Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday

A number of years ago I set out on a day’s walk with a group of friends.  We planned to climb Mt Wellington, just outside Hobart, and had chosen a mild summer’s day which Hobart turns on so beautifully.  The walking track began just a few blocks up from the house I lived in Nelson Rd, Sandy Bay, and unlike the road that jack-knifed back and forwards to allow cars to climb the mountain at a gentle enough incline – the walking track cut all the corners, climbing straight up the side of the mountain.  Within a half an hour or so we were deep in the fragrant bushland you only encounter in Tasmania, pushing through bracken and scrambling up banks of damp loamy soil, breathing in the scents of leatherwood and honeysuckle, becoming aware of the buzzing of real live bumblebees growing louder than the receding sounds of city traffic.

Every few hundred metres the walking track crosses back over a loop of the road, but the drivers take it easy up the side of the mountain, you get a few waves from cars that you saw back at the last loop but for most of the time we were on our own, not talking so much as the climbing got harder and steeper, beginning to use hands as much as feet to pull ourselves up the track.  Every now and then pausing for a drink and to look back over our shoulders at the city and the Derwent Estuary below us, enjoying the sounds of birds and invisible animals all around us.  Until – two-thirds or so of the way up the side of the mountain – at a height of about 800 metres – we climbed into a cloud.

For anybody who has never had this experience, it was like stepping abruptly into a refrigerated sauna.  Wetter than your regular fog, you could feel the graininess of the water vapour, feel yourself getting wet as you climbed and unable to see anything further away than the rear of the person climbing in front of you.  Checking the weather forecast, we hadn’t thought about checking whether Mt Wellington would be covered in cloud.  Within a few minutes we were saturated, but of course with the foolishness of youth kept climbing anyway.  Once on top of the mountain, we had a very good view of – five feet in front of us – and had the sense at least not to wander around up there and lose our bearings.  The feeling was of being cocooned, adrift in a sea of cold, wet cotton wool, cut off from everywhere and every when, wrapped in a wet blanket of no place, no time, no-body.

So we ate our sandwiches and drank our hot tea from thermos flasks, and turned back down the track, more than a little bit miffed at having missed out on the view we figured we had well and truly earned.  Until – 400 or so metres below the summit, as abruptly as we entered it, we stumbled back out of the cloud into the late summer afternoon and felt the warmth of the sun, saw the city, the river, the bush and even started to hear the sounds of animals and birds and traffic again.

On the Feast of the Transfiguration, just a few days ago, we ventured up a mountain and stepped into a cloud, and I suggested that this cloud might be a good place to begin the journey of Lent.  This evening, in our first reading from the Book of Joel, we hear the rumblings of thunder getting louder as the cloud approaches.  This time it doesn’t seem to be a very friendly cloud, and in fact if we read a little farther we realise that it isn’t your regular cloud, because this is a cloud of locusts.  This is a batten-down-the hatches sort of cloud, a cloud that strips bare everything in its path, a purposeful and vengeful cloud that pares you down to the bone.  Ancient farmers and modern ones alike are largely powerless in the face of this cloud, it is a cloud from which you can only pray for deliverance.

And I want to suggest that the cloud of Mt Sinai and the cloud of the prophet Joel both have something to say about the cloud of unknowing into which we are invited to step as we enter the season of Lent. The phrase, the ‘cloud of unknowing’ comes to us as the title of a book on contemplative prayer written, it is supposed, by some anonymous English priest in the fourteenth century who invites us to notice the connection between forgetting ourselves and remembering or grounding ourselves in who we truly are.  Of course it is an extended metaphor, and one to which I can hardly do justice in the space of a brief sermon, but the Cloud author invites us to step into the cloud of self-forgetfulness, to deliberately choose opacity and disorientation, the narrowing of horizons and the fearful isolation of the cloud that he also describes as the hidden-ness of God.  The goal of prayer, he teaches, is to be transparent to God, to be lost in God and immersed in God – and this means choosing to step into the cloud that obscures our everyday vision, that blanks out our Monday to Friday agenda, that disorientates us from our regular sense of which way is up and who we even are.  Less a poetic reflection than a practical, step-by-step manual of instruction in the paradoxical art of contemplative, wordless prayer, the Cloud of Unknowing is built on a simple, paradoxical and yet obvious truth – in order to be laid bare and lost in God we need first to be naked and abandoned and lost to our own preconceptions, our own best theories.  We don’t find a way to God by following a map of our own making but by trusting the one who invites us to step beyond everything we cling to for security and self-affirmation.

Writing at a time of national emergency, however (as indeed most of the prophets are when they are at their most articulate) – the prophet Joel warns us that this cloud has teeth.  This cloud can strip you bare of your pretensions, not only disorientate you but destroy your ability to believe any longer in the myth of your self-sufficiency.  This cloud leaves you with no option but to depend on the one who calls you to step blindly into it.  Spirituality is not for wimps.

The great psychologist Carl Jung commented once that the Hebrew Bible with its emphasis on the dangerousness and the scariness of God has it exactly right.  He likened human spirituality, the need for connection with our Creator, to a subterranean river, a powerful current that most of the time runs unnoticed through our lives and connects us with the ocean.  Except, he said, when it gets blocked.  When human beings forget that they are spiritual creatures, forget that they are made in the image of God and need to be constantly refreshed by the subterranean currents.  When we start to believe in the dangerous fantasy of our own self, the fairytale that it is we ourselves who have created, not only ourselves but the world we inhabit, and we concrete over the underground streams of our lives.  Of course human beings can live like that for a long time.  But that, Jung taught, is when the underground waters of the Spirit become dangerous, when our own unacknowledged need can erupt from underneath and overwhelm us.  The cloud of unknowing into which we are invited to step is not a soft blanket of cotton wool but a cloud of devouring locusts that strip away from us the hard shells we have carefully constructed around our lives, everything that prevents us being open and vulnerable to one another and to God.  We are being invited to submit to the hard discipline of being deconstructed, the extreme backyard makeover of the soul.

Lent invites us to be unsettled, to forget ourselves in order that we may experience the remembering of God.  This is not a fancy play on words but urgent advice to 21st century men and women who find it difficult to look beneath the surface of things, for whom the dark corners and ambiguous spaces of life are rarely visited.  Pray this Lent to be disorientated from your own prejudices and certainties so that the foolishness of God can settle on you, to be stripped bare of your hard protective shell so that you can be wounded by the suffering of God and the unanswered need of men and women, to be enveloped in the cloud of forgetfulness so that the one thing you can remember is that your true home is in the heart of God.

And so I invite you to a holy Lent, to fast from all that anchors you to false conceptions of your own competence and your own needs, from false notions of self-sufficiency.  To re-order your attention from seductive and false narratives of the self so that you might finally hear the whispering of the one who made you.  To immerse yourself in the hiddenness and the darkness of God through the gentle discipline of prayer and through simple acts of compassion.