Thursday, March 05, 2009

Lenten Synchronicities

I am working on a new book. I have been thinking about the two primary gestures of Lent: giving up and taking on. The first gesture is referred to as mortification, and while the second does not have a traditional name that I know, it is easily identified as a means of "bearing one another's burdens, thus fulfilling the law of Christ." Self-denial and other-love. Something like that.

As I have been working through some of these general issues, I have also been reading Kathleen Norris' new book: Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life. Unpromising title behind--possessing descriptively what it lacks evocatively--the book is a treasure and not least because it talks about the theological dimensions of commitment to place, to people, to vocation. This emphasis corresponds nicely with similar sentiments I have seen in Eugene Peterson, particularly in his Under the Unpredictable Plant: A Study in Vocational Holiness. In that book, Peterson suggests that ministers, poisoned by the culture in which we serve, toxically imagine that movement and mobility are the hallmarks of "success," whereas faithfulness requires an almost monastic devotion to a particular place, a particular people, and a particular role among them. Additional thoughts to this effect are in The Contemplative Pastor.

In any case, Norris has helped me this week to see that marriage, of all places, is a locus in which both of the classic gestures of Lent find more than seasonal expression. Her husband, a poet afflicted with deep and "well-defended neuroses," and terrible physical ailments besides, helped her learn this truth. She writes, "I did not yet comprehend marriage itself as a form of asceticism and was slow to grasp what it would require of me" (102).

Earlier she had said this: "Imagine for a moment that the people you encounter at home, work, or school, are the very people (my emphasis) God has given you to pray with, eat with, and play with for the rest of your life. And you are supposed to thank God for this, every day, several times a day. This is what monastic people take on. And what they've learned from this particular form of asceticism, in attempting to live in peace with themselves and others, may constitute their greatest gift to us. How radical to think that we can best know ourselves by embracing commitment, not rejecting it; by relating to others, of callously relegating them to the devilishly convenient category of 'other."

In Marley and Me--the movie version--after the first baby as come and Jennifer Anniston's character is trying to do her work and be a mom, she is increasingly frustrated, says something to the effect that she is "losing what used to make me me." Of course. It is hard giving up dearly beloved parts of oneself for greater love of vowed commitment to others. It is if anything harder to take on the burdens of others, some of whom never think or know how to thank you, and in that way fulfill the law and evidence the sacrificial love of Christ.

One need not mention the occasion of divorce in the sitcom, Two and a Half Men: Mommy left because Mommy has a right to be happy. As Norris says, "There are situations, as in the case of abusive relationships, where seeking a change is the right course of action. But often it is acedia that urges us, for no good reason, to fantasize and brood over circumstances in which we will be affirmed and admired by more stimulating companions. Whatever the place of our commitment--a monastic cell, a faith community, a job, a marriage--well, we are better off just walking away" (25). Lord knows, many do.

But loving one another, and not just when it is easy--which it almost never is--is a place to learn something more of the love of God and of how to be more godly. Whether it is Hosea learning from wayward Gomer, or the many for whom the problem is polar opposite--it is in marriage, I think, and family life (and in church life, too, if Luther is to be believed) where both gestures of Lent have their sharpest daily definition, work to chisel our souls, and not just seasonally, into something more like the selflessness and embrace that is the heart of Christian and real marital love.

The color of passion--not just attraction but steadfast devotion and even suffering--is purple, after all, and that is the color of Lent. But purple paves the way to white, to victory, to purity of heart, even as Lent prepares us for Easter.

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In Bible Study last night, my friend Buddy Smith suggested that in rereading I Corinthians 13 we substitute Paul's descriptions of love (kind, not jealous, etc) for the word "love" itself in that chapter. For example, Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not (kindness, gentleness, boastlessness, etc), I am a noisy gong..." What a great way to repreach that text!


Rachelle said...

Such an amazing and thought-provoking post, Tom. I'm forwarding the link to a bunch of people.

Thanks, I needed this.

Anne L.B. said...

The subtitle of Gary Thomas' Sacred Marriage asks "What if God designed marriage to make us holy more that to make us happy?"

The same question could be asked of our position as Christ's betrothed bride in the current age. Though we presently have in Him peace which passes understanding, the unmitigated joy of divine marriage awaits in the next age. Now is the time of laying down our lives for Him and for others.

Tom Steagald said...

One of my study groups today was discussing "The Great Divorce," by C.S. Lewis, which has both nothing and everything to do with marriage and other forms of community. In other language than either Peterson or Norris, Lewis suggests that it is only as we are able to part with what we vainly imagined made us individuals (our "rights," our work, our art, our children--it is not that you are a mother, but that you are only a mother, says one Spirit to one of the ghosts, the human-shaped smudges--our suffering, our guilt) that we attain to what only God can make us. We lay everything down and thereby attain so much more...and our desire for God is the seed by which we begin to grow into the fullness God has intended from the start.

I highly recommend this quick read to everyone who would reflect on all our various relationships... in as much as it explores the primary relationship from which all others are derived.