Ashes and the Season of Lent: Maybe It's Time


Maybe
it’s time
to let it all
fall apart;
to stop holding on,
holding together,
that which is broken
beyond repair.

Let it burn to ash.
Let it crumble
and collapse,
decompose.
Is this not
the way of all things?

Maybe ours
is a season of death.
Then, so be it.

Let it all fall apart.
Let it burn.

Maybe this
is the bravest thing,
the one thing necessary
to live a life of faith.

- K. Chripczuk

I'm thinking, still, about ashes and this season of Lent.

I'm thinking of the devastation of this past year - for churches, for communities, for families and individuals. I'm also thinking of the tendency to hold our individual and collective breath, to hold on tight until the storm is past, and we can return to some semblance of normal.

But the longer we wait, the clearer it becomes that normal is unlikely to return - not in the ways we knew and took for granted. The quieter we get, the clearer it becomes that normal - as we knew it - was deeply flawed.

What are we to do?

//

Cliff Hanger is a character in a clever sketch series from the children's show "Between the Lions." Every episode begins with Cliff hanging from the edge of a cliff, hands desperately wrapped around a small breaking branch. Hanging there, mere moments from falling to his death, Cliff ekes out the same phrase in every week, "Can't...hold on . . . much …longer...!" Every episode begins with the desperate Cliff being rescued only to, in a series of events less than a minute long, end up back in the same dreadful position.

The other day, I described our current mid-pandemic position to my husband using Cliff’s strangled refrain: Can’t…hold on…much…longer….!

All of us, it feels, have been hanging here for quite some time. Our arms are tired. The top of the cliff – that once safe, familiar place – feels a little further away with each day that passes. Hanging here, we’ve had plenty of time to think about what life was really like on that high precipice, to determine whether we were really as happy as we said we were, to clarify which essentials remain essential from this vantage point.

//

One of the things I like about Ash Wednesday is that is welcomes, under the umbrella of God, the very worst of what can happen in the human experience. Ash Wednesday offers the opportunity to affirm the piercing truth that, eventually, we all fall. “Death will come, bringing a return to dust,” Ash Wednesday declares. Yet, even still, God is with us – even here, even now. Like the Psalmist reminds us, there is no place too high or too low, too dark or too bright or too far away that God’s great love cannot find us, catch us, even there.

This year, looking back at a year of losses, a heap of smoldering remains, I feel my own desire to hold on tighter, to salvage what I can. But, underneath my attachment, I hear Ash Wednesday whisper, “Why not let it ALL fall apart? Let it burn, completely.”

This is the season we are in – Lent – a time in which we follow the darkening trail all the way to the cross and beyond, to the very tomb itself, where hope lay down its weary head and wept. This is the journey of Lent, this invitation to follow, as we can, believing there is no darkness or death that can out-maneuver God’s capacity to create life anew.

Maybe it’s time to let it all fall apart.

Discerning the Place Your Find Yourself In


I once attended a retreat where participants were instructed to spend some time in nature and look for something that "spoke" to them. Whatever spoke to you, you were to pick up and bring back to the gathering-room to share.

Walking down a wooded path, I saw a white stone and bent to pick it up, but paused. The stone wasn't exceptional in itself, but its surroundings - green grass, pine needles, smaller gray pebbles - made the small, white stone stand out. I knew, if I picked it up to carry inside, I'd be removing it from its "place." I had a deep sense that the stone was exactly where it needed to be - in a place where it was both nestled-in and singled-out.

That stone helped me understand the importance of place, helped me accept that where I was was exactly where I needed to be. I suppose the message could have been different. All of us certainly find ourselves, at one time or another, in places we must leave posthaste, without looking back at all. 

Knowing the difference, of course, is a question of discernment, one I've often sorted out in conversations with a Spiritual Director or close friend. Perhaps the best way to begin is with simple, non-judgmental, observation. Here are a few questions to get you started:

* What do you notice about the place you find yourself in (be honest)? 

* How does it compare to other places you've been in? 

* How might you know if this is a difficult, but important place for you to remain in for a season? 

* What clear signs might tell you it's time to leave? 

* Still feeling stuck? Shoot me an email (Chripczuk.kelly@gmail.com) to set up a FREE consultation - maybe Spiritual Direction would be a good fit for you.

What Remains in the Wake of Loss



I recently listened as a colleague ticked off a long list of losses. Each loss felt, to me, like an autumn leaf, brown and shriveled, dropping from a tree, from his lips, one by one. I could see the leaves falling, piling at his feet. I could feel loss upon loss gathered there, at the feet of the three of us, gathered virtually to listen. 

In his poem, Fighting the Instrument, Mark Nepo speaks of the opening that often follows in the wake of loss. He is careful, however, to avoid minimizing the pain of loss. Two-thirds of the way through the poem, he makes it clear: choosing to value the openings created over the desire to fight or bemoan the often cruel agents of change, is never an easy choice.

"This is very difficult to accept," the poem says. The line is so brief and clear, it would be easy to overlook. But, I have stayed in that place of difficulty that precedes acceptance for weeks, months, and occasionally years at a time. Sometimes I think that staying, that willingness to breathe through each painful loss, is what leads to acceptance, is what creates the opening and the courage needed to live into it. 

My colleague listed his losses and they fell like leaves gathered into a growing pile. We listened and affirmed the losses. But, even still, as the leaves were falling, I remembered the way barren branches reveal so much more of a winter-blue sky. I glimpsed, for a moment, the opening being made, and it gave me hope that there would be revealed, again, a "jewel in the center of the stone." 

This post is a reflection on Mark Nepo's poem, "Fighting the Instrument." Visit Spirituality and Health to read the poem and the poet's own reflections on it. 

Gratitude and Our Most Painful Losses



Occasionally, it's possible to catch a glimpse of gratitude bubbling up on the periphery of life's most painful experiences. This gratitude is bashful, hovering just to the side of things, small and round, like a spot of light, refracted. This gratitude invites a turning in those who want to truly embrace it. 

This is not gratitude for the loss itself, but for the path it opened, for the spacious place in which you find yourself now - days or weeks or months later. It is a sliver of light, a glimmer in deep darkness. Such gratitude is best captured by peripheral vision - look too closely at it, slide it under the microscope of quantity, quality or necessary identification, and it dissolves like fog in the morning sun. But, abide with it, welcome it in passing; extend your hand, your heart, to it, as one might do with a skittish cat and maybe, perhaps, one day, when you least expect it, it will walk right over and curl up to sleep in your lap. 


This post is a reflection on Mark Nepo's poem, "Fighting the Instrument." Visit Spirituality and Health to read the poem and the poet's own reflections on it. 

Turn

 


Turn verb: to (cause to) change the direction in which you are facing or moving. 

It’s the end of a long day at the end of a longer week and I’m finally beginning unwind as I sit on the loveseat preparing to read to my youngest boys. One boy sits on the radiator behind the couch with his back pressed against the window, his legs are stretched out on either side of my shoulders. 

His mouth is packed with gum and he alternates between seriousness and giggles as he attempts to blow a gigantic bubble. He focuses, pursing his lips, then collapses in laughter as I stare at him with bright eyes and a wide smile. Several small bubbles expand, then pop across his face. The biggest ones cover his nose and mouth with a thin, pink mask. After several bubbles and fits of laughter, I turn back to the book we planned to read. 

But, every time I start to read, he leans forward, grabs my head in his hands and turns me to face him. The bubbles, the giggling, the sticky masks continue on extended repeat. As he turns my face again and again, I’m transported to another time and place. 

This boy, now nine, is the same one I carried at age three – chest to chest, with his legs wrapped around my back. He always had so much to say, his eager face inches from my own, as a torrent of observations and ideas poured out. While he talked, I would sometimes dare look away – look past him, around him, at the dishes waiting in the sink or dinner simmering on the stove. Noticing my distraction, he would shift his face, leaning his whole body to re-center himself in my gaze. If my inattention persisted, he placed his small, chubby hands, one on each of my cheeks, and forcibly turned my face toward his own. It was a dance, my distraction set in time to his focus and persistence. 

Sitting on the loveseat I see again how his hands turning me, his willingness to repeat the motion, to re-center me, is a grace. Maybe this is how all things are turned– by gentle, but persistent hands of love.

Let Me Know (On Letting Go and Taking Flight)

 



Let me 
know
when you
are ready
to go.

I've 
taken
that leap 
before.

I know,
the fear,
the lies
that bind you
to the edge
of that prison
wall.

They 
boast such 
certainty.
"This
is all
there ever,
was, all  
there ever 
will be,"
they say.

But, 
if your heart 
whispers shadows 
of another land, 
let me know.

I will
stand
at the edge
with you.

I, too, 
know 
the fear 
of falling,
of landing 
in a wilderness
far beyond
settled lands.

But, 
I also know
what they will never know:

the rush of wind
on your face, the feeling
of taking flight; the courage
it takes, the love.

- K. Chripczuk

As a new year approaches, I'm pondering the things I have left behind this year and wondering what more might need to go. Letting go is never easy, but it's worth the work it takes. Perhaps, you are facing a difficult letting go. Let me know, I'd be happy to "stand at the edge with you." I can't wait to see your life take flight. 

A Circle of Waiting: Mary, Elizabeth, & the Elephants


The Visitation, by Jacopo Pontormo is one of the paintings I most often display in my Spiritual Direction office during the season of advent. Pontormo depicts the moment of Mary and Elizabeth's meeting, as described in Luke 1:39-56. In it, the two women, each carrying a seed of a promise within them, stand belly to belly. Their arms create a circle of waiting, a space in which hope's fragile seed might be held and protected, nurtured into being. 

Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, explains, "Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait. . . . These two women created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for."

//

Recently, a dear friend sent me a small, cloth elephant ornament in the mail. We have both been through a LOT this year and, despite our own intense struggles, we've worked quite deliberately to support each other. Attached to the elephant was a note explaining that female elephants support each other in times of stress. Intrigued, a quick look online revealed a beautiful picture - when an elephant goes into labor (a time of great vulnerability and stress) the other elephants in the herd back themselves into a circle formation around her. Then, when the baby is born, they trumpet in celebration. 

The elephants, like Mary and Elizabeth, form a circle of waiting.

//

Nouwen goes on to say, about Mary and Elizabeth's circle of waiting, 

"I think that is the model of the Christian community. It is a community of support, celebration, and affirmation in which we can lift up what has already begun in us. [This visit is an expression] of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something is really happening."

//

Circles of waiting require intimacy, trust, and safety. Too often, for many of us, these things have been absent from our church experiences. What we have received, instead, is a conditonal welcome, an attitude that says something more like "we'll wait and see how you turn out before we support you" instead of, "we believe God has begun a good work in you and we can't wait to see how it all turns out." Churches fail to be circles of waiting when product (appearances, image, income) take priority over process, when control replaces trust. 

Thankfully, though, many of us, including Nouwen himself, find and form circles of trust outside of traditional church structures. For me, this has been one of the great gifts of spiritual direction - the opportunity to be encircled in my own waiting and to offer to circle with others as they wait upon God's often surprising and mysterious activity. 

I hope you find such spaces. I hope, if you are able, you offer such spaces to others. 

//

For reflection:

Where have you found circles of waiting and with whom? Perhaps now is the time to let that person or people know how much their presence means in your life.

If you are need of community in your waiting, who might you reach out to? Perhaps now is the time to begin a spiritual direction or counseling relationship as God begins something new in you.

Who do you know who needs support in their time of waiting? Who's circle might YOU complete?


* Quotes are from "Waiting for God," by Henri Nouwen in the collection, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.