Sunday, February 06, 2005

Needing Lent

O Lord and Master of my life.
Keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement,
lust of power and idle chatter.

Instead, grant to me, your servant,
the spirit of wholeness of being,
humble-mindedness, patience and love.

O Lord and King,
grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
and not to judge my brother,
for You are blessed, now and ever, and forever. Amen.

(The Prayer of St. Ephraim of Syria, prayed daily throughout Lent.)

It's hard to believe that Lent is already here. As Byzantine Catholics, we follow the Gregorian calendar along with our Roman brethren, but follow the Byzantine liturgical calendar as do our Orthodox brethren who are on the Julian calendar. Christmas just ended last Wednesday for us with the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple, though technically we've been in the Pascha (Easter) cycle for a few weeks now.

At least the weather here in Portland is cooperating. It's felt like Spring for a couple of weeks now and there's no sign of a big winter freeze on the horizon.

In my own life it's felt time for Lent as well. This last year I've been struggling a great deal with my faith. Indeed, my very first journal entry of 2004 was about my wrestling with science, other religious traditions, and my own Christian faith. My way of reconciling it all has been to read. A lot. To think. A lot. As an academic, my first reaction is always to research and ponder. To use my brain to get me out of my conundrum. I cannot return to a literal, black-and-white approach to my faith as it would be dishonest. But I cannot give up my faith either. While I'm stuck in the gray, I've simply had to have faith that God can hold me here. And go to church and say my prayers, even if I feel a sort of loneliness while I do so.

As I wrote in my last post, my massage therapist has been telling me that my body keeps saying that my "vegetal" state -- the part that deals with my feelings and emotions -- is not working properly and is keeping me from getting better. That my brain has taken over and is stealing away my emotional life, including my relationship with God. From a Taoist perspective, humans exist between heaven and earth and my brain is blocking out the heavens. That idea seems to fit with Orthodox theology. Bishop Kallistos Ware states that we are created to participate in both the noetic and material realms, and it is our God-given task "to reconcile and harmonize the noetic and the material realm, to bring them to unity, to spiritualize the material, and to render manifest all the latent capacities of the created order (The Orthodox Way, 50)." My faith has become too intellectual and is unable to participate in the noetic. It is suffocating my faith.

Frankly, though, I've always thought of my intellectual proclivity as a good thing. Growing up Evangelical, I've come to disdain the penchant to simply sing a bunch of songs that create some sort of emotional ecstasy. They always felt manipulative. Lacking in substance. Dangerous because it meant people can be so easily manipulated since they have very little substance.

So, my massage therapist recommended something that would appeal to my brain: a book. Specifically, a book called Being Human. And the other day I sat in the Park Blocks and began reading it.
The primary life force (God) contains both penetrating and enveloping aspects. The penetrating force represents the power of the Creator and has a more masculine and active quality. The enveloping force is Grace, which has a more feminine quality as it is a force that encloses and envelopes life.

After explaining this, one of the authors talked about his experience in a Hindu village of Afghanistan where, in watching the mundane of daily life, he experienced that enveloping Grace. It made me think of the line from “"Hold Me, Jesus”" by Rich Mullins.

And this Salvation Army band is playing this hymn. And your grace rings out so deep, makes my resistance seem so pale…...

As I sat there in the Park Blocks reading that, I started to cry and say to myself, “"I miss you God. I miss you Jesus. Come into my life. I miss you.”" I thought of how when I was a teenager and I would listen to songs and be touched. Back when I was open to Grace.

I think there is something healthy and valid about skepticism. And I continue to value the training I have in deconstructing texts and looking at the power structures and marginalized voices that lie beneath them.

But I need Grace.

And right now, I need Lent. I need these forty days of fasting and abstinence. "For the Christian," says Father Philaret Littlefield, "the hunger that results is a real call to be mindful of our thirst for God." I need the prostrations done after each of the petitions of the Prayer of St. Ephraim to humble my intellectual arrogance. I need the emphasis on meditation and surrender to hear God's voice and to let go of my obsessive and pathetic need to have control. I need, as Saint Ephraim says, a spirit of wholeness of being.