Saturday, February 8, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 8, 2020 - The Baby and the Bathwater

I don’t remember learning much about the Christian season of Lent as a child. I know it was mentioned. I remember the word Lent being spoken. Not by my immediate family. None of them are churchgoers by nature. I remember that you were supposed to give up chocolate from around Valentine’s Day until Easter when you could get it all back. Seemed like an odd procedure to just break even in the end.

I revisited the concept again recently. I’ve never had a problem with the idea of observing Lent. It just never was a priority. But this year I’ve been thinking about my own personal relationship with Christianity. I’ve been thinking about what parts of the tradition resonate with me and which ones don’t.

It’s actually quite difficult not to throw out the baby with the bathwater sometimes. There are parts of Christian tradition that I have simply ignored, rejected, or were confused by. A lot of that quasi-resentment comes from the bad name that some Christians manage to give the practice of Christianity through their unloving actions and words. It’s enough to give any faith a bad reputation. Jesus said it’s not what goes in someone’s mouth which defiles them. It’s what comes out. Sadly, not all Christians practice Christianity. And so it makes it difficult for those of us who actually suspect there’s something of value to be explored in the teachings of Jesus, and the rituals that have grown in response to them, regarding one’s personal spiritual growth.

It’s taken me all these years to get around my distaste for public Christians in order to become curious about what lies beneath the hypocrisy and corruption which so often eclipses our view. I have concluded there is much to explore.

The lens through which I view all religious traditions and rituals is our intrinsic human nature. If we didn’t like a ritual or a teaching or a story, we would not perpetuate it. If it didn’t make us feel good, or teach us something, or resonate positively with the subconscious part of our human psyche, we would not pass it on. So, about things which have been handed down generation after generation, I am rabidly curious. No tradition exists through inertia.

I started looking at the activity of baptism and the history of its ritual, even prior to Christianity. The word baptism in our present culture refers directly to becoming a part of the Christian faith. But baptism existed before. And the origins of the word refer to a ritual purification not specific to any particular faith. So what is baptism?

In looking at the various layers of the word and the way it has been translated by other languages in the past (which give hints at their context), it has a very specific and nuanced meaning. Baptism is a ritual cleansing by immersion in a pool or body of water deep enough to submerge an adult but shallow enough to stand. That’s what the tradition of the word expresses regarding its physical ritual.

It’s spiritual purpose is always to cleanse and purify as a preparation for a new way of living. Not by scrubbing as if in a bath, but by immersion. This is a cleansing of one’s own sorrow and errors and the weight they place on us. A weight which needs to be lifted periodically through a physical ritual that helps us accomplish relief on the level of our psyche. That’s where inner peace occurs. That’s where the weight rests. Baptism is a ritual of emotional release, of self-forgiveness, prior to a period of deep reflection. You’re going on a spiritual journey. Carry with you only what you must. The fees for excess emotional baggage are too costly.

As far as Christianity goes, Jesus was baptized by his cousin John before he went into the wilderness to fast for 40 days prior to beginning his public ministry. His ministry lasted for three years and ended when he was publicly executed for sedition in full view of a Jewish Passover audience of over two million. It was his teachings which got him into trouble. Neither the state nor the religious scholars of the time were benefited by what Jesus taught. His ministry was a problem to the system.

So when we develop a religious tradition, our intrinsic human nature secretly informs and defines which parts of a story get told and how. We take from it what we need and we expand upon it. We raise a story up as an example on purpose. That’s the part about which to be most curious. Why that part? Why this way?

When you start answering these questions a pattern amongst religions begins to emerge. We start to see our humanity and the lessons we have chosen to pass on, and the ones we have not. When you begin to understand a bit about what we truly need as humans in our rituals, practices, and stories, the baby climbs back in the window.

So I’m looking at Lent. And I’m going to observe it this year. Baptism too. I observed the Islamic holy month of Ramadan several years ago. Why shouldn’t I observe Lent? Why shouldn’t I reconsider what baptism means to me now and refresh my covenant to live according to the teachings? I don’t have to baptize myself into anyone else’s idea. I can consecrate myself to my own. That’s the baby.

Lent is a 40 to 46 day period of time meant for personal reflection and quietness, begun with a ritual of purification and a giving of intent. It is an annual season of preparation and examination. To aid us in this process, we don’t partake of some things which take up too much emotional or hourly real estate. We make time for reflection every day on purpose. In Christianity, this is done as preparation for Easter and celebrating the resurrection of Christ. But Lent and Easter also occur at a time of year when rebirth, reflection, and renewal are intrinsically necessary to our human nature. The winter is ending and we have gained new sorrows which must be attended to. It is in our own best interest to be deliberately reflective. We’re not good at doing that on our own, however, without some structure, discipline, and especially community. Ergo organized religion. That is intrinsically human, too.

This is why humanity has kept the tradition of Lent and other religious practices. Not because a priest or bishop has told them they must. But because there’s a hidden value for everyone in the practice of it. Neither judge a book by its cover, nor heed the commentaries of others without reading it for yourself.

But be aware. Sincere personal reflection has its consequences. After you go through it, there will be things you can no longer tolerate and things you will embrace you never thought you’d love. Those around you will notice it. Not all of them will like it. We honor the sacrifice Jesus made in order to teach his message and speak a difficult truth to a very powerful system. We aspire to do the same.

Your personal consequences will not be as grave. But your life will definitely change. The old you will be gone and a new you will be born. You shall be resurrected, as it were. The process has its discomforts. But joy is the result.

A good spiritual practice worth its salt can handle any scrutiny. Dig deep.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Will, for this most interesting and introspective take on Lent.