When midwives burn at the stake, one can see them for miles.
In his Second Homily, Isaac the Syrian is speaking of mindfulness, though he would never use the word. He is trying to explain to the reader (his homilies were written as encouragement for hermits of the 7th century) that it is the ability to see one’s faults and, both ask forgiveness and seek amendment of life, which mitigates sin. Perhaps it was all wiped away by Jesus’ death on the cross. Or perhaps that death and resurrection were icons to the work we and God do in our hearts to let our faults be seen in the bright light of our mindfulness and then seek to ask forgiveness and make changes. Isaac reminds the reader that life is short and it is a crucible to burn out the evil and leave remaining only the good.
When a body is burned at the end of life (if cremation is chosen over body burial in a coffin) the only thing left is bone. The funeral home grinds it up in a big thing much like a coffee grinder so that it looks a bit like ashes (it never does – it looks more like white Grapenuts!) because the flesh is sent up the chimney as ash in the fury of the whirlwind created by the flames without the calmness of a reduction chamber.
Until I understood the difference between shame and guilt, I did not much like Lent. It seemed so counter to the joy of Jesus. It seemed fabricated by pasty-pale monks who mope and brood and meander in dull-depression -wearing it like a habit of spiritual superiority – like the burden of power. With translucent skin and scratchy habits draping repressed longings of self-expression – blue veins pumping cold blood under hair shirts in cold monasteries with cold liturgies while marvelous midwives are relegated to the heat of burnings at the stake for heresies they did not commit – the monks not even benefiting from the warmth by exiting their cold cloisters. Christian inquisitors throughout the ages know that a good fire in February will warm hands if you can stomach the smell and the screams.
When I am at a funeral home for the prayers said during the fire (which is surprisingly often given that I am a diocesan priest!) I often think of those innocent white witches burned by the church for healing bodies which the church kept trying to preach as evil, depraved and deserving of agony. The small window of yellow-white flame flickering as a signal of the end of life, draws me to those ancient and recent burnings and I tend to want to ask if the funeral guy if he can open that little door so that I may toss in my clerical shirt before the flames die out completely. But then I realize that the church has also done some good things and has that capacity every day to withdraw from the tyrany of the urgent and march into the challenges of the important.
This Lent many will be tempted to believe churches which tell them they are bad people. And there will be a very hot place in hell for their clergy. Or perhaps Dante is right and it will be icy.
And there will be other gentle churches and loving monasteries whose loving clergy and warm monks will remind us that we are not depraved nor evil; but that though we are not bad people we have done bad things. It is that mindfulness which will generate appropriate apologies and amiable amendment of life. The guilt we need to feel is over mostly small things. Not so much the things we have done but the things we have let ourselves do because we were not paying attention – not mindful. We have so much to learn from our Buddhist brethren if we are willing to hang our smug self-righteousness back up in the Mardi Gras costume closet where it belongs, next to the other complicated, studded black leather outfits with their myriad of buckles and zippers to hold us in so tight.
As I make the 21 funeral urns for a show in April and September in New Hampshire and New York, I am aware that they are more than art. They will, many of them, hold the remains – the “cremains” – of loved people and beloved pets. People will hold them in their hands like Kevin did, like Scott’s wife did, like so many have before and will again.
Lent is not a time to prepare for death nor a time to mortify (“mort” = death) the flesh. Lent is a time to be mindful so that shame is imprisoned in the dank cells it deserves, under lock and key; and guilt can begin to move though us like the hands of a warm, skilled and tender masseuse, working the knots out of our spiritual muscles and inviting new ways of living.