The Earthy Saint | Lent 38


From Thomas Merton’s great work New Seeds of Contemplation

Some men seem to think that a saint cannot possibly take a natural interest in anything created.  They imagine that any form of spontaneity or enjoyment is a sinful gratification of “fallen nature”.  That to be “supernatural” means obstructing all spontaneity with clichés and arbitrary references to God.  The purpose of these clichés is, so to speak, to hold everything at arms length, to frustrate spontaneous reactions, to exorcise feelings of guilt.  Or perhaps to cultivate such feelings!  One wonders sometimes if such morality is not after all a love of guilt!  They suppose that the life of a saint can never be anything but a perpetual duel with guilt, and that a saint cannot even drink a glass of cold water without making an act of contrition for slaking his thirst, as if that were a mortal sin.  As if for the saint every response to beauty, to goodness, to the pleasant, were an offense.  As if the saint could never allow himself to be pleased with anything but his prayers and his interior acts of piety.

A saint is capable of loving created things and enjoying the use of them and dealing with them in a perfectly simple, natural manner, making no formal references to God, drawing no attention to his own piety, and acting without any artificial rigidity at all.  His gentleness and his sweetness are not pressed through his pores by the crushing restraint of a spiritual strait-jacket.  They come from his direct docility to the light of truth and to the will of God.  Hence a saint is capable of talking about the world without any explicit reference to God, in such a way that his statement gives greater glory to God and arouses a greater love of God than the observations of someone less holy, who has to strain himself to make an arbitrary connection between creatures and God through the medium of hackneyed analogies and metaphors that are so feeble that they make you think there is something the matter with religion.

The saint knows that the world and everything made by God is good, while those who are not saints either think that created things are unholy, or else they don’t bother about the question one way or another because they are not interested in themselves.

The eyes of the saint make all beauty holy and the hands of the saint consecrate everything they touch to the glory of God, and the saint is never offended by anything and judges no man’s sin because he does not know sin.  He knows the mercy of God.  He knows that his own mission on earth is to bring that mercy to all men.

Listen to your Life | Lent 37


“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” Frederick Buechner

A Basic Honesty with Ourselves | Lent 36


“What chance is there of loving and respecting others if I refuse to meet and listen to the many sides of myself? How can I be a reconciler if I shut my ears to the unreconciled conflicts within myself… Now I begin to see that the spiritual life is based on a basic honesty which enables me to recognize that everything I find difficult to accept, bless, forgive, and appreciate in others is actually present within myself.” Martin Smith, A Season for the Spirit

Scared of our Shadows | Lent 35

If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against. He lives in the “House of the Gathering.” Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day. Carl Jung

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Lent invites us to consider a very stark reality about ourselves – that we’re a mixture of dark and light.  The darkness – what some psychologists call the “shadow side” – is often unknown to us, remaining just beneath our awareness.  We often think it’s better left there, anyway.  We’re scared of those dark shadows.

Do you want to know your shadow side?  Just ask someone who knows you well – a spouse, a good friend, an employee.

Consider this.  A boss asks his employee, “How do you experience our relationship?”  She says to him, “When I’m around you, I feel imperfect, unqualified, under-performing.”  Now, it might be true that the employee is sub par, but the wise employer will ask himself, “What part of my own shadow side am I projecting on to her?”  Perhaps he’ll discover his own perfectionism.  Or, maybe he’ll see his profound inability to trust others.

In many religious traditions, this self-knowledge is rightly called “wisdom.”  However, today we’re often scared to reveal our shadow.  How many employers ask, “How do you experience me?  How do I make you feel?”  How many spouses check in regularly with, “How is my own psychological baggage impacting you?”

However, this Lenten revelation is not just an individual one.  Nations are scared of their own shadows, too.  Do you hear what I do – pundits and politicians defending America like an entitled child?  Over-confident leaders projecting their own insecurities onto other classes and races?  Broad declarations of those who are “good” and those who are “evil”?

What we learn, if we consider our shadow, is that much of what we judge others on is what we, ourselves, have not yet dealt with in ourselves.  Our baggage is readily transmitted when unexamined, unacknowledged, unexplored.  Chances are, if you’re ready to blame or critique, even now, your own shadow might be more powerfully operative than you think.

This is why the early Christians envisioned a season of Lent, a “springtime” of the soul offering new life through an honest acknowledgment of our heart’s dark deception.  Lent isn’t over yet.  There is soil to be turned over, depths to be explored.  And in that most scary, shadow place, you might be even find a ray of light called Truth, with the smile of a forgiving Savior right behind it…


Looking for Someone to Blame | Lent 34

Are you looking for someone to blame?  Don’t be ashamed.  We all are.  It’s our human history.  Adam blamed Eve.  Eve blamed the serpent.  And we’ve been dodging blame ever since.  We even created an elaborate system of killing animals who might carry our sin instead of us.  Sacrificing others is easier than taking responsibility.

I see it every day as a therapist and pastor.  I watch couples sum up all their problems as an issue their spouse must fix.  In fact, I’ve been blamed over and again over the years myself by the very people I’m trying to help!  And, just ask my wife, I’m mighty skilled at the blame game in my most important relationship.

Lent is an invitation to look at ourselves.  If we’re honest, we’ll agree with Paul Tripp that the DNA of sin is self-deception.  I’ve heard that people in our American culture are the most self-assured, certain, and sure people in all of history.  I don’t doubt it, particularly when I hear politicians talking about us as if God had chosen minivan driving, hamburger eating Americans over any other people in the world to be the hope of the world.  I thought that title was reserved for Jesus.

We’re adept at having things figured out.  Lent invites us to confess the opposite – that perhaps we’ve missed it.  Maybe my boss was right about my laziness.  Maybe my spouse was right about how distant I am.  Maybe some Muslims are right about how greedy and arrogant Americans are.  Maybe the gay community is right about how judgmental Christians are.  Maybe Republicans are right about how ineffective government is.  Maybe my pastor is right about how addicted I am.  Maybe Paul Tripp is right about how self-deceptive we are.

We like to blame.  And we’ll sacrifice anyone else, even an animal, before we fall on the sword.  Lent invites us to fall on the sword, with one caveat.  In so doing, we participate in the redemptive death and life of the One who led the way, who refused to play the blame game, and who would undo the sacrificial system in one crushing blow – through his own death and resurrection.

For Jesus, it’s game over.

Choose the way of Jesus.  No more games, particularly blame games.



Moving into Truth | Lent 33

An excerpt from A Season for the Spirit, by Martin Smith

“Dwelling on this thought of letting go, and handing myself over to the Holy Spirit will bring me much closer to the experience of Jesus than the word discipline which so many of us have been trained to evoke at the beginning of Lent.

It should help us smile at our anxious attempts to bring our life under control, the belt tightening resolutions about giving up this or taking on that.

What we are called to give up in Lent is control itself. Deliberate efforts to impose discipline on our lives can often serve only to lead us further away from the freedom which Jesus attained through surrender to the Holy Spirit.

Lent is about the freedom which is gained only through exposure to the Truth.

And “What is truth?” Pilate’s question is partially answered by unpacking the Greek word aletheia which is translated as truth.

The word literally means “unhiddenness”.

Truth is not always a thing, it is also an event. Truth happens to us when the coverings of illusion are stripped away and what is real emerges into the open.

The Truth we are promised if we can live the demands of this season consists not in new furniture for the mind but in exposure to the reality of God’s presence in ourselves and the world.”

Growing out of our Spiritual Adolescence | Lent 32

We live in a largely adolescent world. And it is, in great measure, a pathological adolescence. There is absolutely nothing wrong with (healthy) adolescence, but our cultural resources have been so degraded over the centuries that the majority of humans in “developed” societies now never reach true adulthood. An adolescent world, being unnatural and unbalanced, inevitably spawns a variety of cultural pathologies, resulting in contemporary societies that are materialistic, greed-based, hostilely competitive, violent, racist, sexist, ageist, and ultimately self-destructive. Bill Plotikin, Nature and the Human Soul

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We often talk about personal pathologies.  We speak about a variety of human diseases.  We think of psychopathology – mood and personality disorders, including depression, narcissism, and more.  But less often do we consider cultural pathology.  Perhaps, it’s that it is more difficult.

Lent also invites us to consider any cultural pathology that celebrates an alternative narrative to the passion narrative of Christ.  Bill Plotikin argues that we live in a largely adolescent society today, frozen at a stage of emotional and spiritual growth that diminishes what it means to be human, to be whole.  He writes, “An adolescent world inevitably spawns a variety of cultural pathologies, resulting in contemporary societies that are materialistic, greed-based, hostilely competitive, violent, racist, sexist, ageist, and ultimately self-destructive.

Lent invites us to grow up, not just individually but culturally.  It invites us to envision and to work for a world that more fully anticipates the fulness of God’s Kingdom in the new heavens and the new earth.  It invites us to imagine cities where justice trumps corruption, where children are mentored rather than trafficked, where wealth is shared rather than hoarded.  It exposes our adolescent need to possess, to win, or to prove, and calls us to a healthy adulthood manifesting in redemptive relationships and a mission and vision that expands reality beyond our own wants and needs.

During Lent, we participate in the humbling way of the Cross, asking God to (re)make us in the image of the Crucified Christ.  But are we bold enough to ask him to do the same in our churches, our country, and our world?  If so, we may experience a kind of “growth” that is far more important than economic bottom lines, successful campaigns, reputation, and victory.

Finding God | Lent 31

“The inner self is as secret as God and, like him, it evades every concept that tries to seize hold of it with full possession. It is a life that cannot be held and studied as object, because it not “a thing.” It is not reached and coaxed forth from hiding by any process under
the sun, including meditation. All that we can do with any spiritual discipline is produce within ourselves something of the silence, the humility, the detachment, the purity of heart and the indifference which are required if the inner self is to make some shy, unpredictable manifestation of his presence.” Thomas Merton


Lent, if not anything else, is our (often meager) attempt to gain some of the silence, humility, detachment, and indifference Metton speaks of.  Whether through an intentional fast from certain foods or conveniences, or through a more focused sense of awareness of your everyday feelings and rhythms, Lent is a unique time of consecration.  

It is not about somehow conjuring up God’s presence.  Instead, it’s an opportunity to remove obstacles to it, including our (false) selves.  So often during Lent, people talk to me about failing at it, or disappointing themselves, or slipping up.  More often than not, I’ll simply say, “Relax. You wouldn’t grow apart from falling, failure, humiliation.”

In the end, Lent might just show you and me that we’re not God.  And that’s what it was about anyway. In fact, that’s when real intimacy begins…

Nouwen on Inner Chaos | Lent 30

“As soon as we are alone…inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieities, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distraction manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Making All Things New and Other Classics