By: Al Gustafson
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change There is no way to escape being separated from them.
– Thich Nhat Hahn (Buddhist monk)
As a young Catholic, the season of Lent always seemed so heavy and frankly, a little depressing. What is the attraction to a season that begins with the smearing of ashes and a reminder of our mortality?
Now in my sixth decade of being a Catholic, Lent has become my favorite of all the liturgical seasons. For one reason, it can be a profound wake up call because it invites us to gaze where we often resist gazing. When I failed to see the value of Lent, it was during a time in my life when I looked forward to getting older. Now that is no longer the case, and Lent invites me to look where I would rather not.
The implications of our aging seem awfully threatening to our ordinary sense of who we are. However, the admonition dust to dust has lost some of its impact, as we have heard it too many times. For me, diapers to diapers carries a whole lot more punch. Let’s face it, if we live long enough, diapers to diapers says something significant and startling about our life trajectory. We all know this is the course of human life; we just seldom put our sense of “me” into the equation.
At 53, in the youth of my old age, I hope to one day mature into an elder, which certainly means more than simply becoming elderly. It involves ripening into a clear-eyed acceptance of the way things actually are. This ripening is an ongoing multifaceted reckoning with the fact that everything that can be lost will be lost. It is simply the nature of things. None of what we work so hard to possess and cling so tightly to lasts.
Awareness that everything passes away can be our wake up call, inviting us to align our time and energy with the things that matter most in our lives. It can also afford us a deep appreciation of the gift of each day we live. This may be the reason that some Buddhist monks eat their rice out of the skulls of their dead monk brothers. Seems gruesome, but there is nothing like coming face to face with our mortality if we wish to grow in wonder, humility and gratitude.
Lent is about more than facing our expected sufferings and mortality though. It is certainly about Jesus, and it is the Stations of the Cross I find particularly moving. The Stations invite us to enter more deeply into Jesus’ humanity as well as our own. As Paul tells us in Philippians, although he was in the form of God, he, out of love, emptied himself and became like us. It is the Stations that highlight just how far Jesus was willing to go to join us in all things, even our suffering and death.
The Stations of the Cross reveal his betrayal, convicted though innocent, scourged and publicly humiliated, needing the help of others, bearing insufferable physical and emotional pain, feeling abandoned by God, dying naked and helpless. As we imagine each step Jesus takes through the Stations is it not true that he tastes the separation, suffering and loss every person ultimately comes to know? Jesus comes to know the expected sufferings we will all know, so that we might come to know what he knows.
Our journey is trustworthy. It bears repeating, our journey is trustworthy. Although God’s love protects us from nothing, it unexplainably sustains us in everything. A friendship with Jesus enables us to face our expected sufferings because we know we are never alone. The One we place our trust in knows exactly what we are going through, and thanks be to God, we know Love is stronger than any suffering we might endure.
Al Gustafson is a Spiritual Director at Old St. Patrick’s Church.