March 2009 - Watermelon During Lent

We looked forward to Lent; it was time to do something different. For us kids it revolved around giving up something and seeing if you could do it for the whole 40 days.  On the first day everyone in class had to declare what they were giving up for Lent.  Candy was always a big one - and it was tough - especially since there was a penny candy counter in the cafeteria that we had to pass at lunchtime.  Giving up going to the movies was big too, but since we only went to the movies on Saturday and there were only five Saturdays in Lent - that turned forty days into five - it almost seemed like cheating. Once Larry suggested giving up caviar, after Sister Mary Paul gave us a quick biology lesson we all agreed we could avoid this for not only Lent but for a whole lot longer.  Someone always volunteered to give up watermelon.  They usually stayed after school for sisters' lecture on the difference between real and disingenuous sacrifice.  

One year Mary Ellen said she was giving up T.V.  I remember the initial shock, the stares, the long silence followed by collective sighs of ‘wow, gee, huh'. She became an instant hero, no television for 40 days, how could anyone do it.  I thought about it; no ‘Superman', no ‘Lone Ranger', no ‘20th Century with Walter Cronkite', no ‘Perry Mason' and no ‘Twilight Zone'.  God wouldn't want me to give that up. That's where I learned that good always triumphs over evil, that helping those in need anonymously was its own reward, that learning lessons from the past helped to build a better future, that good and honest people could argue intelligently with opposing views about the same issue, and that not everything was always as it might seem - every once in a while we get caught in a mystery. 

We all did Lent together.  We watched each other, checked on one another, and encouraged each other.  Lent was a class effort.  We checked on Mary Ellen, asked her sister and brothers if she watched any T.V. even stopped by her house unannounced just to make sure.  She did it for 40 days and we all cheered her.       

Lent really can be an exciting and promising period that lets us unpack notions and assumptions about who we are, what we can do, where we're going.  Both science and spirituality use a term that can apply to our purpose for Lent, "liminal" it means "threshold."  It's that special psychic and spiritual place where transformation happens.  It's when we're betwixt and between, and therefore not really in control.

Nothing new happens if we remain inside our self-constructed comfort zone. Nothing good or creative comes out of ‘business as usual'; the ‘status quo' has nothing to offer in the long run. Much of the work of God in the Bible is to get people into liminal space and keep them there long enough to learn something essential. It is the ultimate teachable space, maybe the only one. Most spiritual heros try to live lives of "chronic liminality". They know it is the only position that insures ongoing wisdom, broader perspective and ever-deeper compassion. The Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Anthony the Great, Benedict of Nursia, Gregory Palamas, Hildegard of Bingen, Seraphim of Sarov, Thomas Merton, Lazarus Moore, Bede Griffiths and Henri Nouwen immediately come to mind.

Since most of us can't run off to the wilderness or the hermitage, the Church offers temporary and partial liminality in things like pilgrimages, retreats, sacred spaces, and sacred time - like Lent. Liturgy once-a-week does not come close to creating liminal space. It takes that long to stop wondering whether we turned off the oven or to get the kids -- or your errant emotions -- under control. There has to be something longer, different and daring, nonsensical, anti-structural, to explain the meaning of the assumed structure. It is almost always counterintuitive, and not necessarily logical or sensible.

The bubble of order is broken by a bit of whimsy and by deliberately going in the opposite direction. Here we need to not-do and not-perform according to the normal pattern. Not eat instead of eat, silence instead of talk, emptiness instead of fullness. In liminal space we descend and intentionally do not ascend, its status reversal instead of status-seeking, shadow boxing instead of ego confirmation. It's what "mortification" or even "death" mean in traditional spiritual language.

In a liminal Lent we change darkness to light, desert to garden, sadness to joy, contrition to forgiveness, death to life. We need to learn how to live there. The Church gives good spiritual direction, without it, we will run. Without encouragement, we will give up. With Lent we learn how to stay in liminal space. It is always holy ground, but it actually takes a while to get our shoes off. Forty days is probably a minimum.  I look forward to that first Compline service, the first PreSanctified, the first Akathist hymn, it tells me that everything will be different now, everything is changing. It tells me there will be a ‘Hosanna', a washing of the feet, an agony in the garden, a death, a funeral and a resurrection. It tells me to live in it for the time being.

True Lent, leads to increased awareness, increased consciousness of pain and goodness and increased knowledge of darkness and shadow and light. Who would go there alone? Who would go there willingly? I wouldn't. We have to be taken, or, like Jesus, we have to be "driven by the Spirit into the wilderness". First we meet the "wild beasts" and only later do "angels minister to him". No one wants to wait for the angels. Lent is 40 days of training in living with and learning from the wild beasts.  It's sort of like choosing a three-ring circus and a deliberately refusing to retreat to the spectators' grandstand. We intentionally sequester the angels for a few weeks.

The stakes are high. The patterns of spiritual transition do not change. They are primeval and permanent and paschal. We need a good, liminal, and transformative Lent. We need some anti-structure to make sense out of the structure that we take for granted.  I never gave up T.V. for Lent and I never ate watermelon either. 

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