Lent, Masks, And Who We Truly Are – More About The Dignity of the Human Person

“If we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities – “selves,” that is to say, regarded as objects” – Thomas Merton 

 Carnival has begun. In this tradition, masks are donned for a period of time, typically before Lent. The whole thing culminates on Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, when the last burst of over-indulgence is expressed just as Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.

I remember being in New Orleans a number of years ago (not for Mardi Gras) and learning that the “success” of the Mardi Gras celebration was measured by how much garbage was collected. I’m not sure if that is true or apocryphal, but what a metaphor for the hours before Lent begins!

In any case, I read the words shown above this morning and was struck by what they say about human dignity.  The dignity of the human person is unsustainable unless we choose to cooperate with grace and to be the very people that God loved into being.

That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Pffffft…. Yes it does. Doing so, living it? Hmmmm…. not so much, I’m afraid.

When I read the history of Venetian Carnavale at this link, I was reminded of the 
etymology of the word carnival and its meaning of “farewell to meat.”

Lent is a time when we say “farewell to meat” or at least for part of the time. Lent is a time of stripping away, taking off the masks of our daily lives, not to mention the carnival masks. We all wear masks, whether we realize it or not. Being who we truly are is not a task for faint hearts.

And there is the rub… being who we are in Christ means being who we are. No – who we truly are. (**shudders**) What a messy business that is. If I am who I like to be, then I am a classic overachiever, an over-do-er and all around I-can-handle-it-all type. Oh sure, I say all the right words and I even think that I believe them a good deal of the time, that it is God in me doing the work. I’m just cooperating.


I’m considering what my mask – let me rephrase that – what my masks are. It makes me highly uncomfortable. What makes me more uncomfortable is the removal of those masks.

The stripping away. The letting go. The saying farewell to meat, both practically as well as spiritually.

We embed ourselves into our masks and objectification is the end result. I am who my mask says I am… Anyone who has read this blog at all knows that I loathe, rant and rave about labels. The whole, “I am choose one” notion of I am a (fill in the blank), Republican/Democrat/Liberal/Progressive/Conservative/Orthodox/ProLife/ProChoice/Vegetarian/Meatatarian/Libertarian/TeaPartier/Fundamentalist/Traditionalist/Revolutionary… 

This causes me particular angst when I read about how those of us who are Catholic divide ourselves up along these lines. It makes my head spin. That is why I want to eschew all labels except for that particular one.

Yet that too can become a mask of sorts if I do not really live as God asks me to.

Too many masks makes for objectification. Objectification makes for dehumanization. There is no dignity in that.

These are some thoughts on my mind as we approach Lent. I guess that is what I might give up this year… if I can.

My mask.
(this post might get revised… just wanted to put it out there for now.)


Living Slowly and Other Dreams

Things have been a bit hectic and I have not really blogged here very much, as regular readers know. In any case, I am trying to refocus and came across this poem at Inward/Outward today, which really seemed to be speaking to me.

This poem can speak to us all, can’t it? Live Slowly! It is such good advice, in fact, it is essential to good living, yet seems antithetical to how most of us do live.

 (If you look closely, it says Festina Lente right under the middle window. I took this photo in Lucerne, Switzerland in 2005, long before my email or blog was even on my mind!)

You may or may not know that my primary email includes the words festina lente in its composition.  This means “make haste slowly.” I actually do take this seriously and while it may not seem that I live like this, it is always my plan to do so. In my deepest heart, this is what I believe God asks of us.

I’m considering how I can live more slowly today. What about you? Will you join me on the path? All any of us can really do is ask God to help us slow down and then try to cooperate with what God is already asking us to do, always helping us to do.

Live Slowly

God help us to live slowly:
To move simply:
To look softly:
To allow emptiness:
To let the heart create for us.

by Michael Leunig

Loud and Bitter Words Indicate a Weak Cause and A Long Bloggy Ramble…

This was originally posted on September 15, 2009. I can tell you that the giant stack o’ journals referred to in this post remains largely unscaled. *sigh* I had no idea that when I searched for this story that I would be reminded of that. Oh well…

In any event, I posted a video to Facebook, that I found on The Rix Mix today, about Dr. Martin Luther King’s other words. These are words we are less familiar with and frankly they should make you stop in your tracks. I also posted something to Facebook from the NPR website, about President Eisenhower’s words regarding the future. These are the words he offered as he left office 50 years ago today.

Anyway, this is long and you may not have the day off, but what the hell. I’m posting it anyway. Read. Think. React. Or not!

Peace to all.

From my earlier post….

*Warning – Long Blog Post Ahead!*

I stare at a huge pile of old journals that I fished out of an enormous plastic bin from the basement.


They are the Himalayas and I must cross them. At this point, I am getting acclimated to the altitude as I work my way up. Currently I have a headache from the thin atmosphere and sheer cliffs.

*sigh indeed*

In the meantime, I am deeply disturbed by the tenor of both the right as well as the left regarding politics. There was a time when I was more strident. Trust me, I am no less passionate, but I keep thinking of a fortune I got from a cookie recently.

Loud and bitter words indicate a weak cause.

Now there would certainly seem to be a vast amount of really loud and bitter words from one side of the argument. However, there are no shortage of loud and bitter words from any side. I see this in the multiple corners of the blogworld and Facebook that I inhabit.

We as humans tend to see things in such broad strokes and in general, with a dualistic eye. I am as human as anyone in this way. That said, I don’t really want to be that way, it is truly a quest for me.

Yes, I may be nuts.

This does not mean that we should not call others out. I think it does mean that the tenor of the calling out is often pointless and much more about shouting than it is about listening, much more about staking one’s claim and telling the other that their claim is not valid. Maybe you think the other person’s point of view is invalid.

And likely they think the same of yours. Well, wherever does that get anyone? Remember, in the last post I claimed my idealism. Idealism often might call forth shouting and arguing, that is true. However, in the end, one “side” triumphs and the other side is in wait to pounce and take back what is “theirs.”

Do we not see that playing out all over the place right now?

Shouting it down forever doesn’t seem to be very effective. That is just my experience. I am reminded of a Hasidic story, a tale of Rabbi Zusya. That story is called The Lesson, by Doug Lipman. Here is a link to the story or you can read it here with my commentary. Or not read it at all, fee free!

When Reb Zusya was a young rabbi, a local merchant denounced him publicly. The Hasidic movement, the merchant said, was a dangerous innovation. Those who propounded it were fools at best and scoundrels at worst.

When his followers came to Reb Zusya with the news of this slander, Reb Zusya merely smiled. They pleaded, “Aren’t you going to counter his accusations?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

Some time later, one of Reb Zusya’s followers, known as Moishe Lieb, heard a commotion in the marketplace. A crowd had gathered around the merchant, who was spreading his opinion of Reb Zusya to any who would listen.

“He defiles the worship services! I saw him! He dances around, delays the prayers past their proper time, and insults our dignity!”

These affronts to his rabbi were too much for Moishe Lieb. He pushed his way to the center of the crowd. “I will teach you a lesson about Hasidism, you liar!”

The merchant pointed at Moishe Lieb and roared, “There is one of the fools now! See how he insults me!”

Enraged, Moishe Lieb spat at the merchant. The merchant lunged at Moishe Lieb. Had the crowd not restrained them, they would have come to blows.

I think you might see where things might be headed here…

A few days later, Reb Zusya approached Moishe Lieb. “Would you help me with something?”

“Of course, Rabbi. For you, anything.”

“Will you come with me on a three-day journey? Just the two of us.”

“Just me, Rabbi? I would be honored.”

I love the idea that they are going on a journey. As with all new understanding, we must travel to get there. Often that travel does not seem exotic, but it truly is, as we are traversing the peaks and valleys of the human heart and being.

Travel also means going places that are very wonderful, but then putting up with a lot to get there. This also means putting your own culture and expectations in place so that you might actually see, taste and touch something entirely new. Travel, when done this way, never leaves the traveler untouched, does it?

On the appointed morning, Reb Zusya led Moishe Lieb, on foot, out of the city. By the end of the day, the two of them had left the main road and were walking on a small, faint path through dry, uninhabited hills. Again and again, Reb Zusya had to tell Moishe Lieb, “Watch out – the path goes to the right here. No, it’s this way.”

As darkness fell, Reb Zusya pointed to a sheltering rock at the base of a large hill. “We’ll sleep under there.”

When it was still dark, Reb Zusya shook his companion awake. “Come, Reb Moishe.” The rabbi led him up the hill. When they reached the top and could see the narrow valley on the other side, Reb Zusya stopped and sat down in the path. He began staring intently into the valley before him. “Let’s look, Moishe,” he said.

Reb Moishe sat down next to him and stared, too. In the first light of day, he saw a parched valley below them, with two small fields of grain. Next to each field was a shelter built from rock. Down the center of the valley, a tiny creek trickled through the first farm and into the next. As the light broadened, he saw that, in contrast to the brown scrub around the fields, the two farms were lush with green.

For a long time, nothing happened. Then, just as the sun appeared in the sky, the door of the farther house opened. A man emerged, carrying a homemade, crude wooden bucket. He went to the tiny creek – scarcely more than a moist strip with a trickle of water down its center – and put the bucket where it could collect the few drops that ran into it. After many minutes, the man picked up the full bucket and began sprinkling the precious water on his field.

They watched the man water his field in this slow way until the sun was precisely overhead. Abruptly, the man looked up in the sky, stopped his work, and walked toward the farm which lay above his. As though on signal, a man came out of the near stone shelter and, without a word, embraced the first man – who silently gave him the bucket and returned to his stone hut.

For the rest of the day, Reb Zusya and Reb Moishe Lieb watched the second man patiently water his farm, just as the first man had. When the sun set, the upstream farmer walked to the downstream shelter, silently hugged the occupant, handed him back the bucket, and returned to his own shelter of stone.

At that, Reb Zusya stood up, turned around and began to walk the way they had come. Moishe Lieb followed him.

After a time, Moishe Lieb spoke. “Teacher, why did we come here?”

Reb Zusya said, “Sit down. I will tell you what I know of those two men.” He began to tell the story.

Now comes the time where shouting is pointless and only listening is the lamp to light the way. Reb Zusya, the teacher, begins to unpack the real story of what they eye can only see of two men in a valley.

The first time I came here (he said) I saw very much what you saw today – the two green fields in this arid place and the two men who watered them so patiently. Curious – and, besides, it was nightfall and I needed a place to sleep – I approached the first shelter. My host smiled and gestured me to enter. I soon discovered that he spoke no word of my language and I spoke no word of his. So, after a short time, I went to the shelter of the second farmer. To my amazement, he appeared to speak yet another language. He could not converse with me nor with his only neighbor.

Eventually, by way of signs and grunts, I learned their story. The “upstream” farmer, fleeing empty-handed from a war somewhere, had settled here alone. Even though he had no tools of any kind and he saw the aridity of this place, he hoped that the stream would moisten his field enough for him to grow a crop. He struggled to survive, scouring the surrounding area for berries and wild grains to eat and plant here. He carried water in his cupped hands from the trickling stream to his field.

At the end of the first winter, he was nearly starved and exhausted. One day, he saw another man enter this valley, carrying a large cloth sack over his shoulder. For a while the first man hid, fearing that he would be forced to return to the war he had deserted. When at last he emerged and spoke to the man, he learned that they spoke no common language. In spite of this, he soon realized that the other man wanted to settle here, too. The first man was about to drive him off when the other opened his cloth sack and took from it a wooden bucket. Overjoyed, the first man embraced the stranger as a friend and rescuer. Soon, by sharing the bucket, they were able to water both fields and live here in peace.

I left them, amazed at the simple, tranquil life they had carved from this dry valley.

A year or two later, I passed by here again. You can imagine my amazement when I discovered that the fields were brown, their crops were nearly dead, and a wall had been built between the two fields. When they saw me coming, they both came to greet me. But when each saw the other, they growled and shook their fists. Neither would approach me, lest he come too close to the other! I visited them one at a time in their shelters. By miming questions and watching how they acted out the answers, I was able to piece together what had happened since I came here last.

Somehow, they had quarreled over the bucket. Neither seemed able to describe the cause of their quarrel, but each seemed equally furious. Evidently, the “downstream” farmer had finally refused to share the bucket at all, leaving the upstream farmer with no way to gather the creek water. Then, in retaliation, the upstream farmer dug a ditch and diverted the water from the downstream field, into a pile of loose stones where neither could reach it. Now they were both unable to water their crops.

One night, determined on revenge, the upstream farmer sneaked into the other’s house to steal the bucket. The downstream farmer, however, had taken to wrapping his body around the bucket as he slept, and woke up in time to chase the empty-handed upstream farmer away. But the next day, he began dragging stones between their fields, forming a wall that neither could cross.

That was how I found them: slowly starving to death, neither able to use the water that still flowed slowly into their valley.

Such great bounty goes to waste here because they cannot agree. Now it would be oh-so-very-easy to say that whatever our own perspective is is the good, but that might not always be true. The point is how to negotiate and live with what is. Now that is hard, it requires openness, potential compromise and cooperation. What risk.

What could I do? I took the bottle of Sabbath wine from the sack I carried. I opened it, carried it to the first farmer’s shelter, and walked backward holding the wine out toward him, enticing him up the hill as you might lure a stray cat. I signaled him to stay there, then led the second farmer with the same promise of wine. They each stayed a considerable distance away from me, one above me on the hill and the other below. They showed no willingness to get too close to each other, yet they both appeared to understand that I meant to offer them each wine.

I took out a tin cup from my sack and filled it with wine. I extended it first toward one of them, then toward the other, offering the cup to them both. At last they understood that I meant for them to drink from the same cup. Suspiciously, they each approached. I brought their hands together, put the cup in their joined hands, and stood back to let them drink.

They continued to eye each other as they brought their mouths closer to the wine. Then one of them tried to pull the wine away. The other pulled back. In a short while, they had spilled the entire cup of wine over each other and the ground. They both looked at me imploringly.

I retrieved the cup, filled it again, and set it on the ground between them. This time they each managed to drink a mouthful before starting to tussle – and spilling the rest.

I filled the cup several times. At last, they had learned to drink from the same cup. By now, the wine was gone, but the two men remained facing each other on the path. The first one pointed at the wine stains on the other’s shirt and laughed. Then the second one pointed back. When the first one looked down and discovered similar stains on his shirt, they both laughed.

Dominance… someone must always dominate and have “their” way.

Rabbi Zusya looked at his companion. “That’s how I left them a year ago,” he said. “Laughing on the path. As you can see, they must have stopped trying to retaliate.”

Moishe Lieb nodded. “I see. You taught them without teaching them. Just like you taught me.”

“What did I teach you?”

Moishe Lieb sighed. “That I didn’t help you by ‘fighting over the bucket’ with the merchant.”

Reb Zusya put his arm around his companion. “I know you meant to help. You couldn’t bear to see me attacked.”

“Did I hurt your work?”

“Yes, a little. But maybe now you know other ways to help him learn?”

The next morning, the companions began the walk back home. Reb Zusya did not have to tell Moishe Lieb where to walk. By now, he knew the way.

How will we ever learn the way? I am convinced that it is through some sort of conversation and conversion. (Not always of the religious form!)

Back to the mountains, I have my own journey to under take. I hope you will join me, I am grateful to those who do.

After all, how could I do any of this alone? And why would I want to?

What Do These Videos Have in Common? An Advent Rant of Sorts.

Typically I am busy writing about all things spiritual, especially at this time of year. However, due to over-busy-ness, not feeling well and assorted other things, I am just not posting as much. It is hard to step back but I am learning something about my limits. This is a good thing, but a challenge.

Today I found these two videos. Well, I watched one of them the other day. At first glance, they do not seem related at all. One is haunting and the other is funny. However, I think that both are actually haunting in the end.

The first video is from Bjork and called Prayer of the Heart.

I found it on the Facebook page of Janine Economides, who blogs at Daily Exegesis. Janine says that this is in Greek, Coptic and English. I could work out the Greek and of course the English, glad to know about the Coptic. I am reminded of the unity in diversity that is at the heart of the Trinity.

Somehow, for me today, crying out “O Adonai!” and crying out “God have mercy” are the sounds of my longing. The light is coming as we end this 3rd week of Advent and head into the final week. Come Lord Jesus, please and have mercy upon me.

This other video switches gears – a pretty Jesus-y thing if you ask me. It was on Facebook and elsewhere last week.  Lindy on Facebook and Brother Dan at Dating God, among others, posted it. Jesus was always turning things on their end and using what he had at hand to do so. It is from Stephen Colbert and I have to tell you, initially the title of it had turned me off a bit. This is why being judgmental is a problem – what might we keep out?

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog March to Keep Fear Alive

You see, I really truly find it loathsome when Jesus is identified with any political party. Momentarily I forgot the irony factor, I guess and did not watch the video. Well that and I was busy. In any case, Colbert is not saying that Jesus is truly a liberal Dem, but he says some really important things. These things are also a prayer of the heart.

Stephen Colbert appears to know more theology than most people. He, ever in the role of court jester,  sharing challenging truth through humor, says so many things in this piece. I think he makes his point well.

Of course it feels good to people both on the left and on the right to claim Jesus for their camp. However, even just a little analysis shows the flaws in that; Jesus was not here to mediate politics but rather to redeem humanity. Which he did, politics aside. He catered not to the Romans or to the established religious hierarchy of his time.

That said, Jesus was very clear about the essence of unqualified and unconditional love and charity and that does sort of trump all other matters. And it would make him more like a Democ… well, you know.

I read a quote the other day, from John Kenneth Galbraith, who said, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” 

Isn’t that what we all try to do? Get busy on the proof?

However, what are we called to do is change. Whoever we are, whatever our stand. Christianity, change, transformation. What proof?

The act of change in and of itself is the proof. That might be why so few of us are capable of it. I know I have a record of epic (to use a word my stepdaughter coined) fail-ization.

That is the prayer of the heart, to cry out to God for mercy. That is the point of giving without limit. To change.

It is that simple.

Change. Transformation. Hope.

Be born in us this coming season. Please. Again and again and again.

Brother Ash, Sister Flight

Recently I have been thinking about the movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. It is in my Netflix queue, but I keep pushing it to let other things in. It may be time for me to watch it now that I have it on my mind so much. I saw it a long time ago; I wonder what I will think of it now.

For those who are not familiar with this film, it is the story of St. Francis. The name is taken from a canticle of Francis‘ of that same name. If you know me, you know I love me some St. Francis. He is one of my heroes and a truly transformational person, a real agent of God.

Lately I have also been considering post-modern life and its impact on spirituality and faith. How can the post-modern condition and faith be reconciled? It seems at one level impossible and then again, quite possible. This has caused me to pull down a favorite book from the shelf, Meeting Mystery by Nathan Mitchell. Mitchell is writing about sacraments and liturgy, but very much framed in our post-modern times.

Then  I happened to read one of Richard Rohr’s daily meditations entitled, “How Much Time Do I Spend Connected to Nature?” Rohr refers to Francis’ ability to connect with nature in a particular way, which is made clear in the link to Rohr. To St. Francis, he had a “brother” this and a “sister” that for almost everything. He called his own body “brother ass,” referring to how harshly he treated it.

All this led me to consider the contemporary plight of stranded travelers due to the plume of volcanic ash from Iceland. It is quite a reminder of the old theme of literature, man vs. nature… Guess who wins. We love to feel so master-of-the-universe-y by creating technology that can do pretty much anything in pretty much the face of everything.

But we can’t fly through the cloud. And who knows how long this will last? Or even if it ends, when it will happen again?

I am also aware of how much St. Francis’ was in touch with nature. In our postmodern world we like to think about nature a lot, but perhaps more as a commodity, rather than in what it is, which we are a part of.

Brother Ash. Sister Flight. How they struggle with one another in these days.

I imagine myself stranded somewhere, like maybe Paris. Part of that seems good enough, I mean, there are worse places to be stranded! On the other hand, life goes on and work must be attended to, bills paid and so forth. Not to mention, floating the expense of the Parisian extension. Airline vouchers only go so far.

This is no apocalyptic warning, this is no call to admonish our modern ways. It is just a moment to consider our contemporary plight.

We can’t control everything, even if it seems we can. In the nexus of can/can’t there is a space that I think is most revealing. While I find it hard to articulate just what I see there, I am called to spend some time in that space. 

I think some people may think I have lost my mind. I just wonder if at last, I haven’t found it.

It seems to me that God does not call us to be Luddites, but rather calls us to be who we are in the world that we have around us. That may invite us to some, pardon the irresistible pun, deus ex machina moment, who knows.

(That last line was completely unnecessary wasn’t it?)