Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Lenten Journey

I attended Ash Wednesday services today for the first time in two years. It has been well over eighteen months since I've had any desire to participate in a Christian worship service and the only time I've entered a church in that period has been to attend a funeral.

Considering that before I left the church a year and a half ago I was serving as the Abbess of a lay Benedictine community and had even contemplated ordination and seminary for awhile, it has been a long time to be away, and yet I don't regret my absence. My reasons for leaving the church are complicated and even though I don't think this is the place to discuss them in detail, I'm not sure I could anyway. I still don't completely understand what happened when I realized that the teachings of the church were no longer helping me understand how God was working in my life.

I'm not really sure what compelled me to attend today. I woke up, knowing that today was Ash Wednesday, and this seemed of the utmost significance. Of all the seasons of the church liturgical year, Lent is the one that has always meant the most to me. Lent is the season in which I have often felt closest to God. Lent is, in many ways, the reason I stayed in the church for as long as I did.

In my studies of the yoga tradition, although there is a great deal of attention paid to ethical principles, and the yamas and niyamas play a prominent role, "sin" is not a word you will find in the yoga sutras. I have often wondered if this is one place where the Christian path deviates from the yoga path, and I have to admit it is more pleasant to think of oneself as without sin than to contemplate the words of the psalmist, who says: "Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother's womb."

So, it might seem a little odd that I, a person who truly believes that all of us are, deep down, good and pure and perfect, would be drawn to a penitential season like Lent. Despite this belief, I nevertheless am brought up short by phrases in the Litany of Penitence. Recited in Ash Wednesday services like the one I attended today, these phrases include such things as: 

We have not loved You with our whole heart, and mind, and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven. 

Despite my firm conviction that you and I are, each of us, at our core, perfect, I also know that because I am human, it impossible to, every moment, love God with my whole heart, mind and soul; to love my neighbors, every day, as myself; to forgive others, especially when they don't forgive me.

The Litany goes on, bringing up those things that most of us would rather not admit: 

We confess to You our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves;
We confess our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts;
Our uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors;
Our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us;
Our waste and pollution of Your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us. 

I think it is important to acknowledge the truth that all of us have had moments, in the past year, when one or more of these statements described the state of our own hearts. It is good to confess these things. It is good to admit that we are, in fact, not perfect, but to also have faith that, in the end, we will be forgiven for our failings.

Every year during the Lenten season, whether I observe it or not, big movements happen in my spiritual life. Last year during Lent I made the decision to pursue yoga teacher training and to focus on learning how to lead Kirtan chanting. Both of these, especially the Kirtan, have had a profound impact on my spiritual life. I have, for the first time, become completely open about the devotion and love for God I have always held inside my heart. Despite the fact that neither yoga nor Kirtan come from the Christian tradition, I think that last year's Lenten journey led me to exactly the right place God wanted me to be.

This year, I am curious to see what Lent will bring, but I know there is no way of predicting what awaits me. My task is simple: to keep walking, be disciplined about my practice, and to pay attention.



  1. Great post. I think of sin as anything that causes separation from God. And for laughs, you might be interested to know that some of us at Kripalu referred to the namas and niyamas as llamas and pajamas! Just a little ashram humor for you.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Maybe this Lenten season a time where you can see more intersecting for your yoga and Christian experiences. I wish you peace.