“I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.” -Thomas a’ Kempis
The most beloved book by Christians, other than the Bible, is a short devotional work by a 15th century monk named Thomas a’ Kempis called Imitation of Christ. a’ Kempis is no saint or Doctor of the Church; as best as we can tell, he was a humble monk from a now-defunct order who just happened to leave us some of the most profound and stirring insights into the spiritual life every put on paper. He was a favorite of Therese of Lisieux, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Thomas Merton, just to name a few. And during this season of Lent, who better to guide us on the practice of repentance? Let us give the wise monk a hearing once more:
“The only true liberty or honest joy is in fearing God with a good conscience. Blessed is the man who can set aside all the sources of distraction and perfectly recollect himself in holy repentance. Blessed is he who shuns all that soils and weighs down his conscience…Always keep an eye on yourself and be more willing to correct yourself than your dearest friends.” (Ch. 21, “Repentance of the Heart”)
A few thoughts:
How radically pre-modern it is to claim that liberty resides in fearing God! Modern libertarians would shun such a notion of freedom.
Repentance is a “recollection” of the self. Like the Prodigal Son, the repentant sinner is one who returns to their true home to be restored in the arms of the loving Father.
Repentance requires setting aside distraction? Dear God, my iPhone and my iPad have both been flashing alerts at me in the 10 minutes I’ve been writing. Few acts of renunciation are more difficult in 2015 than living lives which are not constantly drowning in distraction.
More willing to correct myself than others?? But it’s so easy to despise my neighbors’ speck or splinter, and to ignore the log in my own eye!
Repentance is, of course, a daily need and not merely a seasonal occurrence. For half a millennium, there have been few better guides than Thomas a’ Kempis. He would be the first to say this obvious conclusion: the point is not to know how to define repentance, not to read great works about repentance, but to do it.
A friend of mine once told me a horror story from his ordination interviews that has stuck with me. Between the actual interviews and learning their fate from the committee, the would-be ordinands were invited to a time of worship and Holy Communion. A problem was discovered, though: someone had forgotten to get the Welch’s and bread. No worries, though, it was pointed out that there were still muffins and cola in the break room. Some hapless ordained UMC pastor then proceeded to retrieve, and then celebrate, communion with a gaggle of nascent elders and deacons using snack food. Only a few brave souls abstained from the spectacle. Can you imagine? The most holy of mysteries transformed into the contents of a fifth-grader’s lunchbox. Horrifying.
But wait! some will object. If you were on the mission field, and no wine or juice and no conventional bread were available, you’d have to just use what was there! Can’t God’s Spirit inhabit a poppy-seed muffin just as easily as a loaf of King’s Hawaiian Bread? Why limit what God can do?
We’ve all had that argument at some point. Some unfortunate youth pastors will even lead “communion” using soda and Doritos just to prove the point. The logic is thus: extreme circumstances call for unusual measures. And if such measures are acceptable in extreme circumstances, then why not make them normative?
This is the logic behind a liturgical innovation recently unleashed upon an unsuspecting church: “Ashes At Home.” The idea is simple: Can’t make it to church? Use this liturgy alone or with your family. After all, Israel is a worshiping community that has often had to hold its most significant gatherings not at Temple or synagogue but at home:
“Of course, the ideal mode of prayer is to be physically together, but necessary separation due to illness, work, political exile or even weather should not squelch the prayers of the faithful.
Israel has also taught us that sharing in common prayers and festivals binds us together. To be Jewish means to pray the prayers of Israel, no matter where you are. During World War II, the Jews in concentration camps prayed the same prayers as the Jews in New York. Rabbis in Jerusalem share the same prayer as laity in Moscow. Praying the prayers of the faith binds Israel together.”
Of course, there is more to Ash Wednesday than just “prayers.” I don’t know of any Christians who would argue that prayers can or should only be done in church. But, following the lead of the prophet Joel, Ash Wednesday is a time of communal repentance, not just individual or familial spiritual experience:
12“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. (Joel 2:12-16, RSV)
As Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards points out, Joel knows what our Ash Wednesday service signifies: that repentance is too important to do alone. The innovators go on to ground this practice in another unassailable fact, namely, our common experience of the invisible church:
“We all have experienced this. We have watched the Holy Spirit hover over the elements in hospital rooms as we pray in that space, ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.’
We have felt the Spirit of Pentecost bind us together as we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with people of a different language, and yet prayed with one heart and mind.”
As any chaplain will tell you, there are liturgical rites that occur in a hospital room that are not parallel any other context – and always as an extension of the church to the hospital room, not a substitute. Like the hypothetical mission field, it is an unusual circumstance offered to normalize a new practice (and doesn’t communion, which requires a clergy person representing the church, make for an especially bad example here?). And Pentecost? Well, if the argument is that the gathering of the community is somehow secondary, that we can do just as well alone or in our homes what is done in the assembly, than the Spirit who was poured out on the assembly at Pentecost seems to be precisely the wrong evidence to muster.
The 2015 snowpocalypse is hardly a situation as extreme as the Diaspora or the concentration camp. Moreover, there is more to the Ash Wednesday service than mere prayers, which can be done by anyone, in any place, at any time. A snowstorm does not warrant trading an act of communal repentance for my living room. The solution, actually, is much simpler: just offer the ashes the First Sunday of Lent. That’s what I will be doing. Since we could not be together on Wednesday, we will dedicate part of our first gathering of Lent to repent and to remind each other of our need for a community in which repentance is made possible. One blizzard does not a Diaspora make. Unusual circumstances are no reason to invent something out of whole cloth, particularly when a much simpler solution is right in front of us.
So don’t settle for a saccharine substitute from the convenience of your living room. Get your ash in church. I’ll see you there Sunday. And best of all, we’ll have a whole community of penitent, praying Christians on hand for the occasion. Discipleship is difficult work. God, in His grace, doesn’t intend us to do it alone. It takes a church. Thanks be to God.