Breaking Out of the Prison

By The Rev. Dr. Susanna Snyder

Sermon given at St. John's Memorial Chapel at Episcopal Divinity School on February 14, 2013

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 9:18-25 

Lent was a season I used to dread. I simply couldn’t seem to successfully give up anything. I tried chocolate once. Disaster. Alcohol fared a little better, but a night out with friends soon made a glass of wine irresistible. I attempted other things like giving up complaining or the whole positive ‘take something up instead’ idea, but they never got very far either. Lent simply became a season of guilt—a six-week period when I feel that as a Christian, and particularly as a priest, I should be doing something more, scouring myself out, repenting, and preparing spiritually for Easter—and that I wasn’t. I thought Lent was important, but I just couldn’t quite seem to do it. I wonder whether any of you have had a similar experience. Then one day, I came across a phrase of Rumi, the Sufi mystic: ‘Why, when the world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places?’[1]

This short, enigmatic phrase – a phrase that is new every time I come to it—transformed my understanding of Lent and indeed, my understanding of the spiritual journey more broadly. I invite you to hold it in your mind as we explore the readings this morning and ask ourselves: What is Lent about and how might we best engage with the six weeks ahead of us? 

Lent is, first and foremost, about being fully alive. We are called to enter into it longing for new and abundant life, joy and peace—for ourselves and for others. Our reading from Deuteronomy points to this. In it, Moses says to the people of Israel, ‘I have set before you life and death. Choose life.’ Choose life. The authors were writing in the wake of the exile, putting words into Moses’ mouth as they looked back, and they are inviting their readers – people who had lost their homes, land, Temple and sense of identity – not to despair, to continue longing for and believing in renewal and a return to Jerusalem. Moses’ words are a call to hope and future joy—an affirmation of all that life can be at its best—and this is what Lent is about too. This is not to say that faith should be a comfort blanket or that it will lead to riches and happiness. What it is to say is that Lent—and our spiritual lives—need to be oriented towards life and joy. Christians can all too easily leap to thinking about lack and sin—that miserable unworthiness that we find in the collect for today. [Collect for Ash Wednesday] Those of us who consider ourselves social-justice minded are not exempt: we can be a really miserable lot. We look for all the problems in the world, examine our own failings (or worse, those of others) and strive for self-denial, trying to prove our faithfulness or worthiness. While well meant, this is a soulless, wizened, lifeless kind of Christianity that increasingly leaves me cold: it is about shoulds and shouldn’ts, about duty, about paternalistically doing good. It is, to put it another way, the Cross used as a stick. Guilt-based Lenten self-sacrifice rarely leads to energized, creative action that brings freedom and new life for anyone. Rather, it tends to imprison us in resentful apathy or frenzied activity.

What, then, would it look like to enter into this Lent excited about being alive, about all that life can be? Wonder and delight need to be our starting points. Dorothee Soelle, a theologian-social activist-mystic spoke of the need for practices of ‘radical amazement that tear apart the veil of triviality’.[2]

Amazement or wonder somehow breaks us open, frees us from our own numbness and fear and misplaced energy, something that I will talk a bit more about in a bit. Soelle calls this the via positiva.[3]

She talks about being ‘submerged in happiness’. This is not as easy as it sounds, though, at least in my experience: amazement can just happen, but more often it comes through making space for it. It comes through contemplation, through being still, noticing, paying attention. What might it mean to live this Lent with an eye looking for beauty, wonder, delight, joy and fun and a heart ready to celebrate these? Could we find some time each day to reflect on what we are grateful for? Could we allow ourselves to wallow in a hot tub of God’s love and grace, and to be present – fully present to all that is blessing around us, in nature, in others, in ourselves – and to praise God for that? I invite you to take some time in silence now to contemplate, to wonder and be amazed.

Lent, though, and the spiritual life more generally, is not just about wonder and joy and the positive. It is also about self-denial, repentance and embracing costly suffering. In our reading from Luke, Jesus tells his followers to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow [him].’ So, how are we to hold together a longing for life and a willingness to embrace death? How can we pursue joy and self-denial simultaneously? The answer is deceptively simple: in order to enter into full and abundant life, in order to know true joy, we need to deny ourselves in some ways – we need to embrace many little deaths.

There are plenty of things around us that masquerade as life, imitating goodness and abundance very convincingly. Career, status, wealth, success, our own self-image, possessions can all bring us immediate elation. We can be feel happy eating at a great restaurant, buying the latest must-have fashion statement, passing an exam with ‘A’ grades, being appointed to a significant parish or moving up the chain of command in our workplace, being told we’re wonderful by somebody, having a beautiful house or fun car, being someone who’s seen to be a good. There is nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves. It is good to work hard, to want to make a contribution, to enjoy style, to have fun, to reach our potential, to enjoy affirmation. The problem is that, all too often, these things end up leading to despair rather than life. They end up dehumanizing, flattening, sucking the life out of life—and they set us on the road towards death. This is what Rumi was getting at when he asked: Why, when the world is so big—when freedom and life is there for the taking—did you fall asleep in a prison? He was suggesting that we become stuck in patterns that keep us trapped in a prison of our own making: we create goals and expectations (whether of ourselves or others) that become walls, and when we turn our wants and desires into needs, we solidify them into bars. We get caught up in stuff or a way of life that limits and numbs us, and we fall asleep in this narrow, lifeless world not even recognizing that there is freedom there – just there – for the taking, if only we would look in another direction. We all have our own prisons. For some of us, our jail cell may be career or success, for others it might be lack of self-confidence, the need for others’ good opinion, or a desire to be the best at social justice, the kindest, the most holy, the best parent. Addiction to work in the U.S. seems to be one of the most pernicious: we seem to equate stress with success. If we can say we’re too busy, somehow that means we’re doing well. Anyone familiar with this prison? 

Lent is about trying to see these bars and walls and stepping out of the prison. This involves letting go of some things that have become habits, some things that we hold dear—and this is hard. So, we don’t just do it once. In our Gospel reading, Jesus talks about taking up our cross daily: we have to keep letting go, keep every day trying and yielding—the verbs in the Gospel are in the present tense—deny self, take up and follow. It is an ongoing process. Taking up our cross or breaking out of the prison repeatedly is what Lent allows us to do: it is a season in which we can practice new habits, develop the new muscles needed for healthier, life-bringing ways of inhabiting the world. It is a time to reorient our priorities. It always involves struggle and loss, and particularly when we recognize that the things we are allowing to imprison ourselves are imprisoning others also. Letting go of the greed, over-consumption and judgmentalism that diminishes the identities and opportunities of others can call for big changes in our lifestyle, ways of understanding the world and thinking about ourselves. It calls for repentance and purification—and yes, I choose those old-fashioned words deliberately. This is not easy. It can be incredibly painful. What we need to give up in order to be fully alive, individually and communally, can even result in physical death. As Jesus says in the Gospel: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses calls the people into life by calling them back to their covenant with God—urging them to let go of their ‘other gods’, the things that are leading them to death and adversity—and to return to divine love and law. Lent shouldn’t be about life-denying for its own miserable sake, but about the many little deaths required en route to a richer, deeper life with God and others. Soelle sees this letting go time as the via negativa or ‘dark night’—a time of being apart, stripping ourselves, a time when we often cannot even perceive God.[4]

It can be lonely, confusing and rough, but it is the way to new life, and there doesn’t seem to be a short cut.

I increasingly sense that this kind of letting go – this dying—happens through silence. I struggle with silence: there is always something more pressing or enjoyable to do—preparing a class, doing the tax return, checking my email, spending time with my husband—and I do not sit still easily. Yet, I am more and more drawn to it. There is something opening about silence—something about being still in the presence of God, breathing in divine fragrance – that not only helps us to feel amazement, but also helps us to see more clearly. It helps to reveal our prisons. I want to read a passage by Sandy Ryrie, a man whose meditations on silence are speaking to me profoundly:

There is a magnetism in God – a wonderful, mysterious something, which draws and attracts and pulls us… [It] has the effect of turning us towards God… Magnetism also has a contrary aspect. A magnet not only attracts but repels; it both draws and pushes away. When we are drawn to God, some other things get pushed aside. Turning to God involves turning away, not from all worldly things, but from those things which draw us away from God – things which falsely claim to give us security, or which seek to dominate out lives or give them a spurious purpose. To turn in this way is to repent – not in the sense of remorse and beating the breast, but in the biblical sense of turning away from things that would ensnare us, and turning towards God. When by God’s magnetism we are drawn closer to God, these things begin to lose some of their opposing magnetic power.[5]

Sandy experiences silence as the space in which we can desire and be drawn to God. So, as well as cultivating amazement and joy this Lent, let us spend some time asking ourselves: What imprisons us? What is it that we cling to too closely? What absorbs our energy and attention? What do we allow to define us? Perhaps we could find space for a little silence every day, just being with God without agenda, without thinking about repentance or needing to change, but just being and listening and waiting to discover. Let us take a few moments now.

Letting go in this way—even just a little bit—reorients us towards the divine. Through being present to the God who sees us clearly, we begin to see more clearly too and become more who we are called to be. We become more fully alive as ‘Susie’ or ‘Ellen’ in all our ‘Susie-ness’ and ‘Ellen-ness’. It seems significant that in both of our biblical readings, questions of identity are in the foreground: the people of Israel are lost, struggling with a sense of who they are following the loss of their land and exile. The writers call them back to their true identity found in relationship with God. Similarly, the Gospel passage starts with a statement about Jesus’ identity: he is the Messiah. This identity—Jesus being who he truly is—is intimately connected with his own willingness to let go, to face death. So, this Lent, I am going to be taking time in silence, just to be with God—and out of this, to be amazed and to let go. I have a feeling that I will discover more of myself—more of Susie—through this, and that perhaps, just perhaps, some of the bars of the prisons in which I find myself might become less rigid, less strong. Thomas Merton was, I think, onto something when he wrote: ‘The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our souls’.[6]

[1] D. Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 1.

[2] Soelle, 89.

[3] Soelle, 90.

[4] Soelle, 93.

[5] A. Ryrie, The Prayer of Silence (Oxford, UK: SLG Press, 2012), 5-7.

[6] T. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (Boston and London: Shambala, 2003), 27.

The Rev. Dr. Susanna Snyder is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Society and Christian Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School.