Ash Wednesday – Where the Wild Things are

“Your Father, who sees in secret, shall reward you openly!

Today we begin the Church’s season of Spring, the Lengthening of days, the attention to the signs of new life in our midst.  Outside this week there are snow drops, crocuses, daffodils, the magnolia blossoms are ready to explode.  We are to look for a parallel in our own souls: signs of the renewal of love or of the buds of new love ready to blossom – and this new life will be encouraged and nurtured by the water of the Spirit welling up in our souls.  Lent is not a dark time, but a time of increasing light.

But how will this Spring in our souls come about?

On Sunday Ineke reminded us of the purpose of Lent as growing in Love of God and of our neighbour.  And she has made so very practical suggestions about how we might do that.  You can read her sermon here.  God spoke about this through Isaiah in this morning’s Morning Prayer lesson (58:6-7):

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

We don’t need to understand this as literal slavery but the way we bind others and our bound through failure to forgive others, or are bound in destructive relationships and ways of being.  God says more about the fast that shows love of neighbour, making sacrifices in love:

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 him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Whatever Lenten fast, whatever spiritual discipline we take on, if it does not result in our growing in love, it is not only in vain, but potentially demonic, leading us to greater pride and irritability.

I want to speak of two traditional disciplines to help in the growing of our love – prayer and fasting.

  1. Prayer.

I don’t know if this was your experience when you were a child.  But I remember when I was out of control and not listening to any correction my parents would tell me, “Go to your room!”

When you went to your room, you could get bored quickly and think about how other people were enjoying themselves and you really wanted to return to be with them.  And, of course, after not too long a time, when I’d quieted down, my mother would come into the room, take me in her arms, and restore me to the fellowship.

Nowadays I wonder why going to my room would be a punishment?  I long for it!

There is a wonderful children’s book called – Where the Wild things are?  (You can click here to read it online.)  It is very short, but the story is about Max who wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another.  His mother called him “Wild Thing!” and Max said, “I’ll eat you up!”  So he was set to his bed without eating anything.

A forest grows in his room, and an ocean tumbles by and he sails off to the place where the Wild Things are.  These beasts try to frighten him, but he said to them, Peace, be still! and learned by a trick how to tame them by staring at their yellow eyes without blinking.  So he is made king by them, and his first order is “let the wild rumpus begin!”

But Max gets bored, sends them all to bed, without their meals, and then in his loneliness wants to return to be “where someone loved him best”.  So he sails back to his room where he finds his supper waiting for him “…and it was still hot”.

The story is deep, and different people have tried to explain why.  I find it fun as a description of why we avoid going into our room by ourselves and taking time out in silence to be with God.

We are so used to engaging in the world with others, we avoid at all cost the movement from the exterior to the interior, the inward turn, that is a necessary preparation to draw closer to God.  The returning to ourselves can be painful, because in silence, things can come to the surface that we don’t want to see – Wild Things.  But if we don’t attend to these things they affect our ability to pray and to deepen our closeness with God and our neighbour.

The Wild Things, can be our unruly passions (spoken of in James 4) or our fears lurking below the surface or unacknowledged sin for which we still feel guilt or a deep wound we pretend is not there.  And if we are frightened by them and avoid them, they become an even bigger deal in our lives.  Yet if we acknowledge them, “stare at them in the eyes without blinking”, they can become manageable.  God gives us the confidence to look at ourselves, to turn inwardly, to accept ourselves for who we are.  He will give the grace of self-control or courage or forgiveness or healing, he brings comfort in response to our tears.

Now it is possible that what we see is too frightening to deal with by ourselves, and if this happens, there are people who have great skill to help us deal with them, psychologists and spiritual counsellors.  By all means seek out help, do not continue to live hiding wounds from healers, or unacknowledged sin from God, or being terrified by hidden fears or out of control passions.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls on us to engage in spiritual disciplines – prayer and fasting – and encourages us to “do these things in secret”.  “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in secret” and Jesus promises our Father will reward us openly.

Jesus wants us to seriously engage with who are, with who we have become, and with who we could become, in Him.  His call is to real and abiding change in who we are.

The Lenten call to renewal in prayer is a call to go to your room – but we shouldn’t see it as a punishment, it is a great gift!  After time in silence with God, in a loving beholding Him and of all things in Him, we return to re-engage with the world – able to love it more, as God loves it, and to return to loved ones, being more present to them, recognizing the incredible gift that they are to us, and with new insight about how to love them better.

  1. What about fasting?

The first thing to say is that it is not for those who are super stressed already.  But if you find yourself satisfied and complacent, if you’re used to eating what you need and then some, then consider a fast.  It could be one less meal a day or lessoning the amount at each or giving up meat or desserts or alcohol or some combination – each of us sets our own rules for the fast.

Kallistos Ware says,

“If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food – particularly in the opening days – involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. …  Lenten abstinence gives us (not the self-satisfaction of the Pharisee but) the saving self-dissatisfaction of the Publican (Luke I 8: 10-1 3). Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us ‘poor in spirit’, aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God’s aid.

“Yet …abstinence leads, not merely-to this, but also to a sense of lightness, wakefulness, freedom and joy. Even if the fast proves debilitating at first, afterwards we find that it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively. …Fasting …makes [the body] a willing partner in the task of prayer, alert and responsive to the voice of the Spirit.  The Fathers simply state, as a guiding principle, that we should never eat to satiety but always rise from the table feeling that we could have taken more and that we are now ready for prayer.

“… In both the Old and the New Testament fasting is seen, not as an end in itself, but as an aid to more intense and living prayer, as a preparation for decisive action or for direct encounter with God…to enable us, … to ‘draw near to the mountain of prayer’.”

What Bishop Ware is describing is the redirecting of our love from an earthly good to a heavenly.  It is coming to see that the same desire, the same love, reaching out for satisfaction in earthly things can be redirected and satisfied in reaching out to God.

The growing in Love of God and of our neighbour is the aim of Lent – all spiritual disciples have that aim.  And this is what God says, through Isaiah, will happen if our fast has the right motivation [Isaiah 58] – this is how “the Father will reward us openly“:

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

…then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.

and your soul shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.

Amen +