The First Sunday of Lent this year began by springing forward an hour. You lost an hour of sleep if you got up and went to church last Sunday morning because of the annual daylight saving time change, and that deprivation “fits” the spirit of the Lenten season quite nicely.
St. Nilus of Stolbensk Lake (1505-1554) was a Russian Saint, one of the most beloved. At the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, I saw an entire wall of craved St. Nilus figures. All of them showed him with pegs under his armpits, and when I asked about those pegs I was told that St. Nilus was renowned for his spiritual discipline, for the way that he “buffeted his body and made it his slave” in his obedience to and devotion of Christ (I Corinthians 9:24-27). Those pegs were an expression of that discipline -
To his exploits of strict fasting and stillness [ie. hesychia] he added another—he never lay down to sleep, but permitted himself only a light nap, leaning on a prop set into the wall of the cell.
Now, I wouldn’t insult the example of St. Nilus’ spiritual sleeping habits, strange as they may sound to our ears that are so much more accustomed to being told that Jesus came to make us healthy, wealthy, and happy, by comparing the loss of an hour of sleep last Saturday night to his lifetime of sleeping while standing, propped up with pegs under his arms! There is simply no comparison. But the intersection of daylight saving time with the first Sunday of Lent this year and the choice that it forced on us between getting up and coming to church for worship or staying in bed and “sleeping off’ the time change has made me think about spiritual discipline in general, and the season of Lent in particular.
I saw several news reports last Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, about ministers and ministries that set up shop on crowded train station platforms and on busy downtown street corners with their placards announcing “ashes to go.” And there they stood ready to smudge the forehead of anyone who was too busy to go to church that day to receive the sign of their mortality and to indicate their willingness to enter into a season of deliberate spiritual reflection and penitence. In church, before the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, there is always this “Invitation to a Holy Lent –
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” (The Book of Common Prayer, 265)
And I wondered if “ashes to go” and the church’s traditional invitation to a holy Lent could be reconciled. Isn’t a “convenient” imposition of ashes that doesn’t demand anything of us, not even the miniscule effort that it would take to show up at church on Ash Wednesday for a short service in order to have the experience, a gesture that is in itself a contradiction of its essential meaning? Where’s the self-denial in a hurried pass by smudging? How much self-examination and repentance can there be in a spur-of-the moment, oh-by-the-way signing of the cross with ashes as you are running to catch your metro connection? I’m not suggesting that just because someone has taken the time to go to church for an Ash Wednesday service that it automatically means that they are serious about it or that it is inevitably going to be a spiritually significant experience for them. What I am saying is that when there has been some prior thought given to the act and some actual effort made to participate in it, that it exponentially increases the probability that something meaningful will actually take place.
Paul told the Corinthians (II.5:14) that the love of Christ “controlled” him (New American Standard), or “constrained” him (Geneva), or “presseth” him (Douay-Rheims), or “compelled” him (New King James), or “driveth” him (Wycliffe), or “urged” and “impelled” him (Amplified). However you translate the word, it means that Christ interferes. He gets in the way. He makes demands and expects a response. To be a Christian is going to cost us something. And Lent is the season when the payment comes due, or at least, it is when the claim gets made. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die” (99).
Robert Raines 1961 book New Life in the Church (Harper & Row) is one of the seven or eight popular books that has had an enduring impact on my spiritual life. In his chapter on how “Conversion Endures in Discipline,” he wrote -
We of the liberal Protestant tradition have accommodated ourselves to the cultural climate of the free and easy. We have capitulated to our secular environment, so that there is no longer any marked difference in behavior or outlook upon life between the average church member and his unchurched neighbor. Millions of church members have the forms of godliness but not the spirit or the power. Why? We are no longer a disciplined people. We like to make excuses for our impotence and lack of discipline. We say: “We Protestants are free. We’re not like the Roman Catholics. Nobody can tell us what to do! We accept no external authority or imposed discipline.” And all of this is fine and healthy, so long as we then impose upon ourselves an internal discipline and authority. Unfortunately, the people who most often scorn and belittle Roman Catholics for the strict performance of their religious obligations are usually the least disciplined in their own religious habits. Or we say: “We mustn’t be over pious or pharisaical in our religious habits.”
… And having recognized that pharisaism is a very real temptation for any person who takes their Christianity seriously, let us face the fact that this is not the problem for most contemporary church members. Our present danger is that of laxity, self-indulgence, and the rejection of all authority and discipline. And the plain truth is, only the disciplined change the world. (56-57)
Somewhere between the stark example of St. Nilus sleeping each night suspended on pegs and a gaggle of well-intentioned clerics giddily slapping ashes on the foreheads of commuters rushing past them on their way to work on Ash Wednesday, true spirituality resides, and this Lent I’m going in search of its address. DBS+