When they asked us about the meaning of “penitent” at a church group I was attending the other night, I have to admit that the first thing that came to mind was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when near the end of the movie Indiana is going through various obstacles to get to the Holy Grail. The instruction is that “only the penitent man will pass,” and at the last minute, he realizes he has to kneel in order to avoid having his head chopped off. So when I hear “penitent,” I think, “be humble before God or be decapitated,” which seems like potentially useful information, especially if I ever go on a religious quest that involves elaborate traps.
Nonetheless, that conversation, and the fact that today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, have me thinking more seriously about penitence, and what it means to be in a penitential season. I’ve never personally observed Lent. For the past decade or so, I’ve noticed more and more of my Mormon friends get on board with observing the season, and of course many of my non-LDS Christian friends do it as a matter of course, but I’ve felt reluctant. Last year I had just started to go to Episcopal church, and I was still watching it all from a distance. But this year I am all in. I’m actually pretty excited about it, and I’ve put a lot of thought into what I would find meaningful to give up and/or add to my life during these six and a half weeks.
Something I appreciate about my parish is that they’re not really into suffering for its own sake. Christianity often walks a tricky balance on the suffering question, I think; there’s an unsettling tendency to romanticize it. People talk about suffering as being good for you, as building character, as being a refiner’s fire. And while I’m open to the possibility that hard things in life can sometimes have that effect, I’m uneasy with how often this turns into the view that God wants us to suffer, or maybe is even engineering the suffering behind the scenes in order to make us into better people. Such a belief, I fear, undermines any serious commitment to alleviating suffering in the world—if God is using suffering for people’s growth, after all, who are we to get in God’s way? And that, to me, is antithetical to what I understand as central to the Christian message, which calls us to reach out especially to the marginalized and the oppressed and those who are hurting.
Yet a theological challenge remains: in Christian teachings, the world was redeemed through an act of unimaginable suffering. Many Christians (including me) go to church every week and there gaze on a representation of an item that was used anciently to kill people in an excruciating painful way. Even churches like the LDS that don’t use the cross still regularly invite people to contemplate the suffering of Christ. It’s no surprise, then, that historically many have felt that the way they could best imitate Christ was therefore to suffer, to pursue asceticism as a way of connecting to the experience of Jesus. Additionally, substitutionary atonement theories make the case that God requires a particular amount of suffering in payment for sin, which implicitly suggests that when you’ve sinned, an appropriate response is to make yourself suffer. I’m remembering a seminary lesson I heard as a teenager, in which it was explained that Christ ate six onions, and now all he asked you to do was eat a lemon. In other words, he had to endure something absolutely terrible to earn forgiveness for you, so couldn’t you endure some minor suffering to pay God in full and cross the finish line? My irreverent question at the time was, why on earth couldn’t Christ have just eaten the lemon too, after he made it through all six onions? It seems like it would have been a breeze for him. But looking back, what I find most troubling about that model is the idea that God needs some arbitrary amount of suffering as payment for sin, and somehow you and Christ together are going to have to come up with that—because God wants to be paid, and he (I used the gendered pronoun deliberately here) wants to be paid in pain and anguish. And while I do think there is inevitably suffering associated with sin, I’ve come to think that it’s an internal connection—sin brings about plenty of suffering all on its own, without a wrathful deity imposing more as punishment. I’ve found that the more I’ve managed to move away from the picture of God as someone who demands appeasement, the healthier my spiritual life has become.
So back to Lent, and penitence. In this church group I was in that was discussing it, I was really struck by how positive they made it sound—my priest described it as opening up a creative space for God. If you give up something, then, it’s not deprivation just for the sake of deprivation, but rather a way of making more room in your life for God to come in. He also mentioned the possibility of learning something new, and mentioned that one year he’d learned to play the banjo. This conversation upended a lot of assumptions I didn’t know I had—Lent in my vague imaginings was supposed to be about sacrifice and making your life harder in some way and being very grim about it all. The idea that learning something fun could be a legitimate Lenten practice made me feel like I’d just entered an alternate universe.
I’m trying, then, to think about penitence in a non-ascetic way. I’ve done too many years of scrupulosity, of making myself suffer in an attempt to placate a wrathful God, and I have no interest in going down that road again. Yet I nonetheless think there is something powerful in the symbolism of Ash Wednesday, and its reminder that we are dust. I sometimes find myself trying rather frantically to be spiritual, to be virtuous, to be faithful. In general I would not say those are bad things work on, but there are times when it feels like it gets off track somehow. It’s like my faith gets conflated with a quest for self-improvement. And I very easily fall back into the belief that sufficient self-improvement will earn me religious brownie points (in other words, seeing righteousness as the road to spiritual connection, and forgetting that it’s actually the other way around). So one thing I want to do this year is stop for a while and simply contemplate the dust, and the ways in which so many of my efforts have turned into ashes—and to practice tolerating that reality without giving into the seductive temptations of despair and self-punishment. I suspect that there is a connection between penitence and acceptance, perhaps in the requirement to see the reality of your fallen state and not hide from it. Christian faith, however, calls us to hold that awareness in tandem with the reality that God’s love runs deeper than the deepest human abyss. As Paul Tillich says, what we have to do is accept that we are accepted. We do not find our way back to God by carefully cleaning off the dust that characterizes our lives, but by accepting its reality, and remembering that on Ash Wednesday we are marked not just with an amorphous dab of ashes but with ashes in the form of a cross—the ultimate symbol that God came to be dust with us, and to give us hope that dust is not all there is.