Ash Wednesday: How are you present?

The poet Mary Oliver died this year. By all measures she was a great poet, and her death was a great loss. Mary Oliver told us that “attention is the beginning of devotion.” To what do we pay attention? How often do we pay attention? To whom do we pay attention?

This year, this Ash Wednesday, I find myself meditating on the question of presence: How are we present to one-another? How are we present to ourselves? How is God present to us?

It seems to me that both Jesus and the prophet Isaiah in today’s readings are asking questions of attention, of presence. These readings are chosen for Ash Wednesday because Lent is an invitation to pay attention, to be present. Lent comes as a reminder that faith is not simply about checking a list of beliefs. Church is not about being seen on Sunday mornings. Christianity is a way of life. Or perhaps we could say, Christianity is a way of paying attention to life. Jesus, and Jesus’ ancestors, taught a way of being present to one another, to ourselves, to God.

How are we present to one another?

There is a contradiction in the way we celebrate Ash Wednesday. Jesus tells his followers not to disfigure their faces, then we, who say we seek to follow Jesus, go ahead and smear ash on our foreheads. Isaiah asks, “Is it the fast I choose to sit in sackcloth, covered in ashes?” Jesus cautions, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” Jesus, as usual, gets straight to the heart of the matter. Jesus asks us, how are we present to one another? Is our attention all about appearances? Or does the attention go deeper?

There is a compliment that you often hear given of great leaders. I’ve been reading the autobiography of the Rev. Pauli Murray, the first black woman ordained an Episcopal priest. As a young woman activist, she was given an opportunity to meet with the First Lady. Pauli Murray wrote these words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Whenever I was speaking to her she gave me her complete attention, as if in that moment I was the most important person in her world.” Attention can be received as a gift, and many great leaders become great through cultivating the gift, by learning not to look over their shoulder, to be present to the person right in front of them. Attention can be a gift, can be received as such.

Isaiah opens this question of attention to its consequences. What is the fast God chooses? What discipline does God choose for God’s people? To pay attention! Pay attention to the hungry, to the naked, to the oppressed. Fast in a way that gives bread to the poor. Pay attention to injustice, yet more, pay attention to the person who has received injustice. Pay attention to your neighbor, your oppressed neighbor, your hungry neighbor, your homeless neighbor. Pay attention. Isaiah tells the people, God chooses a fast that asks them to be present to those who suffer. Our attention to one another has ethical consequences, has real life and death significance. How are we present to one another?

Cornell West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” If we are to do justice, if we are to love one another, as the old saying goes, we must also love ourselves.

How are we present to ourselves?

For some of us Jesus’ admonition today, “go into your room and shut the door” can sound terrifying. A recent study from the University of Virginia and Harvard tested how well people tolerate a few minutes of quiet time, a few minutes of being alone with their thoughts. They tested a diverse group of ages, from college students to octogenarians. Most couldn’t last six minutes. And age wasn’t a determining factor. Without books, television, conversation, or an iPhone, people of all ages asked to walk out of the testing room. The distractions are ever multiplying in our world, but the less we pay attention to ourselves, the less connected we are to how we are feeling, what we are thinking, the more terrifying time alone can become.

The painful truth is that many of us pay attention to ourselves in terribly cruel ways. We become our own worst critics. Before I move to far into this discussion, I want to name something specific. Ever since my college years, I have come to hate one aspect of Lent.

I went to college in Southern California, where body image messages are even more intense than they are everywhere else in the world. I went to a Catholic college. Because Lenten practices most commonly involve giving up some kind of food, usually a high calorie food or food group, when I was a Resident Assistant, an RA, we had to be especially vigilant during Lent because the season became an excuse to spiritualize eating disorders.

If you will let a priest give you a word of admonition, let it be this: If you struggle with body image, if you struggle with food throughout the year, please do not choose a Lenten discipline that involves restricting calories. Choose another discipline, one that helps you to love your body, one that helps you name what is going on, one that helps you begin to feed your body and your soul. If you need help, I have some great colleagues who specialize in body image and eating therapy. I’d be happy to share their contact information.

Whether you carry shame about food, or body, or your shame comes from another experience or trauma, all of us carry shame. All of us. The researcher Brene Brown has written that all of us, all of us, carry shame. All of us have been shaped by loss, by pain. Brown says she often wants to scream: “Yes, shame is tough to talk about. But the conversation isn’t nearly as dangerous as what we’re creating with our silence! We all experience shame. We’re all afraid to talk about it. And, the less we talk about it, the more we have it.” Silence is dangerous. If you have chosen a Lenten discipline you can’t speak about. Change it. Make your Lenten discipline trusting someone with your story instead. If we avoid being present to ourselves. If we avoid our stories, we will remain unable to see that we are NOT the sum of the worst things we have done. We are NOT the sum of the worst things that have happened to us.

The world is always ready to hand you terrible names for yourself, terrible narratives. We are always being tempted with the labels: bad mother, awful friend, worst colleague, bad husband, you get the gist. Brene Brown talks about cultivating a new relationship, a more gentle relationship, with ourselves that can short-circuit that narrative. Do we have the courage to believe we are enough? Could we dare to believe that we are worth the trouble? Could we treat ourselves the way we treat a dear friend? Could we say things to ourselves like, “I know you feel bad about what you said back there, what you did, but I still love you?” Could we trust St. Paul, when he tell us we are not imposters? Could we trust God when God says to us, “you are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased?” Could we go into our room, shut the door, and sit by ourselves with those thoughts?

How are we present to God?

Lent is a time when many of us choose to cultivate our attention to the “spiritual stuff.” We try and spend more time with God. We try to pray more, to read more of the Bible, to practice our faith. Jesus’ words about going into our room, shutting the door, they’re not just about how we spend time with ourselves. He begins the admonition: “when you pray…” The truth is, we are never truly alone with ourselves. God is always present. Always.

The French Benedictine Henri Le Saux spent twenty-five years in India cultivating a practice of prayer and meditation, an encounter with God informed by the ancient teachings of Christianity, and in dialogue with Hindu and Buddhist masters. Le Saux wrote: “To pray is to take for granted that we live in the mystery of God, that we are immersed in it, and that this mystery envelops us and at the same time extends beyond us on every side—“in [God] we live and move and have our being.” Prayer than is nothing less than our whole relationship with the God who creates us, the one who keeps us in life. And, frankly, there is something mysterious about prayer, about the intentional time we spend with the divine.

The best meditation on this mystery I’ve read lately came from Mary Oliver. This is her poem, “I Happened to be Standing”

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?

I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

There are treasures in heaven stored up for you. God is already present to you, closer to you than your own breath. God knows us better than we know ourselves, loves us better than we love ourselves. Lent is a time for letting go of the distractions. Maybe the distractions are simple, like television. Maybe the distractions are more complex, old stories we tell ourselves. May this Lent come with the gift of presence. May you find yourself present to your neighbor, your spouse or partner, you sister, your friend. May you be more present to the needs of our world. May you find yourself learning to be present to yourself, learning to be more gentle with yourself. May you be surprised your attention to God, to your waking up, realizing God is always present to you. God is there in every moment. Every time is acceptable. A blessed Lent. Amen

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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