être vide: thoughts on ash wednesday


Yesterday I flew from Rochester to South Bend, IN, where I'm spending 3 days at a convent for a personal spiritual retreat before speaking at a college near Fort Wayne on Friday. The convent where I'm staying is a complex of buildings around a lake.  The dormitory looks kind of like a nursing home -- with twin-sized beds, plain bedspreads and activity rooms with institutional-looking furniture.

This morning I woke up feeling tired and achy and empty.   It was chilly in my room -- the high today is 18 degrees! -- so I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat in a chair by the window, looking up at the frigid blue sky.

An hour later, I met with one of the sisters for a spiritual direction session.   As I shuffled down the hall to meet her, I felt like I was a patient.  Here because my soul is sick.  Here because I need to get well.  Here because there are kind, wise spiritual nurses to care for me.

When I booked the reservation, I didn't realize I would be here on Ash Wednesday, but it ended up being perfect timing.

The Sister and I spent an hour talking about what Lent means, how to observe it in a meaningful way and how to experience it as an opportunity instead of an obligation.

She said Lent is an opportunity to let go of the things we have attached ourselves to other than God.  It's an opportunity to carve out space and stillness so God can transform us.

"If we, say, give up chocolate for 40 days, then gorge on chocolate on Easter Sunday, and the following Monday go back to life the way it was before, we have missed the point entirely," she said.  "The point of Lent is to be transformed, and to become more deeply and strongly attached to God than we were before."

We talked about what it means to leave our lives empty so Christ can come and fill us -- but that process entails patience and waiting, two things that don't come easy for me.

Emptiness entails faith to believe that God is worth waiting for and that God wouldn't ask us to wait in vain.  And it requires faithfulness -- being obedient in the meantime and letting the void ache without filling it with distractions or activities or addictions that lessen our felt need for God.

The Sister recommended that for Lent, I spend 20 minutes a day in Centering (or Listening) Prayer.  Which means that instead of using words to talk to God, I would sit in wordless silence and listen for God to speak to me.

At the end of the spiritual direction session, I asked the Sister if she would pray with me.

She nodded and with a kind smile asked, "With words or without?"

I thought about what she had said about Listening Prayer, about not using words to talk to God so God can talk to you instead.

"Without," I said.

And then we closed our eyes and sat together in a 20-minute sacred silence.

When I was in Minneapolis a few weeks ago, I stayed with my friend Kat, who's a trained prophetic artist.  The day before I left, she gave me a blank canvas, brushes and paint and invited me to paint a visual depiction of what God had been saying to me in my quiet times during the two weeks I was with her.

I painted this.  A purple circle on a yellow background with the words "etre vide" in the center  (pronounced "etruh veed.")  It's a French phrase that means "remaining empty or open."

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I realized later that the purple circle can also symbolize what Jesus talks about in John 15 --becoming vine-abiding branch that bears much fruit (in this case, a plump, juicy grape.)

In an hour, I'll walk to the chapel to receive communion and to have ash wiped on my forehead.

From Dust You Have Come

To Dust You Shall Return

Turn From Your Sins

And Be Faithful to Christ

And then, by God's grace, for the next 40 days, I'll sit in silent emptiness.  I'll allow God to tear me away from misplaced attachments and cling to him instead.  I'll become more patient, more trusting, more faithful as I trust that God is worth waiting for, and that he never asks us to wait in vain.

Like a caterpillar in a cocoon, I will lie silent in this dark, empty space while resurrection power works its way through me, bringing cell after cell to life.

And then, on Easter Sunday morning, filled with God's power and presence and light, I will rise.