Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Continual Conversion: Entering into the Spirit of Lent

"The Fall of Adam," Hildegard of Bingen
William James observed in his The Varieties of Religious Experience that there are once-born types and twice-born types.  Once-born types seem naturally predisposed to happiness.  They feel at home in the world, and never really doubt their place in it.  Suffering and evil are unable to challenge their fundamentally positive outlook on life.  These types have a hard time “getting into” the penitential tone of the season of Lent. 

Twice-born types feel acutely the gap between the world as it is, and the world as it ought to be.  The reality of suffering and evil can sometimes overshadow their ability to perceive what is right with the world.  The tension between their perception of evil and their desire for good can occasion an existential crisis requiring a profound conversion experience for its resolution.  For this type, every day is Ash Wednesday!

The once-born take God’s grace for granted.  The twice-born are surprised by grace.  The former experience conversion as a process of embracing more fully the grace they always have known.  For the latter, conversion is an event, a reorientation to graceful life from which one has strayed.  Once-born folks can’t point to any one particular experience of conversion.  Twice-born folks can point to several or, perhaps, one major turning point. 

One can certainly make too much of such typologies.  People and congregations are often more complicated than such either/or distinctions allow.  Yet, there is enough truth in William James typology to suggest that the season of Lent may need to be “framed” differently for once-born and twice-born types if they are to embrace the season fully.

In that spirit, I offer this reflection on the meaning of the season.  The origin of its observance offers us a clue.

Recall that our Lenten observance – the forty days before Easter – developed to meet two different but related needs.  It was set aside as a special time of preparation for those who were to be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter.  It was also during this time that public penance was available for those who had committed “notorious” sins, so that they could be restored to the communion of the Church at Easter. 

The season was therefore an invitation for the whole church to embrace Christian life as a process of continual conversion.   Whether that conversion marked a deepening commitment to an ongoing experience of grace, such as those preparing for baptism, or a radical reorientation to a grace from which one had turned away, as in the case of penitents, or both, Lent underscored that God isn’t done with us yet. 

For the once-born, Lent means that there is even more grace to experience – we have not yet plumbed the depths of God’s love and the joyful response that it calls forth from us.   For the twice-born, Lent means that this grace is still available – we have not exhausted God’s love and the possibility for renewed life offered in the shape of forgiveness.   Lent is the time to consciously renew our awareness that there is more, more, more:

More Love, more Love!
The heavens are blessing, the angels are calling,
O children, more Love!

If we love not each other in daily communion,
how can we love God, whom we have not seen?

If we love one another than hope dwells within us,
and we are made strong to live life in joy.

More Love, more Love!
The heavens are blessing, the angels are calling,
O children, more Love!  (Shaker hymn, adapted)

This “more” may lighten your heart and confirm the deepest truth about yourself and the world that you’ve always known:  we are held in Love.  This “more” may bring you to your knees in contrition and repentance over the sin that has kept you from realizing the truth:  we are held in Love.  For all of us, Lent is a time to cultivate a deeper compassion for a world that needs more love: a Love which is always, already available.  Lent is a time to become more transparent to that Love for the sake of the world.

Once-born types remind us that this Love is always available.  Twice-born types remind us how desperately we need that Love.  The two types need each other.  And so we need Ash Wednesday to prepare us for Easter, and Easter to sustain us through Good Friday.  All of us are called to continual conversion: to an ever-deeper acceptance of our grace-filled mortality and to an ever-deeper openness to more Love.

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