December 16, 2017

Jan Richardson: Lent I – Where the Breath Begins

Your Earth © Jan Richardson

Note from CM: One of my favorite sites is Jan Richardson’s Painted Prayerbook. Jan does remarkable works of art and matches them with luminous prose, poetry, and prayers. She gave permission for us to use this Lenten reflection. It’s stunning. Thank you, Jan!

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Lent I: Where the Breath Begins
by Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Lent 1, Year A: Matthew 4.1-11

The Spirit of God breathes everywhere within you, just as in the beginning, filling light place and dark…green earth and dry…. God’s love grows, fullness upon fullness, where you crumble enough to give what is most dear. Your earth.
—Joan Sauro, from Whole Earth Meditation

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.
—Matthew 4.1

Just off a highway that runs south of Gainesville, in northern Florida, there is a small community that has one stop sign, a general store, and more cattle than people. I grew up there, a mile from the farm that was started by my great-grandfather and has been in the family for more than a century.

That piece of earth is a place of deep memory for me. Its landscape holds not only my own story but also layers of stories of those who have gone before me and whose stories have become part of mine. It is where, on a bright spring day nearly seven years ago, Gary and I were married. And it is where, just five years later, we buried his ashes.

The farm is part of my earth, my inner terrain. The life I have lived within its landscape has shaped and formed me, and I carry its contours inside me.

The season of Lent calls us into a landscape. Though the imagery of wilderness is dominant in Lent, this is not the primary terrain that this season invites us to enter.

We enter Lent to enter our own earth, to make a pilgrimage into our own terrain. We move into this season to look at our life anew, to consider what has formed us, where we have come from, what we are carrying within us. Lent invites us to look at the layers that inhabit us: our stories and memories, our imaginings and dreams. This season invites us to notice what in our life feels fallow or empty, where there is growth and greenness, what sources of sustenance lie within us, where we find our inner earth crumbling to reveal something new.

Lent opens our own terrain to us, that we might meet anew the God who lives in every layer of our life.

As this season begins, how might God be inviting you into the landscape that inhabits you? Is there a space within your soul that needs your attention, your compassion, your prayer? How might it be to open that space to the presence of Christ, who knows what it means to enter a difficult terrain, and who found sustenance and angels even there?

Deep peace to you as we enter into the landscape Lent offers us. May it be a place where you can breathe deeply.

Where the Breath Begins

Dry
and dry
and dry
in each direction.

Dust dry.
Desert dry.
Bone dry.

And here
in your own heart:
dry,
the center of your chest
a bare valley
stretching out
every way you turn.

Did you think
this was where
you had come to die?

It’s true that
you may need
to do some crumbling,
yes.
That some things
you have protected
may want to be
laid bare,
yes.
That you will be asked
to let go
and let go,
yes.

But listen.
This is what
a desert is for.

If you have come here
desolate,
if you have come here
deflated,
then thank your lucky stars
the desert is where
you have landed—
here where it is hard
to hide,
here where it is unwise
to rely on your own devices,
here where you will
have to look
and look again
and look close
to find what refreshment waits
to reveal itself to you.

I tell you,
though it may be hard
to see it now,
this is where
your greatest blessing
will find you.

I tell you,
this is where
you will receive
your life again.

I tell you,
this is where
the breath begins.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace

Comments

  1. Robert F says:

    rain now, snow later
    but always the narrow creek
    receives what’s given

    • Now it’s joy, then pain
      Yet the heart remains open
      Like your flowing creek

    • Stephen says:

      Up on the hill
      lumberjacks axing everything in sight
      Down along the stream
      crimson flowers burn
      -Chin do ba

  2. Susan Dumbrell says:

    I went to my counselor today with a heavy heart. A dry barren place. A desert..

    My soul ached. I berated God for hours last night. Wet tears on a dry face.

    Wise Christian words were spoken today and I saw a light opening before me.
    I recalled the last verse of Matthew’s Gospel, “Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age”.

    “Now the Green Blade Riseth from the buried grain”. (French carol)

    He and I see a way through my past and with God’s help I think I can shake off the dark thoughts which plague me.
    I look to Easter as my goal. With my priest’s help and my counselor’s, I think I can achieve peace with my past and look forward to a new Spring in my life.

  3. flatrocker says:

    Sometimes the Lord’s messenger shows up in very unexpected ways – I like that about Him.
    Today he came within a poem – and just when it was needed most.
    Thanks

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “Sometimes the Lord’s messenger shows up in very unexpected ways…”

      Indeed. This reminds me of the recent article “Desiring God” about why the author wouldn’t be seeing “The Shack.” Main point of contention: the main character didn’t run to the Bible to find God and “why would I support that viewpoint?”

      My reaction: Seriously?! Do you mean to tell me the only time you’ve found God was in the Bible?

      –> “…I like that about Him.”

      Yep. Me, too.

      • Seriously?! Do you mean to tell me the only time you’ve found God was in the Bible?

        Yep. That position holds that God is only reliably encounted in Biblical truths, and that any other manifestation must be held to be possibly, if not likely to be, at best a derivation from biblical truth or at worst self-deception.

        For those of us intensely distrustful of our emotions, that position does has some things to commend it…

  4. >> Though the imagery of wilderness is dominant in Lent, this is not the primary terrain that this season invites us to enter.

    This posting presents this dichotomy well, and I am not sure that it is intentional. Also not sure that “dichotomy” expresses the huge canyon I see between the literal meaning of our English word “Lent”, which simply means springtime with its lengthening of days, and the ornate long religious procession with utmost bells and whistles I observe going by. This is more than difference, more than conflict, I can’t find the word these polar opposites brings forth in me. Maybe chasm.

    Poking around in the history of Lent in an attempt to understand how we got here, I find obscure beginnings but one story stands out. Rufinus of Aquileia, a friend and fellow translator from Greek into Latin with Jerome, misread a punctuation mark which indicated in the Greek a forty hour observance during Holy Weekend of the time between the physical death of body of our Lord and his bodily resurrection, a time spent, we are told, in the place of the dead rescuing and releasing the souls of God’s people who had been imprisoned by the Adversary. Makes sense to me as a meaningful observance. However Rufinus mistakenly in his translation turned this into a forty day observance of the initial fast that began Jesus’ ministry, and here we are. The time frame for this in general was when Constantine brought empire to the church and Nicea poured concrete into its theology.

    I don’t want to step on the feelings of those who find value in the pious expressions of religious Lent, but those expressions step on me if I put myself in their path. I resonate with Susan D’s French carol, “Now the Green Blade Riseth from the buried grain”. I look out my window and see my grass turning green and the deer starting to nibble on it rather than poaching the feed put out for dove and sparrow. The grass in my heart is also turning green, the ice on it’s swamp is melting, and just in time, just in time. And what, wait, you can’t be serious, just as I am finding renewal from dark winter’s death in the nick, you want me to drape myself in black mourning, stop eating, and head out into the desert where the grass withers and the tongue parches?

    Each to his or her own, but thank you just the same. I’ll stand with my forbears, the Old English, who observed the season of Lengten, the time when daylight lengthened and hearts rejoiced along with all of nature as new life sprang forth everywhere. Outside the religious crust, this coming observance of our Lord’s death and resurrection is rooted in Passover. The intention was to be set free from captivity and death and enter straightway into the Promised Land, the land of Milk and Honey, without further ado. Instead these worthies chose the other door, the place where, as the poem above states it was “Dry/ and dry/ and dry/ in each direction.” I am on all sides being called to choose that second door as well, and I stand firm with Joshua and Caleb.

    • Remember that Jan’s poem and thoughts are for Lent I, when the lectionary reading is Jesus in the desert being tempted. I think she’s reflecting on that more than just the mere season.

    • Ron Avra says:

      Thanks for the exposition on Rufinus of Aquileia.

    • Outside the religious crust, this coming observance of our Lord’s death and resurrection is rooted in Passover. The intention was to be set free from captivity and death and enter straightway into the Promised Land, the land of Milk and Honey, without further ado.

      I wonder which came first…the mythology of the Exodus or the Passover meal. Would love a deep historical look at Lent and Passover sometime.

      I like your choice of observing the Old English Lengten. I’ve long since childhood had a fascination and envy of those old traditions, sparked by Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and it’s setting of Christmas through English and Welsh folklore. America, even evangelicalism, is just lacking those deep rooted things, which might be why ancient-future path stuff appeals to me.

      • I’m sure a lot could be written about how liturgy and fantasy fiction and the like are a longing for an older time that never quite existed, a ways to fill a need that our modern world does not provide.

    • Jung would say that that little mistake would have been left right there if it were not in the collective psyche to be embraced. Then one would wonder if that “mistake” arose from the collective psyche and wasn’t so random. Things like lent and other large group observances with staying power have more behind them than, generally speaking, random accidental occurrences, even if that seems to be the observable explanation.

    • Dana Ames says:

      Charley,

      I trust your kindness to be able to put in a few words. In EO, we don’t see Lent as a desert; rather, it’s a journey, in which we are invited to consider our condition HAD NOT God worked to rescue us. It’s a journey that from the outset is focused on getting to Pascha – the One Event of the Cross+Resurrection that has shown God’s love and power in the deepest humility. As we are asking each other’s forgiveness at the Vespers service that inaugurates our Lent, the choir sings the major hymn verses of the Resurrection (leaving out the chorus “Christ is risen from the dead” because at this point the Resurrection has not yet occurred), because that’s the end – as in “the whole point” – of the journey.

      A few years ago, Scot McKnight wrote a little book on fasting; the book was the result of his close study of fasting in the OT. What Scot found was that the Jews were *never* called to a fast in order to change God’s mind about something; it was always because they were facing death, either immanent death, or death that had come upon them in the recent past. It was always undertaken within the context of mourning, and in the realization that in the face of such tragic circumstances the body doesn’t really want to eat anyway, consistent with what one is experiencing in the psyche; and it would be more helpful spiritually to allow that situation to help them (re)turn to God, even as they prayed for rescue, but whether he rescued them or not. Similarly, in Lent we fast, not to simply be dreary, but to remember again that because we had cut ourselves off from union with God, seeking the source of Life elsewhere, we had been facing the tragedy of continuing down the road to non-existence. God had to do something to arrest the impending utter outcome of death and rescue and release us from the ultimate adversary. Since a human soul/spirit without a human body isn’t God’s idea of the fullness of a human person, God had to rescue his creation beginning with us. That’s why we see Pascha as the launching of the “new creation”.

      Lent is a way for us to be reminded of that on a yearly basis, an all-senses-involved reminder shot through with sober joy, so that we will eventually appropriately rejoice when we have reached Pascha at the end of the journey, just as Joshua and Caleb rejoiced when they finally set foot in the land of milk and honey. It is very, very much “The grass in my heart is also turning green, the ice on its swamp is melting, and just in time, just in time.” Pascha – in the context of the Incarnation – is God’s “just in time” after a very long, bleak winter (through which there were always some turned to him in trust and expectation – like the beauty that can be found even in the barren cold of winter – many of those who were Jews chronicled for us in the OT and in the book of Luke).

      Dana

      • Thanks, Dana. Eastern theology most always strikes me as sensible, at least in comparison to the rest of Christendom. One example is in naming the coming observance “Pascha”, which is what it is, not a celebration of Ishtar in her many-named guises. “Behold,” said John the Baptist, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The final Passover, the one the other ones were pointing to. I don’t mean to rain on other folks’ parades, but these calls for introspection and serious reflection are something I give my best shot every day of the year, and when I’m already doing my best and someone is asking me to double down, I tend to get a little testy. And in any case, in my book the final Passover is a time for celebration, not mourning. I’ve never understood the logic of being alive with the Life given to us by that final sacrifice, and thinking it somehow benefits us or Jesus to keep repeating that sacrifice like some Ground Hog Day gone terribly wrong. The snow is gone, at least for now, the birds and other critters are beginning to celebrate, it won’t be long before a few flowers join in, and I’m right there with them all. Let the churches snuff out their candles and bedeck all in funereal black including black flowers. I’m giving up going to church for Lent, it’s too depressing. Thanks again, Dana. ~Charley

    • Heather Angus says:

      I think the poem is lovely, but I’m with Charles on this one. As Robert Frost said, “Art and religion love the somber chord,” and it often seems to me that if the church can find a way to make something somber and hard, it will. Not only Lent, when “The grass in my heart is also turning green, the ice on it’s swamp is melting, and just in time, just in time. And what, wait, you can’t be serious, just as I am finding renewal from dark winter’s death in the nick, you want me to drape myself in black mourning, stop eating, and head out into the desert where the grass withers and the tongue parches?” Look at Advent, waiting for the coming of the Nativity — you’d almost think that would be a joyous time, but no, in my Episcopal church it’s supposed to be a “little Lent,” where yet one more time we think about our sins — and heaven forbid we sing any of those fine old Christmas carols — those must wait till Christmas Day itself. I love the beauty of the Episcopal Church, modeled heavily on the Catholic liturgy. But enough with the unnecessary solemnity.

    • Susan Dumbrell says:

      Thank you Charles.
      Spring will come again.
      With the morning.
      I wait on my front steps each Easter morning, like Mary Magdalene at the tomb.
      I wait for our resurrection to be with Christ.,
      Come Lord Jesus, come.

  5. Rick Ro. says:

    Okay, I’ve written several “spiritual desert” poems of my own, but this one…this one is a marvel. It gets at something deep within my own desert walks that I’ve never quite articulated, like this specifically:

    “It’s true that
    you may need
    to do some crumbling,
    yes.
    That some things
    you have protected
    may want to be
    laid bare,
    yes.
    That you will be asked
    to let go
    and let go,
    yes.”

    Thanks for sharing it, CM, and thanks, too, to Jan Richardson for allowing you to share it (and writing it…LOL).

  6. Christiane says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post and the poem, so perfect for lenten reflection.