Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

I’ve got ashes on my forehead.

Today the season of Lent begins with the celebration of Ash Wednesday. It puts us on the fast track to the Lenten themes of repentance and sacrifice, where we are called to consider our lives, see where we have fallen short of the mark, and resolve to do better in the future. Ash Wednesday draws us out of our wants and desires by reminding us of our mortality. The minister inscribes an ashy cross on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and once again we are pulled up out of all our daily cares to a remembrance that there is a certain end to them.

Bits and pieces of us die all the time. We shed skin, lose hair and cut fingernails, recognizing when we stop to think about it that we have shuffled off a tiny bit of this mortal coil with each cell and strand gone. But at a deeper level we die in other ways, too: when you want to yell at your child and you don’t, a certain bit of selfishness dies; when you don’t want to yell at your child and you do, a certain bit of self-worth dies. Every restraint we put on our actions, every failing that takes over our thoughts, every indulgence, every renunciation – with all of these, something within us dies and something is reborn. We are phoenixes of the first order, in a continual process of death and resurrection. We arise from the ashes only because we flamed into them first.

If we allow it to do so, Lent will take us into the bleak and the cold, showing us how much of it we bring upon ourselves or force on others. It carries us to the hardened places within ourselves that we may not like, and into the sacrifices that we may only grudgingly make, and it tells us to live here for awhile, until we can soften the hard places and recognize our sacrifices as simple exchange for the good that we receive. “It’s the way we take back our lives,” the priest said today, meaning that we make a little break in the “have to have it” mode of being that our culture offers to us. Why do we sacrifice chocolate or TV or sodas or buying new clothes? Because we can; because these are not necessities for living or well-being; and because remembering that is part of the pathway to peace.

For my own Lenten sacrifice this season, I am vowing to do at least 20 minutes of yoga and meditation every day. That’s 20 minutes of not doing work, or talking to friends, or playing games with my child, or falling into bed exhausted. Yoga and meditation, even just a few minutes of them, help me find a space of peace. They bring me to the calm center from which I do my best work as a writer, a mother and a human being.

So, a bit of Buddhist meditation and Hindu yoga as the response to a Christian call to repentance? Well, it works for me. I walk in the light of many teachers, because they all teach me this one thing: that to enter peace and act with compassion from within it is the sum total of everything I need to do in this world.


If you are looking for a way to bring a yoga practice into your own busy life, you might try an online class at It’s how I’m getting my yoga groove on these days.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Cage of Fear

A couple of days ago I received a very troubling email from a woman I don’t even know. The woman, let’s call her Shelley, is a student in an online religion class that I’m teaching. The first week Shelley posted a short bio and told the class that she had left a bad marriage and that after years of struggle she was engaged to a wonderful man, let’s call him Will, who she felt was sent by God to rescue her and her children.

About a week into the class, I got an email from Shelley telling me that her assignments would be late because Will had died that morning. I wrote a short note of condolence, explaining that I too had lost a beloved partner and that I would be praying for her and her children.

The next day in my inbox I found another message from Shelley, one that bent and twisted my heart like a rag doll. She was grateful for my note, she said, because though she had loving family around, they hadn’t experienced this kind of loss and she was feeling very alone. She and her children were devastated, but she believed that her faith in God, which Will had helped to nurture, would get her through.

I was saddened for Shelley and the sense of isolation she felt, but it was the next part of her email that shook me to the core. She told me that she and Will had both been saved last year, and that in response to their new relationship to God they had forged a new relationship with each other, seeking to express with their lives what they believed with their hearts. “I know he is a forgiving God,” she wrote, but she wondered, “Do you think that what we have done since being saved was enough for God to accept Will?”

I read these words, over and over again, through a veil of tears clouding my eyesight. Even now, more than a week later, I can’t read this without having to blink back tears. I think of this poor woman, grieving the loss of the man she loves and so worried about whether or not he will spend eternity in Hell that she is willing to share her deepest concerns with me, a woman whose personality, beliefs, thoughts and even face are unknown to her. “Anything to ease my fears some,” she wrote, crying out in her pain. She couldn’t speak to her pastor, she said, because he didn’t condone Shelley and Will living together and she had no where to turn for answers.

I was floored by her words, humbled by her trust, and most of all heartsick that in the throes of a terrible sorrow, Shelley had to wade through a belief system that left her terrified for Will’s salvation. Making a deep and earnest change in his life wasn’t enough, Shelley fears, to appease a vengeful God for past misdeeds. In the midst of what is likely the most harrowing grief of her life, Shelley has to worry about whether the forgiving God of whom she speaks really is forgiving, whether the creator of the universe could have as much compassion as she herself had for a man who had both loved and hurt her.

I wanted to wrap my arms around Shelley and tell her that all the rules and regulations we’ve made up in God’s name are meaningless compared with one act of love, that if she listened closely she could hear the still, small voice inside her speak of acceptance beyond even the thought of forgiveness. I wanted to take the pain of grief away, and I wanted to take away the terror even more. But all I could do was respond to her email with as many gentle words as I could find and send a cloud of prayers in her direction.

Shelley wisely decided to drop her classes for the semester, and it is unlikely that I will ever hear from her again. But I will think about this woman caged by a theology of fear wrought by those speaking of love, and pray that somewhere in my words or the Bible or the speech of a friend or her own heart she finds the key to unlock the cage and step into a world of compassion and peace.