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Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Identity

February 12, 2010

This is an interesting season.  The stores have been decked out for Valentine’s Day–a commercial invention to motivate people to buy something.  We are in the dead of winter.  We also have Chinese New Year.  Mardi Gras has started.  And then comes a shocking message: “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”  You hear this if you are Catholic, and you go to Church on a Wednesday popularly known as Ash Wednesday.  You hear these words as the priest puts a smudge of ash on your forehead.  The whole thing is over in seconds.  You leave and perhaps you wipe it off or you walk around town for a while with that mark on your forehead.  Maybe you think about the meaning of those words and the ashes; maybe you don’t.  If you are Catholic, this is the beginning of Lent.

Lent is not a popular theme in our consumer culture.  Lent speaks of “giving things up,” of repentance, etc.  It seems like a gloomy thing.  And the ashes are truly a “countercultural” sign!  They don’t seem to be inviting anyone to buy anything, to have fun, to be fulfilled, to be a success, etc., etc.  Note that in the liturgy when the priest puts the ashes on your forehead, he says, “YOU” are dust, not “your body” is dust.  The liturgy cuts through all the contortions of catholic and christian theology and philosophy and anthropology about all this “body” and “soul” stuff.  The liturgy addresses the whole person, not some part of you even if there is some such part.  Indeed the whole dynamic of Christian salvation and divinization is directed toward the whole person and not just a “soul” as in some misleading language especially in the modern West. 

So there is a “you” which is you!   And the liturgy tells you to your face this “you” is dust!  This may remind some of us of a poem that Zen Master Ikkyu wrote- a bit here translated:

“peace isn’t luck  for six years stand facing a silent wall

until the you of your face melts like a candle.”

Or remember these lines from Simone Weil:

“The good seems to us as a nothingness, since there is no thing that is good.  But this nothingness is not unreal.  Compared with it, everything in existence is unreal.”

“If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God exists, we should find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves do not exist, for it is the same thought.” (And this could have been taken directly from many Sufi masters!)

What Ash Wednesday tells us and what so many spiritual people tell us is that there is something radically insubstantial about us, something so transitory, so evanescent, so empty, etc. that it can rightly be termed as unreal or as nothing.  Ash Wednesday is the gateway to Lent, and it challenges us on our own sense of identity.  Exactly who are you?  And the follow-up question would be: then what is the point of your life?  Every one of the great spiritual traditions has these questions at the heart of their teaching.  If you don’t address this question correctly you leave the person trapped within an identity of compulsion and unquenchable desire–like drinking salt water.  If you get the identity thing wrong, you will be saying, “I want; therefore I am.”  Being human will be equivalent to this churning of desire, by a constant craving that our economy really feeds off on.

Lent is a time for refocusing on our real identity, for shedding false identities, for relativizing what is merely a surface reality.  And on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, we are whacked as if by a paddle from a zen master, a jolt to a false sense of identity that we all build up: “You are dust…..”  This false identity has two components or manifestations as it were.  First, there is that psychological illusion of self-sufficiency which gets translated even into a metaphysical or philosophical position–that your individual self is a self-sustaining entity, not a created entity drawing its being from a Source transcending itself.  This is the point of Simone Weil’s quote–God exists, but if we use that word that way, we might as well say we don’t exist.  Our being exists ONLY moment by moment as a pure gift of one who is Infinite Love and Goodness and Pure Existence. We are a total, moment-to-moment pure Dependence–not an independent being.  Apart from that we are as nothing.  The fact that we “exist” in a relative sense means that God is saying “Yes” to us moment by moment.  Christian theology and piety expresses this fact by calling you a “child of God.”

The second component of this false identity is that we tend to see ourselves as these individualized, atomized selves, as if marbles in a bucket rubbing against each other.  Each person is a kind of Robinson Crusoe, a self-sufficient, self-made person, an island unto himself.  And each individual acts in their own self-interest.   Interestingly enough both Marxism and capitalism see this as the fundamental axiom of their systems.  The only difference is that Marxism wants to change the human being’s self-understanding by changing the external economic and material relations–almost as if by force making the human being into a non-self-centered creature. And it replaces the ego of the individual with the ego of the collective whole.  Capitalism pretty much absorbs the self-interested activity and depends on the “free market” and “reasonable rules of the road” to bring about  a minimizing of friction.  In other words, if my self-centered activity does not harm your self-centered activity, it’s ok.  Now what is important in all this is that both systems are operating with a view of human identity that is an illusion, a nothing really.  The Ash Wednesday liturgy then proclaims this “unreal” self as “dust.”

The consequence of getting  our fundamental identity  wrong–our “original sin”– is that we create a whole bunch of false identities–they are social constructs, images of ourselves, which we carry around and which we want to project to others.  Our social world is especially big on this–advertising lives off this.  For some the image centers on something physical: being youthful, physically attractive.  For someone else, it is being smart, an intellectual.  Still for some other person it may be the appearance of wealth and success, a position they hold,  or even the fact of being ostensibly religious, etc. etc.  Of course these kinds of things are so fragile and so evanescent that one’s life becomes very burdensome and filled with anxiety in trying to maintain any of these as a sense of one’s identity.  Thus the “word” of Ash Wednesday, “You are dust…,” is not exactly received as “good news” because it basically tells me that I am “nothing” and that is the worst thing you can be in this society.  That is why no one really wants to talk or think about death or any of its “signs”–like ageing.  But the ashes on the forehead point to the emptiness of the self, the real and total insubstantiality of the ego self and all its constructs.  Or to put it another way, borrowing from Zen, we accumulate all these “credentials” and then we confuse the credentials with the person.  But as a great Zen Master put it: the goal is to be “the true person of no rank, of no account.”  The true person has no credentials–that’s why he seems to be nothing.  Is it possible to be a social being and not have credentials?  No, not really.  Social existence brings inevitable credentials–even religious ones.  Most people first encounter you, and you encounter most people, through the facticity of credentials–except for the rare staretz or spiritual guide who sees right into your heart.  The spiritually mature person will “wear” his/her credentials very lightly, and then there are those few who are called to radically challenge the whole realm of credentials and false identity.

Returning now to our reflection, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday does not leave us with a negative message.  Indeed when it tells us who we are not, it immediately begins to point to who we really are.  And indeed this is true for the whole Lenten liturgy–especially follow the Gospel readings for the Lenten Sundays.  But, and this is a very important point, who we are is much, much more difficult to put into words than who we are not.  That is why lists of sins are so easy, or moral rules are so popular with some people.  Who we really are will be pointed at indirectly, through metaphors and symbols, through stories, and in a very quiet way that is easy to miss.

The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is always from Matthew, from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18).  What is most interesting about this section is that it addresses religious practices–or to put it more precisely, turning religious practices into credentials and therefore living from a false self.  The Gospel speaks of piety, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting–even these can become parts of a false construct.  In Dostoevsky’s novel,  Brothers Karamazov, there is a character, Fr. Ferapont,  who exemplifies this most clearly!  Anyone who has any experience in spiritual discernment knows that the two areas most vulnerable to self-deception are in sex and in religion.  We are most prone to blindness in these two areas, but the Gospel comes down hard only on the latter.  Does anyone notice how many “hard words” there are addressed to religious practitioners?  Do church people pay any attention to them?  Hey, guys, the Gospel is not just speaking of those “nasty” Pharisees, who by the way were THE religious practitioners of the day!

By contrast, the Gospel invites us to go “into our room,” to go to a “secret place.”  If you read this literally you miss the point by the width of the universe!  In Russian hesychasm this “secret place” is the heart, not the physical organ but the central core of your being where your personhood stands naked, without credentials, and receives its being from God.  Truly it is not a “public” place because only you and God can be there–your ego self cannot enter there, cannot find the place because it seems like nothing, seems like “no-place,” but if God is there then all the rest of creation is also there.  More about that later.  This is also the place of real prayer because it is the place where there is no distance between you and God.  As Augustine put it: “God is closer to me than I am to my own self.”  Indeed.  This is also the place where Paradise abides within us.  In a sense it can be said that the whole point of the spiritual life is to “go to this secret place” and live from our real identity and not from all the images and phantoms that swirl in our heads and around us, the false identity of an ego centered existence.

Now note the Gospel for the 1st Sunday of Lent.  This year in the Catholic liturgy it is from Luke 4: 1-13.  Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.  The test is about his true identity.  Jesus, being truly human, has an ego self like we all do–so the Deceiver puts him to the test about his true identity–“IF you are the Son of God,” then do this and this for your ego benefit.  In other words, conflate and confuse this ego self with your identity as “son of the Father.”  Jesus thoroughly rejects it, and this is what we are called to do in Lent.  Focus on our real identity.  Reject the counterfeit that presents itself as “me.”  Incidentally, this also happens to Buddha.  After Enlightenment, Mara the Deceiver appears to him and tries to confuse and deceive him about who he is and what has taken place within him.  The sobering thought is that maybe the whole culture now plays the role of the Deceiver!  In any case, in next Sunday’s Gospel we are presented with the Transfiguration in Luke(Lk 9: 28-36).  This is the confirmation of Jesus’ true identity as “son of the Father,” but it is also inextricably linked with the path Jesus is on toward his passion, death and this mysterious thing called “resurrection.”  So this Gospel is placed as preparation in order to understand then the events of Holy Week coming in a short while.  But of course this is not only a story about Jesus, but an invitation to embrace our own identity as a “child of God,” which is also inextricably linked with the path of Jesus but in our own personal and historical situation. 

One final word:  back in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us: “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”  In a sense the truth of this can be further  manifested if we turn this completely around: Where your heart is, there will your treasure be.  If we believe that our heart is equivalent to our ego-centered self, then we will by necessity treasure all kinds of things mistakenly.  This then is the source of a great deal of unfreedom, compulsion, desire, and anxiety.  For as the Gospel also says: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures…where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.”  It is ultimately “dust” and to dust it all returns.  But if your identity is grounded in your real heart and not your ego-centered identity, then you will discover yourself as a “child of God,” filled with compassion and freedom.

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