This life can only be what it must be — a meditation for the first Sunday in Lent

Pitcher and Bowl from Miri Clay Pottery
Wednesday was, as you know, Ash Wednesday and so we have now entered the season of Lent. The Lenten season finds its origin in the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before the start of his ministry. One of the season's chief aims is to provide a way and a space to help a person back into right relationship with the world. However, it is important to realise that this season doesn't yield up its fruits if it is entered simply as being a time of intellectual and abstract reflection because it's a time to be done and felt. It's a time for a deep, embodied reflection.

Spending time in a physical wilderness with the intention of bringing about some kind of deep change in a person is, of course, not a uniquely Christian practice but one which is found across cultures and times. But for many moderns, no matter what their culture, it has become increasingly hard to find real physical wildernesses - this is especially true for those of us who dwell in towns and cities. Consequently, there has come into play various ways by which we can experience some aspects of the embodied wilderness experience, the chief of which is the practice of fasting, not only from certain foods but also from festivities and habits which a person can see are, or have become, problematic. Added to the act of fasting (which is often understood in our Christian context as expressing the desire to show justice towards one's self) two other practices are also often taken up in Lent with a renewed passion. The first is prayer (understood as being an expression of our desire to show justice towards God) and the second is almsgiving (which is understood as being an expression of our desire to show justice towards our neighbour). Our reading from Isaiah (58:6-7) illustrates eloquently this taking up of something - in this case just acts  as a key aspect of in what consists a true fast:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,to let the oppressed go free,   and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,   and bring the homeless poor into your house;when you see the naked, to cover them,   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 

It is this taking up of something that I want to speak about today and I wish to do it for two reasons. The first is the straightforward psychological problem that giving up something can often feel very negative and can encourage us to concentrate, I think, too much on the uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful, absence of the thing given up. The second reason is that, when understood in a certain way, the act of taking up some activity reveals to us something very primordial about what it is to be a human being. This is something which we all too often forget and which holds us back from having the authentic and meaningful life we both desire and feel is possible. Though in a second I'm going to start talking about our mortality (and therefore death) it is important to realise that I'm doing this as a way of helping us to live the authentic and meaningful life I've just mentioned.

Being a minister of religion an awareness of human mortality and the inevitability of death is necessarily for me a daily reality  it comes with the role. But I have come to appreciate that, at its best, such an awareness offers us all a way by which we might begin to liberate ourselves from many of the trivialities with which we can all too easily fill our lives. It can alert us to the fact that we would rather not be wasting our time on so many empty gestures and tasks but on the matter of actually being who we could most fully and meaningfully be  to have, as Jesus promised, our own unique life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Today's address is, then, about being wholly who we are but, as we shall see, what it is to be a whole human being is a great deal odder than we might at first imagine.

We can begin by thinking about the way we often try to define ourselves. So, for example, in my own mind I'm often tempted to define who I am by reference to two things  jazz musician and minister. But, as Richard Polt points out (in his "Heidegger - An Introduction" pp. 85-88 to whose insightful and admirably clear presentation of Heidegger's understanding of mortality I owe this whole section of my address) to say I'm essentially the combination of these two things, and nothing else, would be to eliminate my freedom to choose what I am going to make of myself in the days, weeks and years to come. The important thing to observe here is that even if I continue to be a musician and minister I am not just these things but a chooser. Now, because I'm a chooser I (nor you, nor anyone) cannot be grasped as a whole and finished thing because we are always constituted to be open to future possibility and change. But, you might be tempted to say, at the moment I die  which is the end of my being and possibilities in this world (and I speak not at all today about anything other than this life in this world)  do I then finally become a whole? But that feels very odd indeed (wrong, in fact) to say that "we are complete only when we no longer exist."

This gives us a clue that what it is to be whole as a human being is not what we expected to be because it has to do with, on the one hand, the realisation of possibilities  I chose (and at the moment still choose) to be a musician and minister and not, say, an insurance broker  and, on the other hand, the elimination of all possibilities  I know that one day I will die. So to be a whole human being is about a "certain way of having possibilities in which these possibilities are limited." It is also important to see in this that for us "mortality is an ongoing condition, it's not a one-time event. Mortality is for us as living beings not an actual happening but always a possibility that lies at the heart of our existence. It, and all other possibilities  like being an insurance broker  only collapse to zero at our death  the ultimate limit of our own individual human possibility  but at that point this can no longer be of concern to us since we no longer exist.

Excursus  not in the address as given. Remember Epicurus' way of pushing against our fear of death:

1. Death is annihilation.
2. The living have not yet been annihilated (otherwise they wouldn’t be alive).
3. Death does not affect the living. (from 1 and 2)
4. So, death is not bad for the living. (from 3)
5. For something to be bad for somebody, that person has to exist, at least.
6. The dead do not exist. (from 1)
7. Therefore, death is not bad for the dead. (from 5 and 6)
8. Therefore death is bad for neither the living nor the dead. (from 4 and 7)

Now we can touch directly upon the Lenten theme of this address and the taking up of things rather than the giving up of them. Once you have understood that mortality must be understood as a possibility that belongs to human life one needs an authentic response to it.

All authentic human existence involves facing up to mortality, not by worrying about when our "demise may come but by accepting the limitation of our possibilities and choosing how to live in the light of this limitation."

Here I can leave Polt's words behind and turn to George Kimmich Beach's parable of the bowl and the pitcher:

'. . . as a potter you form a lump of clay, you make many decisions, exercising your freedom both consciously and instinctively, to one end, a finished ceramic. [. . .] The original decision in pottery making is not unlike the original decision in faith: once a direction is set, soon it will be too late to change your mind. Choosing a bowl excludes a pitcher. Now choices are being made within an ever narrowing range; necessity is closing in on the maker. But this is the miracle of creation: a reversal is also in progress, for the embrace of necessity gives birth to a greater freedom. With each new choice, new, more refined choices arise; creative freedom is growing exponentially. [. . .] The perfect end to the exercise of freedom is perfect necessity. We think: This bowl, or this life, can only be what it must be!'

To be wholly who we are is to be prepared to choose a possibility and have the courage to let others die away. To choose a the possibility of a bowl is to let die the possibility of a pitcher. When I chose fully to follow the possibility of becoming a jazz musician I let die the possibility of my becoming an orchestral double bass player. When I chose fully to follow the possibility of becoming a Unitarian and Free Christian minister, I let die the possibility of my becoming an Anglican priest. When I chose fully to follow the possibility of marrying Susanna, I let die the possibility of marrying any other woman. This is not to judge or see as second rate pitchers, orchestral musicians, Anglicans, or all other women  or any of the other possibilities I may have at times chosen to pursue  but simply to say that in order to be wholly and authentically who I could be, I had to accept the limitation of my possibilities and had to choose how to live in the light of this limitation. Though, as with every life, at times, it's been far from a bundle of laughs, I continue to feel that this life, my life, can only be what it must be and for this (life and insight) I am profoundly grateful.

But your life, any human life, can only be felt to be whole in the way I have been pointing to when we are prepared fully to take up certain possibilities and be equally prepared to let others die away.

In Lent we practice this kind of letting die so that we can begin, or continue to live lives that show up to us (and others) as being authentic, meaningful, whole and abundant.

This year my own choice is to take up the possibility of drinking water for forty days and to let die away other drinking, mostly beer and the occasional gin and tonic or single malt whisky. I do it in part for straightforward health reasons  like a lot of middle class people in the UK today I think I'm drinking a tad too much. But the real driver for me is that I fear that I do not always use water as mindfully as I should  an especially pressing issue since we in the UK are currently facing a serious drought. Water for all is a step towards justice for all and I feel I need to experience the sanctity of water more than I do at present.

Anyway, in Lent we are brought face to face the strange fact that to choose one possibility and to let another die away is not to be diminished but to helped towards a sense of wholeness. Only through this process can we have hope we will be able daily to say to ourselves that "this, my life, can only be what it must be!", to give grateful thanks and be encouraged better to play our part in helping others to be able to say the same of their own lives.


Dana said…
My friend asks me if I have a daily spiritual practice, and I can’t say “yes.” I get plenty of time to myself, for myself. My work is self-assigned, not proper work by the standard definition. But I have trouble using this time to think deeply about spiritual matters. (I like the idea that observing the world—as James C. Edwards says Thoreau does so diligently—is related to spirituality. My work—and play—is observant, me trying to find an honest way to describe something, although it’s easy to slip away from true observation, into the flat prose of standard expectations and plots.) When I don’t respond after your addresses in church, it’s often because I have more than one response, or because my slow thoughts can’t get ordered in time. Maybe responding to them on the blog can be one spiritual practice.

Your idea of embodying one’s spirituality breaks down the (wrong-headed but commonly assumed) boundary between the spiritual and the rest of life. Maybe if I don’t see a gap between them, I can start to see (honestly, not just because it’s convenient) some of my daily practices as spiritual.

My husband and I sat down on an airplane in the late 1990s, and the other man in our row of three seats greeted us graciously and then asked, “What is your view of the prophet Mohammed?” This was before the World Trade Centers were hit by airplanes, but after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. We were a bit unsettled by his question, but my husband and this man from Pakistan (he told us later) had a warm and friendly conversation about the 40 days in the desert. Christ, Mohammed, Shakespeare—they all disappeared for a while (40 days, 17 years, whatever) before coming back with important recognitions. Whole blocks of their lives are missing from the biography, and perhaps it’s in these lacunae that they are able to become. Maybe the sabbatical, even the Sabbath day, are related to the value of taking a step outside of one’s life, disappearing into a place of observation. When my son is most observant, he seems to think that he’s invisible. He stands near the people he’s watching, almost walking into the middle of their conversation, mouth hanging open; he asks loud (embarrassing, to me) questions, as if they cannot hear him. But I know that feeling, that full absorption, and I’ve suddenly realized that I am not invisible. That’s one way I understand Emerson’s “transparent eyeball.”
Yewtree said…
I was not sure what to give up, or indeed take up, for Lent until I read Victoria Weinstein's Lenten sermon. So I am giving up passionate intensity (this will be hard work) and taking up conviction.

I also like the concept of embodied spirituality. I think listening to the body is really important, and at some point I really must explore Ignatian ideas about this, as they seem helpful. There is a Buddhist meditation that works on this, too.