Today the Lenten journey begins. Today is a day of ancient rituals. Today is a day where our foreheads bear ashen crosses, marking this sacred season of separation and simplicity. Today is the day where we carry our commitments and convictions forward and through a soul-season. Here we announce that we are going to intentionally set ourselves apart from some thing or we commit to a practice that brings life and establishes an order of justice and love. This is a declaration of intent and it is no trivial thing. With it, we are saying, "I want to touch and be touched by something holy. After this experience, my life will be different. I will be different. Because I have taken this pilgrimage, I will feel more connected with myself, with others, and with the Holy and creative source of life.”[i] By declaring your intention for this pilgrimage, this season of Lent, you are proclaiming the purpose as sacred. Whether you are intending to refrain or rejuvenate, these declarations are designated differences for your journey. From now on, there is no such thing as a neutral act or meaningless day. The daily contemplations surrounding your intention will begin to align you with God and center your journey.
Before one departs on a pilgrimage, it is essential to participate in leave-taking rituals. These separation rituals mark for yourself the place from where you are departing; they represent your current state of mind, your current situations, and your questions. They also prepare you to cross a threshold from the known to the unknown. Our Ash Wednesday impartation of ashes serves as a symbolic entrance into the unknown Lenten landscape.
Imagine all the different ways you can prepare for and mark Lent (or any journey for that matter) as a serious soul-season. Rituals vocalize your openness to being touched and changed by a power that is holy and transcendent.
As our culture has become more computerized, confined and cosmopolitan, our comfortability with regular rituals and sacred seasons has shifted from standard to strange. Participation in ancient acts is often met by others with a look askance or a presumption of strange spirituality. However, rituals have marked seasons and a life's development for thousands of years. Our human nature needs to be able to behold and acknowledge our lives within the grand chaos and cosmos of all that surrounds us. Rites ground us in our humble lives while associating our souls with the divine order of creation. Our internal rhythm relishes these benchmarks, these touchstones, that confirm and affirm our presence and passage through periods of import. A journey, a pilgrimage, is one of the most ancient of rituals practiced to bring about, or acknowledge, a change in one's life.
Poet and author, John O’Donohue, speaks about our collective need to recognize thresholds in life with rituals and blessings. Life is a journey and ultimately the best metaphorical example of a pilgrimage. We cross thresholds throughout our life, but without the sense of the sacred in these crossings, they can become meaningless, disheartened stages. We engage the practice of pilgrimage, with the declaration of intention and leave-taking rituals, to acknowledge our surrender to the Spirit, and to “reawaken our capacity for blessing.” O’Donohue shares with us:
A threshold is a significant frontier where experience banks up; there is intense concrescence. It is a place of great transformation. Some of the most powerful thresholds divide worlds from each other; life in the womb from birth, childhood from adolescence, adulthood from middle age, old age from death. And on each side there is a different geography of feelings, thinking, and being. The crossing of a threshold is in effect a rite of passage.
Our culture has little to offer us for our crossings. Never was there such talk of communication or such technology to facilitate it. Yet at the heart of our newfound wealth and progress there is a gaping emptiness, and we are haunted by loneliness. While we seem to have progressed to become experts in so many things—multiplying and acquiring stuff we neither need nor truly want—we have unlearned the grace of presence and belonging. With the demise of religion, many people are left stranded in a chasm of emptiness and doubt; without rituals to recognize, celebrate, or negotiate the vital thresholds of people’s lives, the key crossings pass by, undistinguished from the mundane, everyday rituals of life. This is where we need to retrieve and reawaken our capacity for blessing. If we approach our decisive thresholds with reverence and attention, the crossing will bring us more than we could ever have hoped for. This is where blessing invokes and awakens every gift the crossing has to offer. In our present ritual poverty, the Celtic tradition has much to offer us.
Your statement of intent and leave-taking rituals that allow you to declare your hopes and fears are a part of the separation stage of pilgrimage. The sacred journey is not just about leaving the ordinary rhythms and places of life. The process is much more and involves stages of moving from ordinary space into sacred space and then back again. The stages of pilgrimage-as of any life threshold-are important because they are more about what occurs within the pilgrim than about the physical process of leaving and returning home.
We set out from our normal rhythms, our home-cadence, not just for the journey itself. We leave so that we may return; when we return we are changed and therefore, so are our homes. We have grown, emerged, developed and the former walls of familiar thoughts and theory may no longer contain us comfortably. What has challenged us on the road has changed our routine. We set out only to try to settle back in...but we find we cannot. And this is the Spirit's work. Yes, the journey absolutely is contingent on the destination, and today we are especially mindful of the Cross that meets us at the commencement of Lent. But these heart-felt intentions that we take with us for the duration of the journey shift our home-life; they transform what was normal, into sacred...and then reconstructs that into our new perspectives upon homecoming.
For example, say you are participating in a Lenten carbon fast, or eating only organic, local, sustainable, fair traded foods during this season. Maybe you are abstaining from alcohol or refined sugars and giving your savings to charity. While these may have been originally decided upon because they separated you from your norm, after Easter you may find that these very same things have become your new home, your new way of living. I truly believe this is how God works; God intervenes and then interweaves change and difference into our lives until they become our new mode of being. Relinquishment is transmuted into right relationship.
Today, as you mark your journey into Lent, with the smudged markings of a cross, may you be open to the transformation that is before you. Believe that the Spirit resides in the unknown landscapes that reside between now and your arrival-your Easter. May you give yourself over to the mysteries of ritual and the gifts that only threshold crossings can bring. May you meet angels every step of the way on your pilgrimage journey!
ps. So, what am I "giving up for Lent" you might ask? It is hardly lofty and has nothing to do with awaking earlier (can't afford that what with three young ones still clamoring for momma at all hours), going without caffeine (can't do that because of the sleep, or lack thereof), or going without alcohol (remember those three children I mentioned? they are all six and under, which means a glass of wine at night truly is a gift from God!). I have two intentions with which I am crossing the threshold into this year's Lenten journey:
1) I am committing to raising my heart rate above resting for 30+ minutes a day; yes, this means exercise! I am seeing this as an intentional act of moving myself more towards the created being God intended. I am a better wife, partner, mother, daughter, sister, friend, neighbor and more inspired to boot when I get out and move this body I live in. That means I can be better for my world if I do this. So there it is--intention numero uno.
2) Between the hours of 4:00-7:00pm there is a sharp-tongued beast that emerges from my deepest parts. It is curt, impatient and hungry...and not very nice. I am tired during these hours, we are all awaiting Joel's return from the workday, and little ones seem to need me more. And. I have the singular responsibility of making dinner (no blame here; this is how our responsibilities shake down here at 2809 because...well, I'm a better cook!). While a warm meal is typically on the table for us all to gather around and eat together, more often than not, I'm peaked. I don't feel like "being the change I want to see in the world," and that makes me sad. I wanted to do something this season that was on the "bringing life" side of things, and for me, the challenge was in figuring out how to make time to do so.
So, with the combined inspiration of a friend of a friend's blog and the call of Joel's current reading of Simpler Living, Compassionate Life , we are eating beans and rice for dinner through Lent (excluding Sundays, which are feast days throughout Lent). What will that do? Well...I'm hoping to gain three-hours of family time; time where I'm not relegated to the kitchen, but can be together with the whole family and time when I'm not maxed chopping, roasting, grilling and wiping all at the same time. I'm hoping to learn with my children the consumption reality of the majority of the earth's people; a very small population has the privilege of perusing recipes and procuring listed items every day. If we are going to learn to live on behalf of Other, at some point, we've got to eat like them too.
[i] Sarah York, Pilgrim Heart: The Inner Journey Home, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 10.
[ii] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us, (Doubleday; 2008).