The “Soul’s Insistent Yearning”

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I have come to know Ash Wednesday as the time to draw nearer to my “soul’s insistent yearning.” That can be a frightening prospect, so I always approach Ash Wednesday with a bit of reticence, meeting the day with the self-awareness that I am trying to keep my distance from my “soul’s insistent yearning.” Being closer to one’s soul can well be a disconcerting proposition, but a necessary one. Ash Wednesday presents me with entry into the season of Lent.

I cherish Lent’s forty days, actually, always expecting change to happen in my soul and spirit. And yet, the prospect of repentance, renewal, transformation — and ultimately a personal resurrection — always disquiets me.

83D4AF68-A9AD-40EC-9D26-F0787CFE6D7BHow will I spend Ash Wednesday?

How will I approach the day
that will open the gate of Lent before me?

I have always thought of Lent as a spiritual journey we take alone, a solitary season of introspection and self-reflection during which we contemplate our own spiritual well-being and our relationship with God. For me, Lent has often been alone work.

So I make my Lenten journey into my alone places. I will know that God will abide with me, comforting me in my self-reflection, in my penitence and in my repentance. I will be mindful this Lent of my need to reach into my soul in search of places needing healing, constant and long-time wounds of the soul and spirit. I will search for the traces of my sinfulness, finding in my heart the will to seek sincere penitence, the sad and humble realization of and regret for my misdeeds. I will move beyond penitence to repentance as I resolve to change and to experience transformation.

How will I spend Ash Wednesday?

In whatever way I am able, I will receive ashes on my forehead imposed in a sign of the cross. I will recall the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I will utter as my prayer, the words of Scripture, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

As for the actual ashes, I have often wiped them off while in public. I never knew why, just that I was uncomfortable when others saw the cross of ash on my forehead. Perhaps I needed to keep my spiritual practice to myself, or hide the reality of my search for repentance. Years ago, I came across these words, spoken by Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM:

We can feel a little funny with ashes on our foreheads, but for Catholics, that’s how we mark the start of Lent. Ashes don’t say we’re holy. They say we are sinners. They don’t say we are perfect, only that we’re willing to try. They don’t say we’re models of religiosity, but they do say we belong. In today’s world of loners and isolates, that says a lot.

~ Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM

7FA58B58-0019-4809-B3B9-F956F3B06D7BThe essential truth, and gift, of Ash Wednesday is its call to come to terms with ourselves before God. Ash Wednesday says what so much of modern culture denies, namely that we are forever deceiving and justifying ourselves about our sinfulness. So on this day, when we contemplate our sins, when we pay attention to the ash on our foreheads, when we enter into Lent’s forty days, we must make prayer our utmost spiritual intention. So I pray we might embrace our Christian community that we might journey together for these forty days, praying for one another, seeking together the serenity, the reflection and the transformation of Lent, as all the while, we lean into our “soul’s insistent yearning.”

In that spirit of prayer, I hope you will take with you into Lent with this beautiful prayer from Rabbi Naomi Levy:

The rabbi in me would like to offer a prayer for you.
I pray you will learn to see you life as a meaningful story.
I pray you will learn to listen to your soul’s insistent yearning.
I pray you will learn to believe you can transform your life.
I pray you will learn to live and shine inside your imperfect life
and find meaning and joy right where you are.
Most of all I pray you will uncover a great miracle: your extra-ordinary life.

~ From Hope Will Find You by Rabbi Naomi Levy

Most importantly, pray yourself into Lent in the few days we have before Ash Wednesday. Seek God’s heart and seek the depths of your own heart and your “soul’s insistent yearning.” May you know God’s presence as you begin your Lenten journey.

Walking Peacefully

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People say walking on water is a miracle,
but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Those words ring so true, but how does one realize “the real miracle?” “Walking peacefully on earth” is much harder than it sounds, much more challenging than it ought to be, at least for most of us. Some have poetically said that walking on earth is our pilgrim journey, and I believe that many people feel that they are walking a pilgrim journey.

In his book, The Pilgrim Journey: A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World, James Harpur asserts that we are now in a new era of pilgrimage and asks: “Why is pilgrimage coming back, especially in a time when many people are questioning traditional religion?” Harpur’s answer is that in these days, there seems to be a deep longing in humans for this form of spiritual practice.

As for me, pilgrimage and journey are very real descriptors of my life. I have often set out on one journey or another, not knowing where to go, only that my soul needs the journey. I am captivated by Harpur’s book, by his tracing the history of why countless people through the ages have embarked on spiritual pilgrimages, by his many stories of pilgrimage through the ages and by his examples of why journey is so relevant to today’s pilgrims. Harpur writes:

If that is done, the destination — a shrine, a holy mountain, or a house of God — will signify not the end of the journey, but the start: a gateway into a new way of being, of seeing life afresh with spiritually cleansed eyes.What is essential is that the journey, by whatever means it is accomplished, gives the pilgrim enough time to expose himself or herself to the possibility of a sacred metamorphosis.

Nothing seems more important to me than seeing my life afresh “with spiritually cleansed eyes.” But getting there is a long process, a journey.

3BCA9FAD-8CD2-4B6A-B300-6609E1318379Walking peacefully on earth requires my full resolve and my desire to reach that place in life. Wouldn’t any of us want to experience transformation and the freedom to be? Wouldn’t any of us want to experience a sacred metamorphosis?

Certainly, it is a long process, a long journey. There are many steps along the way that each person must determine in order to persist on the pilgrimage. There are divergent paths and rough roads and thorny ways and threatening obstacles. Though choosing the path is personal, the graphic at the top of his post illustrates a set of steps we could possibly choose for ourselves. If I chose to take those steps, it would look like this:

First, I must learn to cry again. Crying is very hard for me, as if I dared to cry, my crying might go on forever. Yet, crying is a part of cleansing the soul, and as the quotation says, there is an importance to flowing and finally letting go. Secondly, I need to accept that within me, there is fire and that I must not be afraid to let it burn. I think I must face the flame, adapt and re-ignite my inner fire. Thirdly, I must to open myself up to refreshing air — observe it, breathe it, focus and then decide whatever I need to decide.

The quote also says “remember that you are earth” and ground yourself, give, build and heal. Finally, “remember that you are Spirit” and care for your inner core so that you can connect, listen, know yourself and be still. It’s quite a lesson — a new way of seeing myself — and perhaps it is the way I must journey if I want to walk peacefully on the earth. In these days when peace is in short supply, when nations refuse to beat their swords into plowshares, when political rivals use hate speech against one another, it is so important that peace dwells within my soul.

In the end, all of us long for what James Harpur calls sacred metamorphosis. We all want to realize the miracle of walking peacefully. We want to walk peacefully in our souls. We want to walk peacefully with others. We want to walk peacefully in our families. We simply want to walk peacefully — hand in hand with God and moved by Spirit. We want the choice to walk or to be still, to run or to leap, to breathe or to hold our breath when we kneel before wonder. We want to have the freedom to speak and shout and sing and dance . . . and truly live. That is the miracle!