Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Compassion of Lent

On Wednesday we began Lent. There were the words we hear every day on this year about repentance, fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Ashes were distributed and each of us was left with her own thoughts as we again entered this season.

Once again I listened and felt that I wasn’t sure I really understood Lent or perhaps more accurately I felt that I wasn’t feeling what I should feel. I’m never sure what I should give up, I struggle to name my repentance, I feel guilty that I will probably fail in my intention to be a better person.

All these thoughts went through my head in a strange sort of Ash Wednesday déjà vu. But suddenly another word came into my head in a startling instant. Compassion.

It was a moment when I began to look at Lent not from my point of view but from God’s. I realized Lent isn’t about me, either my good intentions or my guilt. Lent is about God’s deep compassion for us, God’s desire for our wholeness and healing.
What God feels for us is not a desire for feats of ascetic discipline or even an acutely attuned sense of guilt and repentance. God looks at each one of us with a deep, encompassing, all pervading sense of compassion. The guilt, the resolution, contrition and even the confession of the lack of these feelings aren’t what God cares about. God simply reaches out and whispers, “quiet, listen, do you know how much I care about you?”

Perhaps we work on our determination to keep our resolutions, wallow in guilt, escape into holy reading because all of these are easier than simply surrendering into the overwhelming reality of God’s compassionate love for us. The resolutions, guilt and pious actions all allow us to remain in control, to determine how we will relate to God. And so we can continue to feed our secret, pervasive sense of self-determination.

Ultimately I suspect Lent is both much easier and much harder than we usually make it with our well-intentioned resolutions. Lent is easier if it is really about God’s compassion for us rather than our ascetic strivings. But the paradox is that letting go into the reality of God’s love can make the difficulty of our resolutions look like a walk in the park. Being enfolded in compassion requires a profound level of trust, a level of difficulty that dwarfs our resolutions to give up chocolate or coffee for a few weeks. Lent is a call not to focus on our own strivings but to let go into the reality of God’s deep longing for us.

The poet T.S. Eliot once said: “mankind cannot bear too much reality.” But perhaps that is what Lent is all about, facing the reality of God’s compassion and the paradox of how difficult that can be. And so Lent begins again and with it God’s ever open invitation.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What Constitutes Holiness?

What makes a person holy? Hopefully all of us are striving for holiness, hard at work on our spiritual way, becoming more Christ-like as we grow in our faith. But we also know that certain people are clearly farther along on the journey toward holiness. The saints are obvious examples of people who have led transformed lives, their witness has been formally affirmed by the Church. But we also know ordinary people whom we recognize as having achieved what Benedict would call the heights of humility.

In our community one such holy person has just died. Those of you who knew her won’t be surprised to hear Sr. Wilma Schlangen described as such a person. Of course if anyone had told her that she was holy she would probably say “Oh no!” in her inimitable Minnesota accent. But for the many people whose lives she touched there was something very special, very holy about Wilma.

Sr. Wilma had an ability to make everyone feel special. So many people came through her old kitchen and were warmly embraced, accepted and loved. Each person was made to feel absolutely unique. Many visitors would encounter Wilma in the course of a few days or even a few hours and feel like they had just met a friend for life. I never had the heart to tell any of them that Wilma made everyone feel that way and that she may not remember them because she met so many people and was so present to each one.

Perhaps the key to Wilma’s holiness, or any other exceptional person, is that God’s light shines through them exactly as they are with all their limitations. Holiness does not mean perfection, a lack of flaws, a person who is “too good to be true;” holiness is a quality that simply means that the rough edges have been smoothed out, they haven’t been eliminated.

Like all of us Wilma had her edges. In her 94 years Sr. Wilma walked a path of holiness through work. She worked incredibly hard, set herself incredibly high standards and expected other people to meet those standards. Many people shared memories of working with her in the kitchen and having her exclaim “oh, you’re not going to use that pot are you?” Many more people came through the old kitchen assuming that they already knew how to string beans, sort raspberries, crack walnuts or any one of multiple tasks, only to be very clearly told by Wilma exactly what they were doing wrong.

But Sr. Wilma was also a Benedictine in whom there was no guile. She was absolutely honest in all her interactions whether that was making someone feel absolutely loved and welcome or telling them they were cutting apples all wrong or saying with great concern “you have gained weight haven’t you?” But whatever she said there was only truth, and even if you were a disaster in the kitchen or garden you knew that Wilma still loved you.

Perhaps holiness is about having experienced God’s love without reservation, having come, through long years and perhaps difficult experience, to the place where the reality of God’s unconditional embrace is the clearest reality. In her life Wilma knew suffering, rejection, doubt. She struggled with what it meant to be a good religious, a good community member. But by the time she died, tired and ready to go “home,” she also knew that God’s light shone through her, not as a reward for her many years of hard work, but as the reality of God’s free gift of love. The holiness that Wilma manifest for all of us was that light, that love that simply radiated from her deepest being.

Wilma has completed her journey toward holiness. For those of us that come after her Wilma has given us the gift of seeing that holiness isn’t a denial of our fallible humanity but it is a celebration and transformation of our deepest selves. To be holy is to rejoice that we have been give the gift of being made in the image of God and that on the journey of life we become ever more like the God whose image we share. And so, with every raspberry we pick, with every person we meet and love, we remember Wilma, and know as she did, that we are embraced and loved by God just as we are.