Entries in Lent (3)
I'm so old, I watched the original 'Star Trek' when it first came out. And few episodes riveted me, or remain with me, as much as "Is There No Truth in Beauty?" The plot centered on an alien ambassador, Kollos, who was profoundly intelligent and benign, but whose appearance drove men mad with terror; he was transported inside an ark of sorts by a lovely blind telepath onto the Enterprise. Spock (being Vulcan) can look upon Kollos using a protective visor—but when he forgets to put it on and sees the Medusan face-to-face, all hell breaks loose. (Highlights below.)
This story haunted me, and not just for the delicious terror of gazing on the forbidden. At one point, Spock (with visor) mind-melds with the formless Kollos, and delivers an astonishing speech to the gaping crewmen on the bridge. It permanently impressed me, at age 11, with a profound sense of how bodies can separate as well as unite us. Thanks to fandom and the Web, I looked it up, and it still knocks me out:
"How compact your bodies are. And what a variety of senses you have. This thing you call... language though - most remarkable. You depend on it, for so very much. But is any one of you really its master? But most of all, the aloneness. You are so alone. You live out your lives in this... shell of flesh. Self-contained. Separate. How lonely you are. How terribly lonely."
As a Catholic schoolgirl, I don't think I ever made a connection to the Old Testament God, the One who appears to Moses as a burning bush.
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:5-6)
Nor do I remember thinking of Kollos' observations as a way to imagine how Christ might have experienced His Incarnation.
But I do now, which proves either (a) that Star Trek is awesome no matter how much people may sneer, or (b) in 50 years, this as good I've gotten at theology.
Anyway, back to the Holy Face, the face of Jesus, my Lenten "theme"...what a change from Old Testament to New. We go from a God too beautiful and terrible to look upon, to a God with a human face. And body. For us, infinite consolation and fellowship. For Him, suffering and isolation...along with friendship, joy, anger, pity, all the things we feel. He felt the sun and rain of Galilee on that Face. His mother gazed down on it, his friends recognized and loved it. They looked on it in the dull stillness of death and then, most mysteriously of all, in Resurrection. And then He and the Face were gone.
And now the Face is hidden again, inside one another, where it can still be hard to look without a visor.
Just, wow. I was going to post my absolutely favorite, butt-kickingest anti-depression prayer right up front in Lent...and I discover it is actually a Lenten prayer! Not for Roman Catholics, but for our Eastern Orthodox brethren. Folks, I give you:
The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life, keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement, lust of power and idle chatter. [kneel, bow, or prostration]
Instead, grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience and love. [kneel, bow, etc.]
O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen. [kneel, bow, etc.]
St. Ephrem the Syrian is a Doctor of the Church who lived in present-day Turkey from about 306 to 370 AD. He wrote in the Syriac language and was a prolific author of hymns, many composed to combat the rampant heresies of his day; they would be sung by all-female choirs playing lyres, which sounds a lot more interesting than CCD class.
The prayer above, however, was composed by his later admirers, who admired him so much that they would make stuff up and sign it "Ephrem the Syrian," apparently. (Even then, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.) What makes this prayer kick butt, of course, are the moves prescribed within. Apparently some Eastern believers bow from the waist and others actually do the whole flat-on-the-floor thing. I would tell you what I do, but then I'd have to kill you. (Hint: I have osteoarthritis of the knee, so it's nothing worthy of The DaVinci Code.) However, any kind of moves you can do accomplish a twofold purpose:
1. You wake up and focus.
2. You feel like an idiot.
3. Oh, yes, three is: Because of (2), you "pray in your room in secret" just like Jesus ordered. Which is kind of cool.
For those of us who suffer from depression, the prayer contains a powerful appeal to avoid "acedia," the dreaded monastic spiritual affliction of just not giving a crap about anything (certainly not about religious practice). This concept is a rich and tricky one, since acedia mutated into the better-known deadly sin of sloth, and it's hard enough dealing with the biochemical burden of depression without mixing it up with a deadly sin. The spiritual author Kathleen Norris explores this conundrum at rambling but sometimes illuminating length in her book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life.
The rubrics (physical positions) prescribed in the prayer seem designed with depression sufferers in mind. Sometimes, you just need to get moving. (The wise prankster St. Philip Neri once had a melancholic young man approach him for spiritual direction; instead, Philip lit out for the streets of Rome, saying, "Run with me!" to the astonished young man. A personal trainer for the soul!)
If you're not ready for bowing or prostration, crank this up; it's a Little Richard rarity. I don't know if St. Ephrem would have approved, but I suspect St. Philip would've loved it.
Hey, kids, it's Ash Wednesday; let's go to the beach!
That's what I did yesterday, anyway. Like all my best ideas, it wasn't an idea, or mine. I had dreamed of the seashore the previous night, and then missed my stop on the homebound B train after getting ashes in downtown Brooklyn. In 4 more stops, I realized, I could be in Brighton Beach, on a February day when it was nearly 60 degrees.
I was still in a muddle about what spiritual thing to do for Lent. I'm working on weight loss anyway, so I decided not to drag in fasting with its history of failure. (Easter, the Feast of Unvanquished Fat Cells.) Last year I tried to quit Facebook; that lasted about 48 hours. And I already felt a sharp ache of deprivation: the Daughter is on a school trip to a distant shore, providing me with a painful preview of the "empty nest."
I was in another muddle about the future of this blog. Crazy Stable, begun on a whim, now forms a ragged five-year chronicle of our joys and struggles in this old house, along with lots of other stuff I've cared about. But it feels (as the Sunshine Boys would say) as if it's time to Freshen Up the Act. My identity as a cranky but passionate Catholic is no secret here, and to my mounting horror I have felt Crazy Stable asking to morph into an explicitly Catholic blog.
Why the horror? Because the Catholic blogosphere makes the bar scene in "Star Wars" look like a Zen garden. First, it's too crowded. There are too many good writers...brilliant, holy, funny, inspiring writers, more than I can hope to keep up with. And there are way too many exhausting extremists, at both ends of the spectrum: from mommy-bloggers who cannot get through a single post without rhapsodizing about cervical mucus measurement (if you get that reference, you are very Catholic) to ex-nuns who go around ordaining each other and bashing every word from the hierarchy. One quick spin through a Catholic blog ring is enough to make me want to be a Unitarian.
Well, no, not really, but you get the idea.
After seaside pondering, I decided on two Lenten disciplines. One, I would try to be more like my Beloved Cousin, who left this life one year ago. A light penance: to try to complain less, garden more, and share only love and enthusiasm and goodness with those around me. And two, I would pray more, because I suck at praying. I am so bad at it, and do it so seldom, that God mercifully resorts to just whacking me upside the head as I go through life.
The trouble is, I will instantly forget both these resolutions as surely as the tide will go out at Brighton Beach. So I decided to hijack this blog for Lent and put up one prayer a day—good, old-school, red-blooded prayers, not "Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy." This shouldn't be too mortifying. No punditry or polemics, just a walk along the beach with God. You are welcome to join me, or to flee.
Let's start with my favorite prayer for times of utter confusion, from the writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that my desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire
in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything
apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this
you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.