Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" --Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
I can't hear this story too many times. I am the son returning again and again. I am the father scanning the horizon watching for the impossible and then embracing it in my arms. I am the revelers in the far-away town, I am the servants in the father's household, and I am the older brother in tears of rage, uncomprehending and exasperated.
Lent gives me time to find myself- my true self - for better or for worse, and usually both. Lent gives me time to work on habits that alienate me from myself, and from God, and from my loved ones. I learn to see the “edited” version of myself for what it is, and to step back from the “cult of this shadow” I've created of myself (Meditation One). Lent teaches me to wake up in the middle of the waking day to a fuller awareness of my state of mind, to repent, to turn around toward the Loving Presence watching for me (Meditation Two). Lent teaches me the subversion of loving and being loved (Meditation Three). Lent prepares me to accept my authentic self, which is love. Lovingly yours, Suzanne
Meditation One (Introit) Unknown Self
This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him, and to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy. My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love - outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.... A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.
-Thomas Merton 1915-1968 New Seeds of Contemplation It is important at least to tell from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.
–Frederick Buechner Telling Secrets
Child and Donkey, Byzantine, 5th century
Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you. -Psalm 32:10
WHEN HE CAME TO HIMSELF...
And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. -Luke 15:16
Despairing, crouched near the pen of mud and excrement. Hungry, envying the indigestible pods and scraps fed to the hogs. Head-ache from thirst. Dizzy from hunger. An absolute dead-end.
How did I get here? I began with a small fortune. There was a party. Or two. Maybe more than a few. Surely money in my pockets disappeared on these occasions, now that I think of it. More than once? Probably. Can you keep track of your coat when you're concentrating on the cards and dice? And friends, interesting, glittering friends who quickly moved on. Like I bored them or something. Well, they turned out to be the boring ones. And love. I fell in love - it was love that robbed me. More than one love. Fickle girls. They like you for a while...
Then famine. Lots of my money went for food. For shelter. For cheap clothing that kept wearing out. Then, no jobs. Until this job - my wages a bowl of gruel a day. Because the guy can get away with it. Bastard.
It's my father's fault. He shouldn't have given me the money. It's my brother's fault. He should have come with me, he's better at accounts than I am. It's the fault of my friends - they wanted fun and gifts - how could a generous guy like me refuse them? And those fickle girls, one after another. Girls these days don't know how to be constant. And now this swine-owner. It's all his fault. He has plenty of food in this famine, but will he share? Why won't he give me a better job? Why doesn't he trust me?
The smell of the pen overwhelms him in the heat. He wretches. His empty insides try to escape him in dry heaves.
The sacred moment.
Through what avenue of change will grace manifest? A great leap of intellect? (I can't reasonably blame absolutely everybody). His innate sense of humor? (Look at me, I'm a filthy hog, rooting around in my own excrement at the bottom of the barnyard!). The remembered voice of his mother long ago wiping his tears and saying to his little boy self, “But darling, it's your own fault!” ? (It's my fault!). Somehow that deep groove of blame in his brain needs damming so a new channel can form.
I'm sorry, he says to himself. He says it again. I'm sorry. He's saying he's sorry to himself. Are there two selves, one self to say the words and another to receive them?
He comes to himself.
PART 2 I will arise and go ...
Despair, the saints say, is the worst sin. Despair is a kind of pride - the pride of putting yourself beyond God's mercy, that God's ability to love is limited. Despair makes an idol out of wretchedness.
I'm no good. I was never any good. Even God has despaired of me. I'm slowly starving to death while the hogs fatten. I will die here. And, it's what I deserve.
One aspirin is good for you. But taking a whole bottle will kill you. So it is with compunction. You can wallow in sorrow like pigs in mud, happily reveling in the smell and sticky filth of it. You can attach yourself to the selfish stinking sweetness of self-pity. After a while, though, compunction alone without action - repentance, contrition, satisfaction - will poison you.
How does the young man know it's time to arise? Maybe he remembered his prayers “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” Being sorry is one thing. You can stay in the lower barnyard feeling sorry for all eternity. But repenting requires action.
When he comes to himself, the former prodigal assesses his situation. How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! He realizes his only path out of pride is through humility. He reevaluates his options. I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants." The only way he can raise himself is through honesty. Humility and honesty help him stand up and take the first steps of the long journey home.
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern--like the sun, going away--
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats' uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.
-Elizabeth Bishop 1911-1979
detail from Les Grandes Heures de Anne De Bretagne, Tours or Paris, 1503-8
Prodigal Son with swine, Kneeling at his father's feet, Petrus Comestar's Bible Historiale, 1372
Meditation Two (Insight) Came To Himself
The Baal Shem said: "Imagine a man whose business hounds him through many streets and across the marketplace the livelong day. He almost forgets that there is a Maker of the world. Only when the time for the Afternoon Prayer comes does he remember: 'I must pray.' And then, from the bottom of his heart, he heaves a sigh of regret that he has spent his day on vain and idle matters, and he runs into a by street and stands there and prays: God holds him dear, very dear, and his prayer pierces the firmament."
-Martin Buber 1878-1965 Tales of the Hasidim - the Early Masters (quoted from LTP Source book: Lent I)
Meditation Three (Integration) Keep Open The Door Of Your Heart
There is a profound ground of unity that is more pertinent and authentic than all the unilateral dimensions of our lives. This a man discovers when he is able to keep open the door of his heart. This is one's ultimate responsiblity, and it is not dependent upon whether the heart of another is kept open for him. Here is a mystery: If sweeping through the door of my heart there moves continually a genuine love for you, it by-passes all your hate and all your indifference and gets through to you at your center. You are powerless to do anything about it. You may keep alive in devious ways the fires of your bitter heart, but they cannot get through to me. Underneath the surface of all the tension, something else is at work. It is utterly impossible for you to keep another from loving you.
-Howard Thurman 1899-1981 The Inward Journey: Meditations on the Spiritual Quest
“You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the ... appalling ... strangeness of the mercy of God.”
― Graham Greene 1904-1991 from the novel Brighton Rock
The Last Word
Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Abide in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.
- Book of Common Prayer Rite of Reconciliation p.451 To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.
-Thomas Merton New Seeds of Contemplation
The Fortune Teller, Georges de la Tour, 1632-35
and had compassion
Sometimes in art, you see the father looking into the distance from a tower. In this rendering, the artist emphasizes that the father not only waits for the son to come home but actively watches from a great height, taking time from a busy day in order to know the first possible moment his son might drop by. You don't hear him brag, “I'm sure he's taken his talents and turned them into more talents.” He doesn't complain, “The boy's an idiot, he's probably lost everything.” He just watches. But not passively.
Is it possible he neglects other duties to ponder his younger son's return? “I must go up to the tower now.” “But Nigel , there's overdue accounts to settle, seeds to order, and the veterinary doctor is downstairs waiting for you to come down and he's charging by the hour!” “But my son might come home soon. I wouldn't want to miss it.”
Even without the tower of the medieval artist and the neglected work I just invented, the detail Jesus offers, “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him” implies the father's foolishness. Why does this scene remind me of Abraham at the oaks of Mamre looking out over the landscape from his tent seeing the three men? (Genesis 18:1-3) Maybe the father was waiting to entertain angels, and instead of the heavenly messangers he expected, sees his son, and undergoes a profound conversion at that moment. “My poor, idiot son, is God's messenger for me.”
This man has no shame, say his family, his employees, his neighbors. That's right. The man jettisoned his hard earned honor the moment his heart melted when he saw his pathetic, profligate son. The shameless father embraces the shameful son in full view of all the sensible people around them.
The once prodigal son rehearses and perfects his speech as he travels. He has to get it just right. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”
But when he meets his father on the road, he is unable to finish his carefully honed apology. His father interrupts and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for heavens' sake, and to kill the fatted calf meant, perhaps, for some predictable upcoming anniversary. Maybe the older brother's birthday. A feast ! Now! “Let us eat and make merry!”
Grace interrupts. Grace, by very nature, is not what you expect. Grace reverses expectations. That's how you know it's grace.
“What's that tower for, Dad?” “Oh. I built it so I could watch for you.”
The most sympathetic character in Jesus' story is the older son. It is not helpful to say he represents some elite group of righteous people opposed to Jesus any more than it is helpful to say that the father represents God. If the father represents God, his compassion is otherworldly and exempts you and I from compassion's uncomfortable stretching and piercing of soul.
You are the father. You are the profligate son. And no kidding, you are probably heavily weighted, as I am, inside the core of this resentful older son.
When did this resentment begin? When he saw his brother in the robe, with the ring and new shoes? Or earlier, when his brother asked for his inheritance and left to seek his fortune and he did not? Or even before that, in childhood games and rivalry?
The father ran out onto the road to meet the younger son. And now he leaves the party to run after the older son who is sensible, hard-working, good, faithful, and true. Except now that son is justifiably angry.
Lo these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!
Jesus leaves the story open. He knows who I am. Am I going to go to the party? Or not?
If anyone be devout and a lover of God, enjoy this beautiful and radiant Feast of Feasts!
If anyone is a wise servant, rejoice and enter into the joy of the Lord.
If anyone has been wearied in fasting, now receive your recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, today receive your just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, have no misgivings; for you shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, do not fear on account of your delay. For the Lord is gracious, and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to the one that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to the one who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious. He both honors the work, and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you. The calf is fattened; let no one go forth hungry!
-John Chrysostom c.347-407 excerpt from Easter Homily (trans. Wright and Kelley)
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin. But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning If I lack'd anything. "A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here"; Love said, "You shall be he." "I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear, I cannot look on thee." Love took my hand and smiling did reply, "Who made the eyes but I?" "Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame Go where it doth deserve." "And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?" "My dear, then I will serve." "You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat." So I did sit and eat.
-George Herbert 1593-1633
We must try to discover the real person we are, otherwise we cannot encounter the Lord in truth. From time to time something authentic shows through: in moments when we are carried away by such joy that we forget who might be looking at us...when we are unself-conscious in moments of extreme pain...or when we have a deep sense of sadness or of wonder. At these moments we see something of the true person that we are. But no sooner have we seen than we often turn away because we do not want to confront this person face to face.... Nevertheless this is the only real person there is in us.