When I looked at the readings for today, I certainly felt the weight of penitential Lent landing on me. This morning in our readings, we have heard the following words: poisonous serpents, wilderness, sins, wrath, disobedience, dead, trespasses, condemned, judgement, evil and darkness. We know that Lent is a time for self-reflection. These readings certainly put us in touch with what is often called our shadow side and show us the road signs to walk more fully in the light, through God’s mercy and grace. Rather than beating ourselves up, I like to approach Lent as a time for opening our heart to God’s love, inviting God to help us to grow in love, and loving ourselves with gentleness and self- compassion.
And so, let’s take stock of where we are. How are we doing with gentle self-reflection at week four of Lent? Are we seeing some healing and growth in ourselves with our chosen Lenten practice? Is our heart open to experience God’s love? If we have chosen a contemplative prayer practice for Lent, might we continue with it throughout the year to foster continued movement towards a richer spiritual life?
Richard Rohr, the Franciscan contemplative, says that there are two paths to spiritual transformation: suffering and prayer. The first reading, in which Moses and the Israelites head out to the Red Sea, is about the darkness of suffering. It is, however, a suffering that brings about awareness and a spiritual awakening through the acknowledgement of their actions not being in alignment with God. And so in their moment of awareness, they ask Moses to pray. The bronze serpent on the pole is a symbol of God’s mercy and healing. As they gaze on it, it is a constant reminder to the people to be faithful, to trust in God and not to separate themselves from the holy.
When we experience great loss or deep hurt, we suffer. Sometimes we fight and shut out God as the Israelites did. We sometimes isolate ourselves in darkness. But Cynthia Bourgeault, the Episcopal contemplative, says this: “There is no place in you where you stop and God begins. Try and find it. There is no place in you that God stops and you begin.” So, in acknowledging God’s constant presence in our difficult times, we may find there is a bigger opening for awareness and growth in the midst of pain. The well-known Sufi Muslim contemplative Rumi, wrote these words: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic in the 15th century. One of her well known quotes is, “First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall, and both are the mercy of God.” In our second reading – St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians – he speaks of this mercy for those who have strayed and who have made a conscious decision to walk in God’s ways. He says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” He speaks of us being saved by grace through faith – and this grace being the gift of God; that is, the gift of God’s blessing and God loving us unconditionally. “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” (from 1 Corinthians 15)
The weeks of Lent encourage us to heal and grow as we move through the shadows and darkness towards the light and love that is Jesus, the light that is Easter. This Lenten path of self-reflection is not an easy path. It takes intention and commitment. And yet I would like to emphasize that it also requires us to engage with gentleness, respect, non- judgement and self-compassion. So what are these shadows in ourselves that we might face on our spiritual journey and invite God to heal?
Richard Rohr has written about the shadow self and a process of “shadowboxing.” He says, “When you are triggered and you have a strong emotional reaction, your shadow self has been exposed. We come to full awareness of who we truly are (as beloved children of God) when we face our own contradictions and shadows, and make friends with our mistakes and failings, our weaknesses and our biases.” For us to see our shadow side without being overwhelmed, we need to love ourselves as God loves us and develop self-compassion. It is good to make peace with those shadow parts of ourselves that may not serve us well – it may be an irritation with others, anger, selfishness or a broken relationship. It may be that that our heart is hardened through suffering, or that we judge ourselves and others too critically.
And it is here that we come to the second path to spiritual transformation that Richard Rohr speaks of which is prayer. Sitting in quiet contemplation in the presence of God is a practice to open ourselves to be in God’s love, to shine a light on our ways of being in the world and bring awareness. Richard Rohr says, “Spiritual maturity is largely a growth in seeing. Full seeing seems to take most of our lifetime.” For myself, contemplative prayer has brought greater awareness of my shadow side, to see the truth in those places where I am in a disconnect with the teachings of Jesus. It is in contemplative prayer that I am open to God’s tender love for me, to begin to see all of myself with love, both the gifts and the shadows, and to be open to God’s gentle healing.
Joyce Rupp, another wonderful contemplative, says “We must be alert for signs for they come in many forms, such as the teachings of Jesus, people’s comments, the seasons of the earth, personal prayer, communal worship, or quiet intuitions and insights.” Almost anyone or anything can be a signpost for us on our spiritual path. What is significant is that we desire to walk in God’s ways. We need to be deliberate in our choices for good, whether for ourselves or others.”
The moments of awareness of those ways of being that separate us from God and our desire to acknowledge God at the centre of our being is when we experience the mercy of God that St. Paul speaks of; that is, God’s loving kindness, tenderness and compassion for us just as we are. We come to a place where we accept both our gifts and our weaknesses as fully our own, integrate them, reconcile them and come to know that God loves us unconditionally. Our relationship with Christ helps us to experience love for ourselves, self-forgiveness and self-compassion and to be open to God’s grace.
One of the resources we are working with this year in Sounds of Silence – our Monday evening contemplative group - is a book, The Second Half of Life - Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom by Angeles Arrien. We have been working in the chapter called the Black & White Gate. There is a practice called “Befriending the Shadow” by David Richo. There are 20 reflective statements and it is suggested that we take one line each day for 20 days which some of us are engaging as our Lenten practice. This morning, I will go through a few with you. I invite you to close your eyes and rest in the stillness.
Befriending the Shadow
Can I be Angry at someone
While still remaining Loving toward this person
Can I be Aware of my faults
While still remaining High in self-esteem
Can I be Respectful and yielding
While still remaining Firm in my own beliefs
Can I be Repelled by what someone does
While still remaining Caring about the one who did it Can I be Available for others
While still remaining Able to preserve time for myself Can I be Flexible
While still remaining True to my standards
Can I be Able to see the worst possibilities
While still remaining Hopeful
Can I be Afraid
While still remaining Capable of acting
Can I be Honest in my persona
While still remaining At work on my shadow
Let us open our eyes and continue. As a society, we can have many forms and faces of shadows that we may not recognize. Mahatma Gandhi named them the “Seven Blunders of the World” and referred to them as forms of passive violence. They are:
Wealth without Work Pleasure without Conscience Science without Humanity Knowledge without Character Commerce without Morality Worship without Sacrifice Politics without Principle
These words show the place that our society finds itself in when we become disconnected from God’s light, love and compassion, and instead, find meaning in the shadows of power, status and ego. We have current issues such as money laundering, human trafficking and the fentanyl crisis, that are examples of Commerce without Morality, and the plight of indigenous peoples in Canada is an example of a long history of Politics without Principle. In our community, it is so important for each of us to have a voice so that our decision makers are aware of the shadows they cast, as well as the rays of light.
The Gospel reading from St. John speaks about Jesus being lifted up as the Saviour of the world. He says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jesus is described as the light that has come into the world. St. John goes on to say that “those who do what is true come to the light” and God is visible in their deeds. This is such a hopeful message – the Easter light at the end of the Lenten tunnel.
As we move into the last few weeks of Lent, I invite you to take time to sit in quiet contemplation and open your heart to God’s love for you. Contemplate your shadow side and your gifts, acknowledging them and befriending them. Listen to the still, small voice within. Be your own observer. How are you being true to Jesus’ teachings of love, compassion and forgiveness? Are you moving closer to the light?
I am very grateful for our contemplative prayer groups at St. John’s. Over the years, the contemplative path has been a source of growth for me on my faith journey. If you haven’t already started, I invite you to have a regular contemplative prayer practice. Begin with a few minutes of silent reflection each day, resting in the present moment with our loving God. Perhaps you may want to join Patrick on Wednesdays at 1 pm to participate in Midday Meditation. It is a good way to enrich your prayer life. For those who are on the go, take a look at the wonderful on-line contemplative resource called Pray As You Go. Blessings on your contemplative journey.
Let us close these reflections in prayer.
Holy One, we live with shadows and light. Help us to continue this journey of self-reflection in Lent knowing that you love us unconditionally and may we encircle ourselves in gentleness, respect, non-judgement and self-compassion as we grow in awareness of those things that separate us from you. We thank you for your tender mercy and loving kindness as we seek the light that is Jesus and receive your gift of grace.