Last summer, I found myself wracked with guilt after I made a significant mistake. My coworker, finding me crying in my office, listened as I poured out my shame and anxiety and lamented that “there are no angels in this story.”
“No,” she said, gently, “there are no angels, but there are human beings.”
And that remark served as a balm on my rubbed-raw heart. Human beings: luminous, broken beings dancing, crawling, and wandering our ways through this holy mess with our hurt and our hope, meeting one another in both our woundedness and our joy.
In this past year, I’ve found myself doing a lot more of the “crawling” and “wandering” than the “dancing.” I think I’ve felt more hurt than hope, and I’ve had a lot more woundedness for folks to meet me in than joy.
We’re coming up on two years since this pandemic sent all our plans to the wind. The world events of recent weeks leave me swinging on a trapeze between fury and despondency. Even on my best days I’m tired, I’m sad, I’m eager for a soft place to land.
The world events of recent weeks leave me swinging on a trapeze between fury and despondency.
And so sometimes I find myself making excuses, or taking the easy way out, “chasing dust,” as Pope Francis called it last year on Ash Wednesday. I retreat into the shadows of my self-centeredness and yearning for comfort, which might offer brief pacification, but not a peace that sustains. I scroll, I ignore, I “explain away,” I emotionally divest. The fleeting things of this world seem so much more appealing than goodness or substance. And what this leaves me with, this dust-chasing, though it might be comforting in the moment, is a lot of guilt and anxiety and shame. I look around at my work and my relationships and sometimes it’s tough to see myself as anything more than the sum of my worst parts, my deepest flaws.
And I think there can be a temptation in Lent to simply “re-up” on our New Year’s resolutions, even if we’re committed to sinking our teeth into spiritual substance. For many of us, Lenten practices can stir up thoughts of all we’re “not.” We commit to attending daily Mass or praying more because we’re not close enough to God. We resolve to spend more time with friends because we feel like we’re failing our relationships. We commit to spending less time on our phones or listening to social justice podcasts or Venmoing a charity every week because we’re reminded of all the ways we’re not doing enough. So much of our soul’s pilgrimage through Lent is rooted in the negatives.
But I wonder what would happen if we reframed the season in the same way that my colleague met me with warmth and gentleness during a moment of deep shame. What if we, in imagining how we might seek God this Lent, held sacred all we are, instead of all we are not? Rather than thinking about our inadequacies, what if we remembered our fragile humanity in all its complexity, letting our inherent belovedness shape our prayers and actions? What would my Lent look like if instead of depriving myself or denying myself, I brought my whole self before God and accepted the invitation to live into the potential of my best self that God knows I bear?
And I don’t offer this as some sort of “therapeutic moral deism” that exonerates us from any responsibility. If we’re taking a close look at the state of our souls this Lent, I’m sure we all have some uncomfortable truths to face, and I’m not suggesting we turn a blind eye to those things, but I am offering that perhaps we turn a gentle gaze upon them. Hold yourself tenderly. And pray, move, and imagine from a place of abundance, rather than the scarcity the pandemic has left us with.
This Ash Wednesday, we’re reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. How humbling! All of our best efforts could easily just be swept under the rug or tossed away in the wind. And yet, God breathed the Spirit of Life upon this dust, upon our dust. This is the same dust that composes the stars – these glimmers of lights that sparkle even in the deepest darkness. Indeed, we are dust and to dust we shall return, but if we are of the same dust as the stars, perhaps, this Lent, we can cultivate practices and live lives that reflect our full humanity and that of others.