An Invitation to Living through Ashes

March 7, 2019 |

In one way, shape or form we all experience big moments that have tremendous impact in our lives.

Perhaps it’s a call from the doctor after a recent appointment and you know that the news isn’t good.

It could be the death of a partner in which you’ve held their hand and watched as their breaths get shallower and it becomes difficult to speak. They close their eyes and breathe one last labored breath.

Maybe for you it’s the birth of a child or simply going from 49 to 50 years of age.

Regardless of the specifics, there are moments in life where we stop. We pause. We ask questions. But we don’t ask just any questions; we ask BIG questions.

Life changing events that bring us to moments of truth have the power to stop our busy lives and allow us to enter deeply into the moment. Often, in those moments, we are left asking questions about our lives: Have I let my dreams go unfulfilled? Do I work too much? Do the people I love know that I love them? Am I happy? It often takes the trauma of major life events to cause us to stop focusing on the noise around us.

The symbol the church chooses to begin our Lenten journey is one of death. Ashes. Our foreheads are marked with the sign of the cross as we hear the words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Certainly this is not an arbitrary choice to begin Lent. The church is encouraging us through these ashes to pay less attention to the distracting noise in our life and focus on the essentials.

There are many ways we will choose to die to ourselves during this Lenten season. It is an intensely personal journey that is as unique as each one of us gathered here. Chocolate, alcohol, smoking, limiting time on the internet and mobile devices…if these things have too much power…giving them up for even a short period is painful. So, is this the point? Is this the reason the church has invited us to pray and reflect upon during this season of Lent? Simply experience a mini-death in our lives?

Carmelite saint and mystic, John of the Cross said that we need to experience these type of deaths not simply for their own sake but to create an emptiness within us. He writes: “To reach union with the wisdom of God, one must advance by unknowing rather than knowing.” John of the Cross’ words might offer us some encouragement: “Travelers cannot reach new territory if they do not take new and unknown roads and abandon the familiar ones.”

The Carmelite approach to Lent, like John offers through his spiritual writings, is of an experience of longing and desire that we create through fasting and abstinence. The end goal is not mortification or piety. It’s not about our doing for God, but rather preparation for allowing God to fill us with His life and presence. No doubt, these are difficult and often times uncomfortable experiences, but through prayer we can come to truly know that, as John writes, “the soul’s center is God.”

The goal of Lent, and of the Carmelite journey of prayer as described by John of the Cross is about living in the fullness of life. The invitation to reflect upon our own mortality through the symbol of ashes, is an invitation to enter more deeply into living.

Bronnie Ware is palliative care specialist. Her patients had returned home to die and it was her job to accompany these individual during their final days of life. On her blog, Bronnie shares some of the incredibly special times shared with these individuals. “People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal.”

When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, Bronnie writes that the most common responses were the following:

• I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
• I wish I didn’t work so hard.
• I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
• I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
• I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This Lent, choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness. Choose relationship. Choose to embrace vulnerability. Choose to grow. Choose to live without regrets. Choose not only to empty ourselves, but to allow God to fill that space so that we may give that gift to those with whom we walk in life.

Instead of waiting for the accident or those big moments of truth, the church offers us the opportunity to reflect on these things for the next 40 days to begin to live life with renewed passion. So that we may come to that great Easter celebration as not dead, but fully alive.

Perhaps our little flower, the Carmelite saint, Therese of Lisieux said it most beautifully when in a letter to her sister Celine she wrote, “what is my prayer for all of us gathered here this evening: “do not waste these beautiful days in the sun cowering in fear. Let us live.”

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