Dark Devotional: Into the Lenten Desert

By Irim Sarwar

There’s little doubt that Grumpy Cat could be considered my feline kindred spirit, especially if anyone has heard my delicate opinions on anyone from the stiff high church my-rubrics-are-better-than-your-rubrics “More lace is grace” crowd to the oft zealous bonhomie and non-ritual of many a low megachurch. Few have escaped my lifelong tendency to snark.

So it may come as a surprise when I say, “Ritual matters.” One might wonder how someone who believes that can relentlessly mock those who take ritual so seriously? On the surface, holding both positions may seem untenable. Look beneath the surface, and it becomes less so.

Ritual is utterly human; we all engage in it – for those who would claim that low churches don’t, just observe the unspoken rules of when and how to react within the “unstructured” service, or ask them to change the Bible Study time by 15 minutes. But we often forget that ritual is a vehicle, not a destination. When we obsess about its appearance or form, or proudly deny its necessity, we have made ritual an end in itself, where it becomes meaningless, even destructive.

But ritual as a vehicle is something else altogether: it leads us to something larger, to a deeper reality, even if on the surface it may seem trivial. For example, every morning when I was working at my previous job, I asked my officemate, Rachel, if she wanted me to put some water in the kettle for her. Nine times out of ten, the answer was “no,” but the point of asking was not to get a “yes:” it was something larger, a way of connecting at the beginning of the day.

If the small rituals – “Do you want coffee?,” the goodbye kiss for a loved one, the lighting of a pipe – matter, how much more the large ones that mark the moments where we cross thresholds, caught in that liminal space where we have one foot in each of two worlds, unsure how to leave one and enter the other? Moments where we make the choice to die to our old lives to be resurrected into a new – baptism, coming of age, marriage, ordination?

Ritual as a vehicle leads us into new, often difficult places – but they are needed, and what unfolds there is holy. Here, ritual becomes an outward sign of inward process, of inward grace, even though that process may not unfold as we expect, or even as we hope. Ritual guides us through liminal liturgical days of the year, like Ash Wednesday, or moments that are so overwhelming they untether us, such as marriage or death.  Ritual anchors us. Ritual is sacred.

It is for that reason that for almost two decades, on Ash Wednesday, the liminal day when I take my first step into Lenten twilight, I would wake up an hour early, travelling down the road, entering the dark, pre-7.30 mass hush of the Oratory to the faint, ever-present smell of incense, so still that the rustle of the brethren’s thin breviary pages could be heard through church. The confessional door opened and shut, doing brisk trade for a weekday morning, the church slowly filling as those of us ready for work in this world made time for the other. After a while, several distinctive treads converged on the sacristy from favourite pews, and out of the silence, we moved into the rhythm of the mass: collects, responses, readings, the imposition of ashes with the stark words, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,” communion, then out into a world where Ash Wednesday is just another work day, where one no longer quite belongs. Those Ash Wednesday nights, I would attend the longer solemn mass, allowing me to re-enter and anchor in the Lenten world.

As difficult as breaking with that place was, losing that ritual has caused my spiritual life, particularly in Lent, to stumble. My current church has an Ash Wednesday mass – at 8pm, far too late for me to allow the liminality, the awareness of my dust-ness, to seep into my bones. It wasn’t until I went to confession for the first time in six years this past Tuesday that a new ritual began.

“But why?” you may ask. What matters about Ash Wednesday, about Lent? If I had 50p for every time I’ve heard, “I don’t do Lent,” I’d never have to work again. Given the relentless January question in Christian circles, “What are you giving up for Lent?” — my usual response being, “Church or being nice to people, haven’t decided which”— anti-Lent sentiment is easy to understand. Too often, Lenten abstinence becomes a matter of secular goals and pride (I should know, I still brag about 2003, the year I gave up curry), rather than spiritual practice.

If not with giving up teaspoons of sugar, or sweets, or even curry, where do we begin? As with all ritual, by going back to its roots, to what it is meant to symbolise or re-present: Our Lord’s 40 days fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry, where He was tempted by Satan. This is our starting place.

How do we model our Lent on our Lord’s time in the desert? First, from the story of Jesus’ temptation, we learn that He was led by the Spirit– this withdrawal was no capricious decision of His, but divinely mandated and led, and so should ours be, through praying that G-d’s will be done and by making space for the Spirit to lead us.

He was led into the desert, that starkest of environments where nothing can be hidden, where all things are stripped back to their essentials, where resources must be drawn up from hidden depths, places that may not even be known to exist. Too often, we build our identity and our faith from the outside in: based on how we think it should look; on what others see as “good” or as “success;” our need for approval, which we mistake for love. So our Lent must be about stripping this false identity back and rebuilding it properly from the inside out: connecting with and coming right with ourselves and with G-d, allowing that to emanate outward to permeate the world, stripping back the barriers that keep us from fully being in our life in Christ: our defences, our need to control, our need for approval, our desire for power, our need to grasp – all the things that arise from fear and drive out our ability to live in perfect love.

He was tempted by and engaged with the devil. When Satan tests us, we, like Jesus, must answer. To truly enter Lent, we must search every corner of ourselves, opening every door, entering our darkest places. I have never seen Satan as the caricature of evil most commonly seen today, but as the challenger he is in Job. When I read today’s gospel, I hear, “Here are the tests you will face, Jesus. Can you pass them? In your ministry, will you reach for your power to seize temporal dominion? Will you produce a miracle, so that scorners will believe? Will you dare G-d to save you on the cross?” When we allow him to ask the questions arising from our shadow, Satan cannot help but live out his angelic name, Lucifer, bringing light to bear on what was once in darkness, which can then be brought before G-d to be transformed.

And then, like Our Lord, we may find that we are ministered to by angels — perhaps both natural and supernatural.

Our Lord’s temptation in the desert is an initiation – a dying to the old and rising to the new, foreshadowing His crucifixion and resurrection in Holy Week and Easter. He was led to the desert, fasted, was tempted by Satan, ministered to by angels…and when He emerged, He was no longer the carpenter living a quiet life, but the Son of Man who was to heal, preach, and die on the cross. So too must Lent be an initiation for us: a dying to that which keeps us from G-d and rising to new life in Him.

In this desert time, this Lenten twilight, let us not mistake stripping back to the heart of things, following in Christ’s footsteps, for becoming less human. Too often we see our humanity as something to struggle against and excise rather than something to grow into and make whole. In few places is this mindset clearer than in the ubiquitous Christian question: “What would Jesus do?” – a purported attempt to help, but really a spiritual bypass to cut off another’s very human mess so it doesn’t bring us too close to our own. It’s not a question that makes any sense, at least not in the answers we offer.

If you’d asked my father what I would do when an arranged marriage was suggested, he’d have said, “She’ll be upset, she’ll fight, but she’ll do it.” Never would he have dreamt of saying, “She’ll fill two bin bags with clothes, leave us a note on the fridge, and move out, never to spend another night under our roof.” I couldn’t have said that. And if we don’t know what those nearest us – or even we – would do, how much less do we know what G-d would do? As I like to remind people when they ask that question, quoting a favourite meme, “Remember that flipping tables and chasing people with whips is within the realm of possibility.”

Jesus got angry. Jesus gave into doubt, agony, and fear in Gethsemane. You don’t know what Jesus would do.

Christ was fully human as well as fully divine: in becoming man, He sanctified every aspect of our humanity: our hunger, our thirst, our joy, our love, our pain, our rage, our doubt. Therein lies the real answer to WWJD: Jesus would live the mess and help others live theirs. To follow Him, we must do the same: we must become more human, not less. To do otherwise is to deny the Incarnation and the goodness of G-d’s creation, to make the grave error of mistaking woundedness for evil. Our humanity needs inhabiting, not avoiding; healing, not destroying. Lent is about stripping back down to and coming into right relationship with our humanity and with G-d.

So often, I find that literature pulls everything I want to say together in a beautifully succinct, layered narrative, and today is no exception. I close with a passage from The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay, where five Canadian university students are suddenly transported to Fionavar, the first world from which all others were born, each finding their vocation as the story unfolds. 

In this moment, Paul Schafer has offered himself as sacrifice in place of the High King of Brennin, whose refusal to undertake the required three days hanging on the Summer Tree has brought drought to the land: showing that when we refuse to carry our cross, refuse to become more human, we are not the only ones who suffer. Paul offers himself as a way to punish himself for the car crash in which his girlfriend, Rachel, died. We join him on the third day, after many trials, a divine visitation, and support from a mysterious grey dog who has stayed with and fought a battle for him:

And he understood then, finally: understood that it had to be naked, truly so, that one went to the god. It was the Tree, stripping him down, layer by layer, down to what he was hiding from…

He was the Arrow now. The Arrow on the Tree, of Mornir, and he was to be given naked or not at all.

And so, on the third night, Paul Schafer came to the last test, the one that was always failed, the opening. Where the Kings of Brennin or those coming in their name, found that the courage to be there, the strength to endure, even love of their land were none of them enough. On the Tree, one could no longer hide from the living or the dead, from one’s own
soul. Naked or not at all, one went to Mornir. And oh, that was too much for them, too hard to be forced to go into the darkest places then, so weak, so impossibly vulnerable.

And they would let go, brave Kings of the sword, wise ones, gallant Princes, all would turn away from so much nakedness and die too soon.

But not that night. Because of pride, of pure stubbornness, and because, most surely, of the dog, Paul Schafer found the courage not to turn. Down he went. Arrow of the god. So open the wind could pass, light shine through him. Last door.

As Paul’s heart finally broke, as his tears for Rachel finally fell, so too did the drought of Brennin break and rain fall, bringing promise of new growth to a land long barren. When we choose to carry our cross, enter fully into our humanity, engaging with both our light and our deepest darkness, we are not the only ones who are blessed.

May we who have stepped into the desert this Ash Wednesday, following in Our Lord’s footsteps, find the courage to be led by the Spirit, rending our hearts and not our garments, allowing ourselves to be stripped down, coming before G-d naked and vulnerable through that last door: so open that the Spirit’s breath passes and G-d’s light shines through us, emerging into new life with Christ, Our Lord, on Easter Day. Amen.

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