It is a strange feeling to be on a cruise ship during the Church’s season of Lent. We are surrounded by opulence, large quantities of food (many of which are rich and fattening), a myriad of activities designed to keep us occupied and happy, and lots of drinking of alcohol. And fairly regularly we stop at a new port and immerse ourselves in the local culture, either by walking the streets of the town or taking a tour which more thoroughly introduces us to some aspect of the place we are visiting. And on top of that, the world of Coronavirus and divisive presidential politics is not far from our thoughts. What’s an observant Christian to do?
I grew up in a household that rigorously observed the Church’s liturgical seasons. No meat on Friday year round, so Lent was even more stringent (if you can call that stringent), with meat banned on Wednesday as well. Fish (some form of frozen or canned) and macaroni and cheese became staples. And no dessert either. My Dad (the Roman Catholic) took us to church every Friday evening for Stations of the Cross. It all seemed designed to communicate the seriousness of Jesus’ suffering and death. And, of course, the whole notion that I was responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion because he died for my sins. I never really made peace with that way of thinking and it wasn’t until years later that I began to see it all differently. Jesus passion, death and subsequent resurrection is about love and, for me, that changes the frame and the implications of the liturgical seasons.
The different Church seasons (not unlike our planetary ones) offer us opportunities to assess and reorient our lives along the principles and values that we hold dear. Each one can be a wakeup call to live intentionally and with purpose. That is particularly true of Lent as, in the Northern Hemisphere, along we nature, we can begin to come back to the life for which we are intended. For me, that means becoming a more loving human being. And I don’t mean simply being nice, kind, even compassionate (those are kind of basic to this way of living). I do mean how I live my life in a way that supports others in thriving in theirs, how to offer myself as a model, perhaps, of what it means to truly love the world and all that is in it. It’s a lifelong project, of course, and it’s the kind of work that can be done anywhere, even on a ship. Or maybe especially on a ship with a lot of strangers.
This Lent, prior to leaving home, I signed up for an online Lenten retreat, led by my colleague, Bill Redfield of Northeast Wisdom (checkout williamredfield.com if you are interested in his work). This includes recorded reflections and short readings twice a week. On the First Sunday in Lent he commented: “Spiritual practices don’t really accomplish anything or increase our spiritual status in any way. Anything that needs to be achieved is already given and present. Spiritual practices instead are simply designed to hone the instruments of spiritual receptivity so that we might wake from our sleep of distraction and stupor. And what are the instruments of spiritual receptivity? You and me—our bodies and our beings. Spiritual practices simply clear away both the inner and outer static so that we can become better receivers and transmitters of the flow of divine energy.” *
Now that makes sense to me. Honing the instruments of spiritual receptivity can be done anywhere, even on a cruise ship. Amidst all of this opulence I can work on walking a simple path. For my inner work, I can keep up my practice of meditation (centering prayer), continue to participate in this online retreat, letting Bill’s teaching and ideas marinate in my daily life on board. And I can continue to be aware of who and what is around me, that is, remain in the present moment. For my outer life, I can strive to eat simply (although that is really a challenge here!) I can listen, really listen to the folks I encounter (being open and attentive is a strong way to exhibit love), responding in ways that reflect the love that all of us need to encounter and know on a daily basis.
Of course, this is work that can and should be done year round. The particular seasons of the church give a special flavor. Lent is the paring down season in order to follow the Path of Love which requires self examination and self-offering. The challenges that we are facing in the US and around the world mean that we may have to give up more than we know for quite some time. Let every inconvenience be for the good of our own growth as human beings. Let this season be one of self-improvement for the good of all. Will you join me?
*An earlier version of this blog cited Maurice Nicoll’s book for the source of this quote. I confused the source because I am actively reading the book and engaging in reflection on it as well as Bill Redfield’s teaching. I highly recommend Maurice Nicoll’s book, The New Man, for unique insights and teachings about the deeper meanings underlying the parables of Jesus.