Landon Whitsitt had a thoughtful post about how we engage with Lenten disciplines today: Giving up chocolate and beer for Lent is not what Jesus had in mind. In it, he reminds us about the basics of spiritual practices surrounding Lent: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. He reminds us that it is not about us at all.
I have realized that most of the times I have given something up for Lent or taken something on, it was for my own benefit. It was so I could do something for God – sacrifice something I cared about so God would be more pleased with me. The practices were hoops I jumped through. Sometimes they were rigorous disciplines, sometimes they were difficult, and they have helped me to focus on God… but it all revolved around me. What I could do, what I would gain, how I was living out my faith.
If Lent is truly about dependence on God, if it is about our time in the wilderness, our discovery of who we are and whose we are… then Lent is about letting go of “me.”
In the anthology, Speaking of Silence: Christans and Buddhists in Dialogue, there is an interesting discussion about what it means to be “me.” What is the self? What is its relationship to the divine? To briefly summarize the conversation, Lodrö Dorje begins:
The Buddhist path is therefore primarily concerned with the question of how to see through ego, how to tame it, and how to let it go. (pg. 157)
Father George Timko responds with an analogy:
When you put it [a sugar cube] into a cup of tea or coffee, the sugar dissolves, and yet it is still there. It is there in a completely different way, in a different dimension: it is no longer there as a cube. So, as Gregory of Nyssa would say, “We have to be dissoved and to be in Christ.” You are no logner there as an “I,” as an individualized center or self. There is no “you.” You are dead, as Saint Paul experienced…
We just simply don’t want to completely let go of that self, so we say, my true self is there. There is no such thing as a true self or a false self. There is only the self or the no-self. And as Saint John Chrysostom said, “He alone truly knows himself, who knows himself as nothing.” (pg. 158-9)
As the conversation continues Joseph Goldstein adds:
I could play the Zen role here a little bit, and ask whether it really is a question of dissolving anything, or whether it is just that in a moment we see that the self never was. I think we could speak from both perspectives. Really there is nothing to dissolve, because the self was never there in the first place. (pg. 164)
to which David Steindl-Rast responds:
But how so many Christians have been stuck in this imaginary projection! How they have clung tenaciously, thinking that the Christina way is based on promoting the ego from the level on which it is now, to some super-level in heaven!
Well, it is an appealing idea, Brother David!
It is an appealing idea. We want to please God and be faithful and follow the rules and reap the rewards. We want to hear the call and respond. And it is SO difficult to not focus on that individual achievement and to instead let go.
As the Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert, they were forced to lay aside their past, to stop forging gods with their own hands, and to embrace a life of dependence upon the one who is the creator of all. They were shaped not as they desired, but as God desired.
As Jesus wandered for forty days in the wilderness, he let go of what he could be, denied the temptation to achieve all the amazing things he could have, in order to accept the call to die to self and live in God.
And as I enter this time of Lent, I am challenged to stop focusing on myself and what will benefit me spiritually and what I can do to please the Lord and instead place my life into those hands.
Lent is a time to die to oneself… or maybe to realize that your “self” never was.
I am nothing.
I am a dissolved sugar cube in a cup of coffee.
I am dead and in the tomb.
It is Christ who lives in me. It is the Spirit who has given me breath. It is God who has enabled me to love.
Ashes to Ashes… Dust to Dust.