Do Not Worship the Ashes
Dear old and new friends,
A week from today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent—a springtime retreat of the spirit. Instead of going up in the attic to drag out and dust off some old antique exercises of penance of the past for this year’s spring retreat, consider doing something freshly new. To stimulate your imagination reflect on what Saintly Pope John XXIII said at the start of the Second Vatican Council, “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.”
However, the Vatican elite, along with Pope John Paul II, had not the least desire to be gardeners. They preferred continuing to dress in colorful medieval attire as the guards of the Church as a Holy Museum of Yesteryear. They have continued to resuscitate old dogmas, age-worn rituals and old devotions—all in the name of tradition.
Yet, “Tradition,” said the master composer Gustav Mahler, “is tending the flame; it’s not worshiping the ashes.” While Lent does begin with “Ash” Wednesday, don’t spend the remaining 39 days engaged in worshiping the dead ashes of bygone mortification practices. “Tend the flame,” as Mahler said, by taking some time to create new and different ways to spend these Lenten days of grace…and perhaps find your example in the Shinto monks of Iso, Japan.
Every twenty years since the year 772 these Shinto monks have painstakingly dismantled their large central shrine and then meticulously rebirth it from the ground up. To us practical westerners this effort seems a waste of both time and energy, but for the monks it contains copious lessons. The young monks, by this ritual of destruction and reconstruction, acquire the ancient building techniques, and all the monks relearn the lesson that life like their temple shrine is fleetingly temporary! Sit on this tradition of the Shinto monks like a patient mother hen on her egg so it can motivate you to hatch something fresh and new for your Lent.
If by Ash Wednesday your egg hasn’t hatched, you haven’t failed—your church has! Imagination has an indispensable role in the life of a “living” religion, yet it is absent in 99%—if not all—of them. “When imagination fails (is lacking),” says scripture scholar Amos Wilder, “then doctrine ossifies, preaching is wooden, litanies are empty….”
Let’s say every twenty years you tore down your church or religious tradition and rather than rebuilding it as it had been, you remake it in a wholly new way! In that holy work, what things would you keep and what would you throw away?
I would like to offer some assistance to you for your Lenten Journey beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 13. You will find here daily Lenten reflection-meditation books…and now art images to ponder (remember a picture is worth a thousand words) for Lent, Easter, Pentecost, as well as for Saint Patrick, Saint Joseph and Irish feast days—all with accompanying verses.
New also are recorded Conferences for Lent and Holy Week that can be listened to online.
All are available for your personal use. If you desire to use any of these, we can become companions on this spring journey of your Easter evolution.