation is not as hopeless for you as it seems. All this is only happening upon the periphery of the mind, where it touches and reacts to the world of appearance. At the centre there is a stillness which even you are not able to break. There, the rhythm of your duration is one with the rhythm of the Universal Life. There, your essential self exists: the permanent being which persists through and behind the flow and change of your conscious states. You have been snatched to that centre once or twice. Turn your consciousness inward to it deliberately. Retreat to that point whence all the various lines of your activities flow, and to which at last they must return. Since this alone of all that you call your “selfhood” is possessed of eternal reality, it is surely a counsel of prudence to acquaint yourself with its peculiarities and its powers. “Take your seat within the heart of the thousand-petaled lotus,” cries the Eastern visionary. “Hold thou to thy Centre,” says his Christian brother, “and all things shall be thine.” This is a practical recipe, not a pious exhortation.”
From Practical Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill
The Cathedral Church of St Brigid, Kildare, Co Kildare.
O GOD, who, through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world; Grant, we beseech thee, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same, by following the holy doctrine which he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Most Reverend Michael Curry, Primate and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA), reminds us all of our mission, and calls us to consider the core of our catholicity.