By Drena Griffith
March 1 was Ash Wednesday and, for the first time in a long while, I attended Mass. For the past several weeks I have felt a strong stirring to revisit the Catholicism of my childhood, yet as a Lorian Priest representing Incarnational Spirituality and also a member of a local Native community, I’m not entirely sure how to integrate all of these multifaceted, jig-saw pieces of my spiritual experience. It’s all still unfolding for me. Regardless, the first day of Lent felt an especially appropriate time to lean more deeply into this exploration.
Lent is, for me, a time for remembering, for focusing on important things inadvertently forgotten or lost in the details of living a busy, stressful life. It is also an opportunity to "re-member"—to call back the scattered pieces of myself and listen to the quiet voice of soul. Lent is about centering and returning to right relationship with the world. This year it seems I have more scattered pieces than I realized.
As a child I loved being Catholic. Regularly I memorized songs and prayers and reenacted the sacred rites in playtime. I was also rather precocious spiritually and had very high expectations: of myself, of God…of life in general. So I asked many questions of God and the nuns at my church and as I got older those questions became more intense. The pat responses I had accepted at ten stopped making sense. It wasn’t that I had any agenda or attachment to particular answers, but I desperately needed my faith to have a certain stability and solidity that looking back I can see my earlier years in general lacked. When a classmate at college insisted that she had found that assurance I was seeking and invited me to attend an evangelical service, I was skeptical, but curious enough….See, I never really consciously intended to leave the Catholic church, but when the fundamentalists promised me answers, promised me peace, I believed. Then the shackles came out…and on that story goes, for a decade. By the time I found the exit door, apart from one or two good friends, I didn’t leave with much I’d ultimately decide to keep. I swore I was done with Jesus, Faith, and Answers. Well, that clearly didn’t last. At least not the first two, though my relationships with both have definitely evolved.
As has my connection to Mass. Sitting in the sanctuary on Wednesday morning felt both familiar and completely foreign. For one thing, the church of my childhood was a hermitage compared to this labyrinthine structure. Hundreds of people were in attendance, and that service was one of a half dozen offered throughout the day. The rituals were, thankfully, the same, though some of the recitations have changed. I felt awkward. Exposed.
As a holy day of obligation, Ash Wednesday takes its name from the ritual marking of parishioners’ foreheads with ashes. This symbol of penance demarcates the season. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” said Father Felix, marking my forehead with a sideways cross that covered nearly all of my brow with soot.
After so many years of renunciation, was repentance and reconciliation possible now? Perhaps more importantly, what was I even attempting to reconcile? I realized that the last Ash Wednesday service I had attended prior to my unconscious abandonment had been when I was eighteen, a senior in high school. Was I attempting to reconnect, not just with an old faith, but with an old me? An old me with wide eyes that attended Mass week after week alone—without parents or sibling—prompted by nothing but the stirrings of her open heart? An old self with soul-stirring dreams and seemingly limitless potential? Well, that was definitely a long time ago, before I lost faith in myself and became so consumed with finding the right spiritual answers that in the process I willingly gave away everything I felt in that open heart to be true. Well, way leads onto way….as Cherokee Strong Eyes said, “We can’t go back. The bridge is gone.“
Even so, I obviously attended Mass looking for something. For that matter, what do I go to Native Lodge looking for? And how does Incarnational Spirituality which celebrates the individual life as inherently sacred integrate with a faith where any discussion of the individual starts with sin and ends with the need to apologize? How does a Lorian priest wear a forehead covered in ash?
According to my Native elder, Coyo, this time of the year is known as the Void. We’re nearly through the dark of the year, so our minds and spirits are turning toward spring, facing forward with resolve toward fresh growth. Yet winter isn’t quite done with us yet. The seeds within are still turning. It’s not quite time to us take action. Instead, we sit with our desires and longings, sit with whatever stirs and strives within us. Then we allow those stirrings and strivings themselves to be cut open, revealing the wounds beneath and the hidden paths waiting to be reclaimed. If we move too quickly to action, we disrupt the process. So we must patiently and gently hold the seeds. We must attend to our inner needs so that what our souls want to grow can most fully align with the conditions of our lives when the time for growing comes. In spite of the stirrings of transition, now is not the time for decisions or answers. We are still incubating our new selves in the dark.
I was reminded of Coyo’s words as Father Felix gave the homily: immediately following Christ’s baptism, this most sacred spiritual initiation, he was led by God into the desert where he fasted for 40 days and nights. Isolated. Exposed. Incubated. Even Christ had questions and doubts. Even Christ experienced the void.
Bare bones honest: as a teenager and young adult I was never going to find the assurances I was seeking in my childhood faith, but there’s no way I could have known that then. The issues weighing on my heart at that time weren’t questions of belief so much as questions of life that I was making God responsible for because I didn’t know where else to turn. At eighteen I felt powerless and like so many vulnerable, lost souls, I placed my trust in someone, in many other someones, who, in order to save me gladly took from me the power I didn’t realize I had. But even my odyssey into evangelical Christianity was a sign of a deeper misalignment. I was never going to find answers in any religion, really, because that’s not what religion is for. We can only find our answers in direct relationship with the Sacred— in deep, abiding connection with ourselves. Faith is the tool we use to express our innate understanding of sacredness. Ironically, I have heard this core message, in one convoluted form or another, in nearly every church and spiritual center I’ve ever been part of. I am only now beginning to understand.
Ash Wednesday turned out to be a day full of great meaning and insight. And for the 46 days and nights of Lent, I will be paying attention. Sitting in quietude and stillness, I will, as Rainer Marie Rilke suggests, lean into and learn to love the questions stirring within. In spite of the darkness of the void, I feel open to releasing the jigsaw puzzle of my past to this newly emerging self still sleeping in her seed.
Views from the Lorian Community publishes essays from a team of volunteer writers expressing individual experiences of a long term, committed practice of Incarnational Spirituality (and the general principles shaping such a practice.) Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole. If you would like to subscribe, please visit our website and click on Follow Our Blog Via Email. Or email the editor:firstname.lastname@example.org