Lent begins tomorrow, and among other things, I’m experiencing the season by taking a break from blogging. But only sort of. These next several weeks I’ll be highlighting posts from the archives, sharing quotes and links that mean something to me, and maybe even posting a photo or two.
There are a number of reasons for this, one being that I’m trying to make headway on my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. I need to create some space and time for those words to come. So I’ll be resting in the words of others…
In this space, anyway. I’ll be writing short weekly reflections on my email list, which you can sign up for here.
I’ve written before about how judgy people can get about Lent practices that strike them as too much about self-improvement and not enough about devotion to God. I’m not interested in diagnosing whether giving up blog writing is a “good enough” discipline. It’s what I’m doing, that’s all. I feel called to it.
How about you? Will you be taking on a practice this Lent?
This year I’m trying to see as many of the big Oscar nominees as possible. Last Friday I checked off my first film: Philomena, which is about an Irish woman’s search for her son, who was adopted by American parents some 50 years before. Philomena was one of the Magdalene girls, unwed mothers who were essentially incarcerated in various Catholic institutions and forced into unpaid labor as payment for their shameful mistakes.
It’s an excellent movie, though devastating to watch. It brings up any number of issues related to faith. Here are a couple:
The importance of forgiveness. I wished for a more nuanced portrayal of the topic, however. Near the end of the movie, there’s a scene in which a roomful of religious people practically cluck in disdain at the character of Martin Sixsmith (the journalist who’s been helping Philomena), who is livid at the injustice and secrecy that has persisted for decades. The implication in their response (including Philomena’s) is that he needs to let go of his anger and forgive because such negative feelings serve no purpose.
Forgiveness is indeed a gift of grace. And simmering resentments can corrode our lives. But Martin’s anger in that moment was appropriate. Given the magnitude of the injustice, it was more than that. It was righteous.
I’d wager that any anger the real Martin felt provided motivation for the writing of the book, which after all, served to bring this important story to light. Anger, properly harnessed, is a powerful fuel, and it bothers me when religious people are portrayed in such a milquetoast manner in popular culture.
But pop culture didn’t invent that image out of whole cloth. The Church, if I may be so monolithic, has offered plenty of inspiration for such a portrayal.
But it’s not just the anger and forgiveness thing…
Issues of the body and sexuality. We are still so primitive when it comes to talking about sex and our bodies. The young Philomena is doubly disadvantaged: she was not taught enough basic anatomy to understand how to prevent pregnancy. But she wasn’t taught anything about her body and its own pleasures, either—she admits with some chagrin that she enjoyed her “sin,” and exclaims to Martin Sixsmith, I never even knew what a clitoris was!
We in the Church are still dealing with the aftermath of that old Greek dualism in which the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers were steeped: spirit good, body bad.But as Martin’s character asks Philomena, what kind of God would create us with these natural sexual urges and then saddle us with such screwed-up, shame-filled religious baggage at the same time? How can something that feels so good be so very very bad? (Secular culture is not much better. Yes, the contours are different. But body image issues, self-punishment to fit an unattainable ideal, the rise of cosmetic surgery in the age of Photoshop—it’s not like the Church is a lone dysfunctional voice.)
We can rejoice that the Magdalene laundries are a memory (though not a distant enough one; the last one closed in the ’90s). But it’s still hard for us to talk about the body in a mature and meaningful way. The spiritual resources are there; we just have to embrace them.
Last week I wrote an endorsement for a book of spiritual practices for families. It’s a wonderful resource, full of ideas for parents to bring their faith into everyday life, whether it’s offering blessings at bedtime or welcoming a new pet to the family. It was one of the easiest endorsements I’ve written, and you’ll be hearing more from me about the book when it’s released.
But as I reflected on the legacy of Philomena, I realized with a start that there’s nothing in the book about children’s physical and sexual development. And I’m not saying this to knock the book at all—I myselfdidn’t see a thing missing until the movie prompted me to think about these things.
An obvious one: there must be a way for families (or at least mothers) to mark the occasion of a girl’s first period from a spiritual/faith perspective. My eldest daughter is excited because I’ve promised to take her to Spa World to celebrate this milestone. But there must be more that could be said or done. I’m not talking about a big show or an embarrassing display. I’m talking about some language celebrating God’s good gift of creation and the beauty of our bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made.
How about a teen’s first date? Or a first breakup? Surely the Christian tradition can offer more than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s…
What about a young person’s coming out?
And the real kicker. According to Wikipedia, the average age for a young person to have sex for the first time is 17. That means they’re living under our roofs when it happens. How do we respond to this from a faith perspective?
Can I envision what a faith-filled ritual would look like between parent and young person after she loses her virginity? No, I really can’t. Does such a thing sound easy? Do we need to consider the young person’s privacy and autonomy? No and yes. But that’s all the more reason for the church to be a resource for parents. Don’t we want the kind of relationships with our children such that they could share news of that milestone with us? If so, then we should be ready, with the best our tradition can offer them. (See Tami Taylor’s conversations with Julie on Friday Night Lights—some great stuff to build on there. So simple and authentic.)
I’m not talking about a lecture on abstinence. Parents should communicate their own values, though lectures aren’t terribly effective in my experience. I’m also not talking about the contraception/condoms discussion, though such a conversation is essential; it’s borderline parental malpractice not to have it.
No, I’m talking about making it clear to our kids that their sexual lives are not divorced from their faith, but an essential part of it. I’m talking about repairing the body/spirit duality such that our lives are one integrated whole.
Does a resource containing such rituals exist? If so, I hope my readers will alert me. If not, maybe my friend will write a sequel.
Hey, I’d love for you to join my email list for further inspiration and content. And if you haven’t already checked out Sabbath in the Suburbs, the price has dropped on Amazon! And of course it’s available from Chalice Press, my publisher.
Image: The Dench and Steve Coogan in a still from the movie. If you’re interested in discerning fact from dramatic license in the film, here’s a place to start.
Another one I shared earlier this week, but dang, I like it:
To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality. This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, is that you can ‘no more be religious in general than [you] can speak language in general’ (George Lindbeck), and that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge and experience of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion. Lindbeck would go so far as to say that your religion of origin has such a bone-deep hold on you that, as with a native language, it’s your only hope for true religious fluency. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that one has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended.
This is true of poetry, too: I don’t think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent. – Christian Wiman, “Notes on Poetry and Religion,” from Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.
We are rarely presented with an authentically fulfilling trajectory for our desires… If we are created for infinite satisfaction, we really only have three choices about what to do with our desire in this life: We will become either a stoic, an addict, or a mystic. The stoic squelches desire out of fear, while the addict attempts to satisfy his desire for infinity with finite things, which, of course, can’t satisfy. That’s why the addict wants more and more and more. The mystic, on the other hand — in the Christian sense of the term — is the one who is learning how to direct his desire for infinity toward infinity,” - Christopher West, whose new book is Fill These Hearts.
Incubation breaks boosted creative performance, but only when the time was spent engaged in a different kind of mental activity. Participants who in the break switched from verbal to spatial, or from spatial to verbal, excelled when they returned to their main task – in terms of the number and quality of their solutions. The change in focus freed up their unconscious to spend the incubation period tackling the main challenge.
Highly recommend running, for people with the knees for it.
Follow the thread. Each of us has a unique unfolding story and call in this world. We don’t “figure this out” but rather we allow the story to emerge in its own time, tending the symbols and synchronicities that guide us along. Trust in what you love. Following the thread is essentially about cultivating a deep trust in what you love. What are the things that make your heart beat loudly, no matter how at odds they feel with your current life (and perhaps especially so)? Make some room this year to honor what brings you alive.
Nina Katchadourian whiles away long plane journeys by locking herself in the lavatory and pretending to be a 15th century Dutch painting. The project began spontaneously on a flight in March 2010 and is ongoing…
I do think about the line forming outside the door while she’s doing this, but:
This is a re-post from several months ago on the RunRevRun website. It’s been on my mind lately, because my thinking is shifting on this topic. Being and doing, doing and being…
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I began the Couch to 5K program a few months ago. I wasn’t exactly starting from “couch”—I’ve been doing brisk walking several times a week for more than a year—and my fitness goal is not really to run a 5K, but to hike Mount Washington in New Hampshire this summer. I’ve hiked big mountains before, in various states of fitness, but it’s so much more enjoyable when you’re not wheezing your way up and stopping every ten yards to massage your charley horses. And since there’s no “couch to Mt. Washington” program, Couch to 5K is getting the job done.
Although I started this program to get myself up the mountain, I can see myself continuing it indefinitely, maybe even graduating to the 10k version. I’ve been an evangelist for this program on Twitter, Facebook and in real life. I’m grateful for the impact it’s had on my health and want to share it, but there’s also a selfish motive: I’m telling people far and wide to keep me accountable to continue. Along the way I have been very insistent with folks: “I run, but I’m not a runner.” This has been an oft-repeated refrain:
Oh, MaryAnn’s a runner now. Actually, no I’m not. But aren’t you in this running program? Yes. But I’m not a runner.
What’s that about?
Why am I so reluctant to call myself a runner?
First off, I wonder what it means to be a runner. What exactly is a runner? Isn’t it simply “one who runs”? I think I have an image in my mind of a perfectly toned body, or a person obsessed with getting the right shoes, entering races, and reading Runner’s World, a magazine I wouldn’t even know existed were it not for the cover photo of Sarah Palin that emerged during the 2008 presidential election. I’m not really interested in running as a hobby. But is that really what it means to be a runner? Or is that just stereotypical stuff that’s not real?
Maybe I feel like I haven’t been doing it long enough to claim the identity of runner. I’m OK with the verb form—I run—but not with the noun—runner.
Am I giving myself an easy out by being Not a Runner? We are stuck with so many identities that we can’t shed in this life. I will be the daughter of my parents and the mother of my children forever. Maybe I resist calling myself a runner because I need to be free to have something in my life that I can quit without angst. Or that I can do badly. Intermittently.
Maybe I’m reluctant to call myself a runner because I’m playing old tapes about myself that aren’t helpful anymore. I was the slow kid on the softball team, the one the coach (my dad) would position at second base. It was a good fit for me because I had decent eye-hand coordination but couldn’t run very long without tiring. The best hit of my life would’ve been a home run with anyone else rounding the bases, but instead I was tagged out at home. By my best friend.
So, no. Not a runner.
My teams in school were theater/speech and Academic Decathlon.
But maybe that kind of baggage isn’t healthy. Over the last nine weeks I’ve been getting faster (slightly) and stronger (definitely). My endurance is increasing. Our bodies are for much more than brain housing and transport. Our bodies are built to dance, kneel, eat, love. Some of our bodies are built to grow other bodies and to push them out into the world. I get that in ways I didn’t understand when I was a kid.
As a pastor, I wonder about all this. I sometimes meet people who want to find a new term for “Christian.” They feel that the “brand” is fundamentally corrupted by people they see as judgmental, rancorous, loudmouthed. I’m not sure I agree that the word is irredeemable, but I sympathize with their struggle to find a label that fits.
I also know plenty of people who don’t identify themselves as Christian but whose behavior sure looks Christ-like to me. And I know Christians who are Christians in name only. I like it when people say they are seeking to follow in the way of Jesus. I can relate; it sounds like “I run but I’m not a runner.” And yet, belonging to Christ isn’t just what we do. It’s who we are; it is an identity.
I don’t know where all of these questions will lead me. Maybe someday I will consider myself a runner. Maybe I will continue to run and never take on that label. Maybe I will stop running and move on to some other physical activity. I expect that whatever I do, it will be in that strange space where action and identity intersect, where doing and being reside together.
Meanwhile, I pound the pavement.
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Image: Map of the 10K I ran last weekend. Funny, it looks a lot flatter on paper.
I have done a variety of things for Lent, ranging from nothing special to taking on an additional discipline, such as morning prayer or devotional reading. If you are inclined to add a spiritual discipline, may I recommend my friend Mary Allison’s practice of writing a letter each day? If you’re in Memphis you can even take a workshop on the topic!
I was recently drawn to this blog that describes “speed creating,” in which this inventive fellow spent 30 days making an amazing new thing each day. What would it be like to have Lent be a season for tinkering? It doesn’t have to be elaborate, like the thread light:
I like the idea of creating something for Lent. It speaks to me of the tradition of repentance, but in a novel way. One definition of repentance is to “go beyond the mind that you have.” What could be more in keeping with that than to repurpose the things of our lives? After all, we are moving toward Easter, the ultimate story of transformation and repurposing. Death gives way to new life. An instrument of violence becomes the place where God’s forgiveness is proclaimed.
But as captivated as I am by these practices, I will be giving something up instead. I am in a Meister Eckhart-ish place, who said that the spiritual life is a process of subtraction.
The truth is, I am feeling like Bilbo these days: “thin, sort of stretched, like butter, scraped over too much bread.” I am feeling the need for some space, friends. So something is going to go.
I’m a little wary of Lenten fasts as nothing more than self-help couched in spiritual terms: I’m going to give up sweets so I can lose some weight! Self-improvement is a good thing, but is a new exercise regimen during Lent really devotional at heart, or is it a second chance at the New Year’s resolution? (That said, I think some people take the hand-wringing a bit far.)
When I give something up, it is a reminder to breathe and pray, to experience radical contentment, and to remember that the object of my fast is not the “one thing needful,” as much as I may crave it in that moment.
An example: a friend of mine is going to give up bread, so that the only bread she consumes during Lent is communion bread, what we call the bread of heaven. I’ll bet you good money that she will lose weight during this time. But do you see how weight loss is not at all the focus?
I still haven’t decided what I will be giving up, but it’s been a topic of conversation in our house. The girls have suggested we all give up desserts. I think we’re going to do this. Dessert has become a point of contention in our home—I am soooo tired of the constant needling, the negotiating, the comparing of cookie sizes. Having that whole issue off the table (pun intended) feels very spacious to me. But I’m still pondering how it connects us to Spirit.
What do you think? Those who observe Lent, what will your practice be?
One final thing. To those folks, mostly non-religious or de-churched, going around saying “I’m giving up Lent for Lent”…