Daily Lenten Reflection

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. –Ephesians 4:25, NRSV

Yet, Holy Week does not offer an invitation to ease the pain, but to enter it. We are invited to enter the heart of suffering and pray our own agonizing Gethsemane prayers: Where are you, God? And, why God? And, how could this happen? Can’t it be another way? What possible spiritual wisdom could reside in the yearly journey into this uncomfortable place?

We have spent the season of Lent practicing restraint in the desert, stripping ourselves of unnecessary baggage, assessing our idols and illusions. Holy Week is the culminating moment of this wilderness season of the spiritual life. It is the time for whatever is false that remains in us to show its face before what is most true. In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor asserts that even pain and suffering can be a spiritual practice because they force us to confront what isn’t real. “Pain strips away all the illusions required to maintain the status quo… Pain is so real that less-real things like who you thought you were and how you meant to act vanish like drops of water flung on a hot stove.” –Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, Holy Week: To Enter the Suffering 

Reflect: 

  • When have you experienced difficult moments in life as a time to focus on what is most real and true?
  • What “Gethsemane prayers” have you uttered? What spiritual wisdom have you discovered in these moments?
  • Prayerfully dwell with Ephesians 4:25. What is God’s invitation to you in this text?

Holy Week: To Enter the Suffering

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

Who would willingly come to this threshold? With all society’s promises of happiness and fulfillment beckoning at every bend, who would choose to enter this week of suffering? Who would sit at the table of bread being broken, feeling the horrible tension of a body almost broken too? Who would be a witness at the cross of injustice, suffering, and grief? Who would go to the tomb to revisit the despair and dread, to face what can happen even to you who dare to challenge the systems of power?

We come to this Holy Week threshold precisely because most suffering in our lives and in our world is not what we would choose. We do not want to lie in a hospital bed, or sit beside one. We do not want to witness chronic poverty, or the impact of war, or the rubble of another natural disaster. We do not welcome the loss of a broken relationship, a miscarriage, the death of a loved one, or a layoff. It does not ease the pain to remind us how part of being human is to experience suffering; how loss is an inevitable part of life.

Most of the time we avoid pain at all costs. I take Tylenol at the first sign of a headache. I avoid the risks that could cause disruption. In moments of intensity, it is sometimes easier to become emotionally numb than to sustain the feeling. As much as I can control my away around suffering, I will try.

Yet, Holy Week does not offer an invitation to ease the pain, but to enter it. We are invited to enter the heart of suffering and pray our own agonizing Gethsemane prayers: Where are you, God? And, why God? And, how could this happen? Can’t it be another way? What possible spiritual wisdom could reside in the yearly journey into this uncomfortable place?

We have spent the season of Lent practicing restraint in the desert, stripping ourselves of unnecessary baggage, assessing our idols and illusions. Holy Week is the culminating moment of this wilderness season of the spiritual life. It is the time for whatever is false that remains in us to show its face before what is most true. In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor asserts that even pain and suffering can be a spiritual practice because they force us to confront what isn’t real. “Pain strips away all the illusions required to maintain the status quo… Pain is so real that less-real things like who you thought you were and how you meant to act vanish like drops of water flung on a hot stove.”

We do not seek out suffering, but it happens. There is no neat theological explanation for the Good Friday moments of life that can satisfy my deepest questions. And yet, we can see how it is often through enduring what we would never choose that we find ourselves transformed into who we really are. When asked to draw a map of my spiritual life, the relationship between the lowest points and the most growth becomes abundantly clear. In our aching Gethsemane prayers we dare to utter what is most real in us. There is no time for fancy wording or even right theology. What was once abstract becomes sharp immediacy. And it is here, in this journey to the cross, right in the middle of what we’ve tried to avoid, that we discover the presence of the One who is truly in all things even in the places we’d rather not be.

And it is here, in our dying, that the seed of resurrection breaks open, shedding even its own seed-identity to become fullest life beyond what we can imagine or hope.

This is the threshold we dare to cross.

This is the promise we dare to hold.

 

Holy Curiosity

Lenten Practice: Holy Attention
Daily Act: See the mystery of God in another person. (Talk to that person!)
Weekly Prayer Phrase: Repeat this phrase slowly as you breathe deeply. You may choose to memorize this phrase and repeat it throughout your day.

“AWAKEN ME TO YOUR PRESENCE IN AND THROUGH ALL CREATION.”

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

One of my favorite mystic texts is from the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He describes an experience of being in the middle of a city, surrounded by people, and suddenly seeing- really seeing– the divine life within each one. “There is no way of telling people,” he writes, “that they are all walking around shining like the sun… The gate of heaven is everywhere.”

In spiritual direction training, I am learning that every person is the mystery of God before me. Essential to companioning someone else in the spiritual life is the cultivation of a holy curiosity toward others. This includes releasing a critical gaze and avoiding the temptation to fix. The role of a spiritual director is simply to notice, in love, God’s movement within another life.

Though I am learning this specific discipline (spiritual direction), this wisdom permeates every encounter with others, known and unknown. I am still a novice at noticing the God-life within other people, but the goodness that grows from this way of seeing is so heart-satisfying that I crave more. In the words of Thomas Merton, it is like “waking from a dream of separateness”.

The phrase holy curiosity stirs challenge and wonder within me. It does not imply a general gaze at others honoring them as sacred (though that is also a meaningful practice!). Holy curiosity implies investment in relationship. It is about seeing God in another life by discovering who they are in their particularities. Barbara Brown Taylor describes this type of encounter:

“What we have most in common is not religion, but humanity. I learned this from my religion, which also teaches me that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get- in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing- which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery. The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over. I have stopped being a human being and have become a fiction writer instead.” (p.102, An Altar In The World)

This practice is not always easy. It can take time to cultivate holy curiosity toward others, and great effort when it comes to people we struggle to love. It can be most challenging, and maybe most important, to be holy curious about those who are least like you.

In a world that often feels fractured by political and religious polarization, what healing could it bring if we really began to see the mystery of God within every person?

And perhaps it is healing also to realize this God-mystery resides within you as well.

There is no way of telling you that you are walking around shining like the sun.

Let’s awaken from this “dream of separateness” together and move toward one another in love.

“The wisdom of the Desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self… It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.” (p.93, Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar In The World)