March 5, 2013
Matt. 6: 1-6, 16-21
Thomas Keating, who re-introduced the contemporary church to the ancient practice of contemplative prayer, tells of his early years in a Trappist monastery. The setting is the 1940s, I believe in Massachusetts.
His desire was to go the extra mile in his spiritual practices, demonstrating his zeal for God.
“When I entered the austere life of the monastery, fasting was held in honor….the symbol of fidelity in the monastery in those days was the perfect conformity to the rule….
Because I was in somewhat fragile health, I was rarely able to get through the whole of Lent without having to be dispensed from the fast. In the milieu of the monastery, if one could not fast, one felt like a second class citizen.
One year I approached the abbot to ask permission to start the fast even though I had always been forced to drop out after a couple of weeks. To my surprise he said, “Do you know what penance God wants you to do this Lent?” I said, “Sure”. His response was “Gain twenty pounds…between meals, each morning and afternoon, I want you to drink a glass of cream and eat two Hershey bars.”
Keating’s first thought was that the abbot had gone mad. His second was how was he going to keep his peers from knowing about this?
Thomas Keating was like the person in today’s gospel reading…fasting, praying and giving alms to be seen and praised by others, wanting to win God’s approval and the approval of his peers.
The false self and the belief that one reached the contemplative state by zealously following the rule was driving his zeal.
Father Basil Pennington, a contemporary of Keating, defines the false self as being “made up of what I have, what I do and what other people think of me”
In other words, wanting to be seen and praised by others for what we do and what we have. It is storing up our treasure on earth.
In addition to the false self, there is the super ego. The two are intertwined.
Each of us was raised and belongs to groups that define acceptable and unacceptable behavior. This is the super ego.
The first and the most significant group is our family:
We each grew up with unspoken and spoken rules about conflict, authority, money, sex, cleanliness and a host of other things.
If you have never done so, a good Lenten practice would be to sit down and write out all the rules that you grew up with. Reflect on how they have shaped you. What rules have you kept, which have you discarded or need to be free of.
Other groups that define us are our ethic identity, our religious communities, our political party, our nationality.
Loyalty to these groups is a good thing but when they become an absolute value or we over identify with them, these communities enslave.
One aspect of moral development is establishing an identity that is not group based and freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the super ego. Much of the spiritual journey is about getting rid of the effects of the super ego.
We discover who God has created us to be, that each one of us unique and holy, that we do not need to live for the approval of others, that our worth is not defined by what we do and what we have.
By the way, Keating didn’t gain twenty pounds that Lenten season, only ten!
When I was in my early 50s, a co-worker asked me what I was giving up for Lent. I replied that my faith tradition didn’t practice this Lenten discipline and that it felt to me like New Year’s resolutions, make them and break them.
But, I realized there was something that I did need to give up for Lent. It was the word “should”.
I now understand that the word “should” was about the super ego, living to please others rather than being true to myself.
That Lenten practice was transformative and its lessons are still with me today. When I find myself using the word “should” I stop and question my own motives
Or David my spouse will take notice and point out that I am defining myself by what I should do.
Fasting, praying and giving alms were the cornerstones of Jewish piety. Do these things and you will be perceived as holy. You win group approval.
Instead, Jesus wants our spiritual practices to be done in secret and not to gain the approval of others. There are no “shoulds”.
Your God who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus offers another way.
It is the way of being in relationship with Abba, our loving parent, who is always watching over us, calling us into relationship, wanting to call forth our true identity as a child of God rather than a member of the clan.
It is an intimate relationship based on love rather than fear or control.
How is this relationship fostered?
Well, we go into the inner room, our secret room. In the first century only the very rich had such rooms. But Jesus is not talking about a physical location but a spiritual reality.
Go into our inner room…be in God’s presence, go to the deeper place within, enter the silence. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
It is not a place of activity but of being. Being with ourselves and being with God.
In secret…the motives are gradually stripped away.
The invitation of Lent is the invitation to go deeper in our walk with God, to shed some more of the super ego and false self. It is a lifelong process.
It is renewing our commitment to the Holy and to ourselves and whatever the contemplative life means for each of us.
It is not achieved by prayer, fasting, alms or any other actions. It is an inner work, which takes place in our inner room.
It is a work of repentance. To repent means to change the direction in which we look for happiness.
It is the work of transformation.
As we continue on this journey, we work together with God in bringing about the transformation not only of ourselves but of our global community.
I close with a quote from Thomas Merton:
The easiest way to come to God is to enter our own center and then pass through that center into the center of God.