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This goes to press in the week we observe The Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday. The language of that service carries home the point in inescapable rhythmic hammer-blows. The rite is fully engaged yet dispassionately calm; the clear conviction in the liturgy is precisely what liturgical editors long to achieve perhaps just once in a lifetime, and the framers of our Ash Wednesday liturgy succeeded brilliantly at a level of excellence that would be the pride of several lifetimes. Like Henry IV or Romeo & Juliet, Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is redolent with memorable phrases…phrases that ring in our hearts…phrases that we recall as we confront their subject matter wherever we find them…phrases that are as apt in October or July as they are in late Winter/early Spring…universal phrases revealing the truth that the prayer, fasting, self-denial of Lent are not confined to the six weeks preceding Easter. Lent does not ramp up; it doesn’t emerge slowly, building over time. No, in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, Lent comes out of the gate at full speed.
The hammer-blows are concentrated in the Litany of Penitence, where we hear:
The pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives
Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people
Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves
Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work
Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us
Guilty as charged, all counts…no plea agreement to be reached except heartfelt apology and a cry for forgiveness.
“Our anger at our own frustration”…this one catches me with particular ferocity every year. I don’t know about you, but I confess with no pride at all that when I’m angry because I’m frustrated, it’s ugly…I’m ugly…and I’m of no use to anyone. My impatient ego is angrily frustrated by…nay, despises…hapless, cultivated weakness. In others, their hand-wringing, dithering and whining is where my angry frustration begins. In me, the angry frustration begins when confronting my not fully conscious or stated, but highly valued nonetheless, assumption that I have significant disposing control over my time. These are moments where I can become hapless, and angry at myself about it.
My delusional thinking and breathtaking arrogance are almost without limit in this matter, and that too only compounds the angry frustration. I live in a World of relationships where my time, by my own conscious commitment, is not fully my own. Having joyfully, freely and fully entered these relationships, and having offered the time of my life to them, why then do I sometimes run right off the rails and straight into “anger at my own frustration?” Am I taking back the gift I’ve offered? Is it that I don’t mind giving away time when I feel the sacrifice is not a waste, and when it does feel like a waste, I’m angrily frustrated? Am I like Jonah, who becomes churlish and resentful when his work succeeds? All good questions…perhaps a couple of hundred thousand dollars and years in analysis might answer one or two of them. That’s not the point, however.
The Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday addresses symptoms- “anger at my own frustration,” for example- and the Lent it begins is given to me to address the roots of those symptoms, and amend my life. I learn again each Lent that I need to get over myself.
All anger is rooted in fear, and all fear is rooted in loss, so whenever I feel “anger at my own frustration,” I ask: “What are you afraid of losing, Frank+?” Almost always, it’s mastery…control…or my illusion of it. While I can say with humble gratitude that I am genuinely free of wanting to control the details of another’s life, the hole in my soul surrounds a desire to have better-ordered control of my own life; like any two year old, I want to do what I want when I want to do it, and I want that to be universally endorsed. It’s usually an involuntary claim on my time that gets me going….work I’d planned being set aside for more pressing work, or perhaps much-anticipated personal time being blithely intruded upon, or it may be a combination of these and other things. I become less flexible and more rigid, I clutch at a schedule that has already morphed into something I did not imagine, and I forget that in the “World of relationships where my time, by my own conscious commitment, is not fully my own,” my primary relationship- the one I have with God- is out of whack and that inevitably bleeds over into every other relationship I have. I get stuck because I forget that “repentance is not so much running away from my sinful brokenness as it is about running to Jesus.” Indeed, I do learn again that I have to get over myself.
The blessings of advancing age and maturity mean that I can recognize these things. Recognizing them and knowing better doesn’t always stop the internal prompts…and of course that scares me because it reiterates over and again just how broken I am. I swear, I live as though I can get over being sinful and broken! I perpetuate the well-worn definition of insanity- repeating the same actions expecting a different result. Yep, that is insane. I doom myself to get about as much traction as a bald tire in a muddy field, and when I do I’ve inflicted upon myself my “anger at our own frustration.” Silly Frank+.
I suspect I am not alone in these or similar shortcomings; misery loves company. My guess is that more reading this now than can readily say so are susceptible to similar ills. I am grateful not to suffer the added craziness of believing that I’m unique in such brokenness. Thank you, Jesus, for that. Every Lent, the Church-you and I- get reminded of how well and how poorly we’re doing with these things. Welcome to Lent.
Love you. See you in Church.