Ash Wednesday 2018: a season for letting go and emptying out in order to be open and filled by new and unexpected blessings whenever they ripen. I have literally been throwing away hundreds of pounds of old papers over the past two weeks - recycling when possible - and shredding when necessary. This is simultaneously sobering and liberating. I have coveted these documents for decades only to discover that now I have no need to ever gaze upon them again. There are a few jewels to savor, like my maiden voyage into teaching the classical spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting for Lent; but mostly my labor looks more like compost to me than anything else.
This was not, however, time spent in vain or folly. Rather it was rehearsal for letting go - practice,if you will - the repetition of words, prayers and psalms shared over and again until I could confess honestly that they were of the Lord's making, not my own. As the liturgy for today proclaims: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." There has been a liberating sense of freedom in all of this sorting that comes as a surprise to me. The old pictures have been the most fun - and I have saved most of them. But who cares about past annual meeting reports or sermons long past their expiration dates? Not I, and if not me, certainly no one else.
Two long buried treasures were reclaimed: my odd collection of crosses, and, my battered copy of Frederick Buechner's daily devotional, Listening to Your Life. So I added the crosses to a wall in my study and let these words from St. Fred sink in:
Because the word that God speaks to us is always an incarnate word - a word spelled out to us not alphabetically in syllables, but enigmatically, in events, even in the books we read and the movies we see - the chances are we will never get it just right. We are so used to hearing what we want to hear and remaining deaf to what it would be well for us to hear that it is hard to break the habit. But if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that however faintly we may hear (God), God is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, God's word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling. In that sense autobiography becomes a way of praying, and a book like this, if it matters at all, matters mostly as a call to prayer.
After midday Mass, I will return to my cluttered study and continue adding books that matter to me to the shelves. I will clean out the CD closet, too and discard songs that have now grown stale. In addition to discarding excess baggage this season, I will be joining an on-line reflection re: Henri Nouwen's book, The Road to Daybreak. With a tender irony that is unmistakable to me, this text is about Nouwen's journey into L'Arche. The introduction to this study includes these words: "Before us is the story of how God, responding to Henri’s prayer, led him to a very specific place and vocation. Henri, despite many fears and questions, responded in obedience. And the journey bore much fruit." Next week I will be at L'Arche Ottawa to join in conversations and sharing with my new friends. And at midweek, to celebrate Eucharist with them.
Lent has come in all of its humbling earthiness - and I rejoice.
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