Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On Lenten Observance and the Labyrinth of the Heart

In Nietzsche's too-neglected essay, "Schopenhauer as Educator," he observes that "wherever there has been tyranny, there the solitary philosopher has been hated; for philosophy offers an asylum to a man into which no tyranny can force its way, the inward cave, the labyrinth of the heart."

This is a mournful, beautiful sentiment. Here is a man who knows that philosophy can indeed console--and a man whose forced solitude has often made consolation necessary.

It is, perhaps ironically, a sentiment appropriate for Ash Wednesday. Christ offers us the deepest consolation--a joy that can only be had after the cutting engagement with sin. And, at its best, the church provides the means for such consolation--forms and rituals that help bring our hearts, minds, and bodies into the necessary receptive stance.

I grew up in the Baptist church, and there are many things about that formation for which I will always be grateful. But my worship experience as a child lacked a deep sense of such rituals. And it lacked altogether a sense of the liturgical year beyond Christmas and Easter. Advent was a children's game involving calendars and festivity, and Lent was missing entirely.

Like many with this formation, I have treasured coming to know more liturgical traditions. The liturgy, at its best, provides words when words fail us. It is a sanctuary in the true sense--an asylum into which tyranny cannot force its way.

At its best. But it is all too easy to forget--perhaps because it seems so obvious--that forms can also be empty shells. Worse still, they can be sources of pride, thus contradicting everything this day is supposed to remind us of. Those of us walking around with ashes on our foreheads must ask ourselves: is this really humbling, or do I want people to know that I have observed the appropriate ritual today?

The form, the asylum, the sanctuary are all open spaces with walls--or perhaps cradles--around them. They are nothing unless filled with the inwardness of the labyrinthine hearts who realize how much they need them.


  1. Intriguing post. It draws to my mind the juxtaposition of the gospel lesson read on Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6 - the warning against public displays of our fasting) and the ritual that we perform. Thank you for your words.

    1. Thank you, Jimmy. That gospel reading was in part what occasioned my thoughts here!

  2. The dictator, too, has a labyrinthine heart. The philosopher, too, has inner chains. Ash Wednesday speaks to their, and our, common humanity and mortality, our dust-bound-ness and our temptation to be more-than-human. But it also draws a boundary between the observant and the non-observant which often becomes a barrier. A secondary ritual is needed, one that breaks down this barrier, if the cross of ashes is to be anything more than a display of piety (where the public is concerned, anyway), since the personal symbolism this ritual has for each observant does not manifest itself quite as obviously as a large black smudge. Proposals, anyone?

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful reply; I think you're right about the boundary. But I wonder if any additional ritual could serve this purpose? It does seem to me that, as important as the rituals are, none of them are worthwhile without inner receptivity to grace. It is precisely because we do all have inner chains that this is so elusive, it seems to me.