Lent can be a confusing time. During the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the priest in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions renders a cross with ashes on each person’s forehead saying, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words echo the language of the Christian funeral liturgy, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” as a reminder of the inevitability of death, and indeed, each of us will die someday. Lent however, culminates with Easter, and through his resurrection, Jesus conquered death, or as Saint Paul wrote, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” So, is Lent a time to focus on death, or on our continuing life after death?
Death has certainly been a part of my experience. In 1985 my father died and six months later my only sibling died. Two years later, on Holy Thursday, my mother died. I lost my entire family of origin in a two-year period. In addition, my work as a hospital chaplain and pastoral counselor is primarily focused on those who have life-threatening illnesses and those who have lost a loved one to death. I am very aware of our mortality.
Perhaps Lent is a reminder that life and death are not antithetical. The late Fr. Henri Nouwen, said that he had a deep sense that if we could “relate to death as a familiar guest instead of as a threatening stranger, we would be free people.” Kahlil Gibran wrote in his reflection, On Death: “Life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one…. And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring. Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity. And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”
Eleven-year-old poet Mattie J. T. Stepanek somehow glimpsed this wisdom before his far too early death at age thirteen, when he wrote:
Isn’t it ironic
That such a morbid word (death)
Rhymes with life-giving breath?
During Lent we are encouraged to pray, fast, and give alms, and while these are very good practices, they can too easily simply feed our spiritual egos. Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr wonders if these practices are too often substitutes for our inner journey. He writes, “Our culture no longer values the inner journey… “We actively avoid and fear it. In most cases we no longer even have the tools to go inward.” (What the Mystics Know)
I would like to share a meditation for Lent that may help you to begin or renew that inward journey. Begin by sitting straight in a comfortable chair with both feet flat on the floor. Turn away from the outer world by closing your eyes. Breathe deeply into your belly (lower abdomen). You may notice that your belly naturally and gently expands with each inhalation and slightly retracts with each exhalation. Simply continue to breathe, and as thoughts appear let them pass by like flickering shadows. Continue for five or ten minutes. To end this meditation, take a deep breath filling your belly and lungs with air and then exhale through your mouth slowly opening your eyes and re-orienting yourself to what is around you in the outer world. Over a period of daily practice during Lent, your conscious mind will let go and you may experience a tingling or warmth in your lower abdomen or heart. You may even have a sense of light filling your belly and expanding to fill your whole body.
Practicing this breathing meditation may help you better grasp the mystery of Lent and Easter found in the beginning of John’s Gospel: In the Word was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)
On Ash Wednesday, at Woodwinds Hospital where I worked as a chaplain, we mixed glitter with the ashes to remind those who participated in this ritual that we are not just dust – but stardust. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out.” I like to use the lyrics from the song by Joni Mitchell as a prayer during Lent and especially while practicing this meditation:
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
May you have a fulfilling Lent and a blessed and happy Easter.
Rev. Yanchy Lacska, PhD is an Orthodox Catholic priest, an interfaith minister and a Jungian oriented pastoral counselor. He has been a hospital chaplain, a college professor, psychotherapist, and has taught qigong for 20 years.