Shrove Tuesday, and the days leading up to it, are days for taking stock – inventory. ‘Shrove’ from the English word ‘shrive’, which means ‘to confess’; on Shrove Tuesday, we take stock, we confess what we find, and get rid of – use up – what doesn’t belong, in preparation for Lent.
The practice of taking stock and confessing has a long history in the Christian tradition. Beginning with the desert fathers and mothers of the 3Rd and 4th centuries; the desert monks placed a high priority on taking stock. “Pay attention to yourself,” the desert monks were fond of saying. (1) “Pay attention to yourself.” The desert monks were aware that the greatest danger facing human beings was self-deception; the kind of self-deception that denies the need for healing, the need for others, and the need for God. It’s the kind of self-deception that pretends to be God by trying to be perfect; but we are not perfect. I know; that’s not news. None of us really thinks we are perfect; far from it, usually. But isn’t it true that many of us often try to be perfect, don’t we often try to be good, try to do better, and isn’t it frustrating? The desert monks recognized this tendency in themselves. They recognized the tendency in themselves to try and be perfect so they could be close to God, and they saw it did not work. They recognized this tendency in the desert, and they found an answer in the desert: “Pay attention to yourself!”
We can sometimes find ourselves in the desert. When we are alone, in silence, free from distraction, we are in the desert. We can hear ourselves clearest in the desert. That’s why the desert monks went there. The desert monks went to the desert to pay attention to themselves, to encounter themselves, and to encounter God. And it wasn’t always pleasant. Silence, solitude, freedom from distraction can be uncomfortable. Listening to ourselves can be painful. It can be painful because more than a few of us have a tendency to be hard on ourselves, and that’s a voice we will hear in the desert. In our Rule of Life we speak of the power of silence, solitude, and freedom from distraction. We speak of its power to restore and heal (we learned it from the desert monks), but we recognize (as they did) that it does not come cheaply. The healing power of silence, we say, “depends on our willingness to face all that is within us, light and dark, and to heed all the inner voices that make themselves heard in silence.” (2) “Pay attention to yourself.”
It’s not about identifying all the things we don’t like about ourselves. It’s not about that. Often, the things we don’t like about ourselves are the things we can’t help. We often don’t like ourselves for the sheer fact that we are human, we are imperfect, and we inevitably fall short, and we cannot change that, no matter how hard we try. We are human, we are imperfect, we sin, to put it in religious language, and that’s what the desert monks want us to pay attention to! We are imperfect, we fall short, we sin, we cannot change that, and, that, the desert monks say, is good news!
It’s good news because when we recognize our imperfection – and stop trying to change it – we can begin to learn to live with our imperfection. The goal, for the desert monks, is to ‘survive our sins’, not to stop sinning. “To survive our sins, they say, they must be acknowledged as sins. Living with imperfection requires accepting it as imperfection.” (3) For the desert monks, it is more important to acknowledge that we do fall short, accept our imperfection, than it is that we change it. For the desert monks, the acceptance of our imperfection is the foundation of healing. It is the foundation of healing because it is a vision of life firmly rooted in reality. And if the desert monks were concerned with anything, it was being real; getting honest; know who is at home, they say; “pay attention to yourself”.
Another benefit is this: Out of the awareness of our imperfection, we develop compassion for the imperfections of others, including those we find difficult to love. First, we learn how to live with ourselves, to survive our sins, and endure our imperfection, by accepting it as imperfection. Next, we learn how to live with others (the more challenging task!) by accepting their imperfections. We recognize that, after all, what we all have in common is imperfection.
Christian community is formed on the basis of shared imperfection, shared weakness. In most other contexts, communities are formed on the basis of shared strengths. Doctors consult with other doctors, sports enthusiasts seek each other out, academics meet with other academics. There is nothing wrong with that. But in communities formed on the basis of shared strengths, competition can easily develop, jealously can also arise, members can feel threatened and intimidated by the strengths and successes of other members.
By coming together on the basis of shared weakness, on the other hand, we Christians connect at the level of our very human-ness. It is our weakness that makes us alike; our strengths make us different. In such a setting, we can see in others strengths a hope, rather than a threat. We can hope their strength will support us, and that our strength will support them, because we know, at bottom, we are the same – flawed and imperfect. (4)
Another thing we will recognize is our need for God. When we take stock, and honestly confess what we find (that we are necessarily imperfect) we come to see the futility of trying to be perfect. We can stop trying to change ourselves, which is another way of saying we can stop pretending to be God! We can let God be God, which means we can let God get on with God’s business: the business of changing us.
Tomorrow, many of us will begin Lent by attending an Ash Wednesday service. During that service, we will be invited to confess collectively, as a community, the litany of penitence, a series of petitions expressing the recognition that we all fall short. We’ve taken stock, it’s time to honestly confess what we find, and get rid of – use up – what doesn’t belong, in preparation for Lent. Only, we don’t get to choose what we will get rid of, or how it will be used. We also pray on Ash Wednesday, that God create in us new and contrite hearts. God is going to change us. God will decide what needs to be gotten rid of, but most of it will be put to use. Used so we learn how to live with our imperfect selves, used so we learn compassion and form communities with other imperfect people, used so we come into communion with God.
Tomorrow, on Ash Wednesday, when we turn towards Lent, we will be facing the Passion. We begin with the recognition that we are human, imperfect, created out of the dust, and God still thinks worth dying for.
- Many of the ideas, and some direct quotes in this sermon are taken from The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham.
- The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, chapter twenty-seven, “Silence”.
- Kurtz and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection, pg. 43
- This discussion on communities of shared weakness versus strength is found in Kurtz and Ketcham, pp 198-199.
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