Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday

Traditionally Lent is a time of renewal and commitment; Committing ourselves to the disciplines and practices that are meant to deepen our personal awareness of the continuing journey of transformation- practices such as prayer, fasting and acts of service. What is critical is that such practices (including receiving ashes) not become merely ritualistic formulas. "It’s Lent and so I’m going to give up this or that and do a bit more of this or that and then feel pretty good about my Lenten discipline and pious practices." 

In today’s gospel Jesus offers us the key to a fruitful Lent. And it is all about letting go of self-consciousness and any sense of our prayer or religious practices as a performance. “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” The possibility of prayer as performance, poisoned by self-consciousness, is subtle and pervasive. It can involve wanting to look good before others, or worse yet, wanting to look good to ourselves, a way of holding off neurotic guilt by taking pride in our self-discipline. Jesus’ point is that, however subtly even sub-consciously it happens, when our prayer is in service of our appearance to others or ourselves, then we already have our reward.
True prayer and authentic acts of service are meant to lead us beyond the boundaries of our self-consciousness and self-absorption. It is never keeping one eye on what it looks like; it is never allowing the left hand to know what the right hand is doing. “Whenever you pray, go into your inner room and shut the door." Don’t look behind you, don’t look in the mirror, just shut the door and “pray to your Father in secret.”

Such prayer may sometimes seem like an impossibility. The difficulty may be that we cannot simply let go of self-consciousness by an act of the will or a decision to be undivided. We might sincerely want to get out of our own way, to hand ourselves over in complete simplicity to the loving presence of God. But there always seems to remain a “me” who is trying to hand myself over, a “me” whom I just cannot seem to get behind; a “me” who wants to stay in charge and in control. Lent is a time to begin again; to start over; and to never tire of continually trusting and hoping in the loving transforming goodness of God, no matter what my seeming successes or failures may be. 
Photographs by Brother Brian. Excerpts from  Abbot Damian's Homily for this Ash Wednesday.