07 March 2014

Ash Wednesday.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me?  Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause.  See, banks and breaks
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds buildbut not I build; no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

- GMH.
My boots are falling apart.  On the day after Christmas 2011, my whole family went to Modern Shoe down on Center Street and picked out hiking boots.  I found a pair of waterproof Merrells that felt like old friends from the moment I tried them on.  That same week, I took them on their maiden voyage with Nate through the snow and mud on Little Squaw Peak.  They accompanied me all year as I wandered with brothers and sister and parents and cousins all over the patient, wise, matriarchal mountains that rule benevolently over Utah Valley.  Timp's foothills.  Cascade's Toes.  Little Rock Canyon.  G Mountain.  The Camel.  Windy Pass.  The best view in Provo, I discovered, is from the top of Y Mountain, looking east.  That's where I hope to be when I see Jesus coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

For Christmas 2012, I wore these boots on my family's surreal pilgrimage to Machu Picchu.  Over five days they faithfully took me over Salkantay Pass at 15,000 feet and through an actual thing called the Cloud Forest.  When we reached the ruins, it was rainy and we were all sick but Nate had come this far and was not about to turn back before summiting Huayna Picchu, and I will ever be grateful he convinced me to man up and go with him.  Up narrow steep staircases and past sheer precipices, my boot-clad feet were as sure as a goat's.  Sitting on top of Huayna Picchu with my brother -- the Urubamba River burbling far below, Machu Picchu alternately obscured and revealed by the mist -- was sublime, mystical, godly.

This is what my boots are capable of.  But lately they carry me thanklessly from my house to the bus stop and from the bus stop to work, day in, day out, as the winter in Boston goes from long to interminable.  They follow me uncomplainingly through snow laced with ice-melting salt; the salt builds up and stains.  Somehow I never remember to clean them -- there is always a more pressing worry, and in the general cacophony of my life they're just one in a chorus of needs I'm constantly neglecting.  The salt eats away at the leather and rubber and glue, until one morning I noticed that these boots which have scoffed at Wasatch mud and Andean streams are now powerless against the dirty puddles in Harvard Square.  All day my feet stayed damp.  When I finally took a wet rag to my boots today after work, I found scars and gashes I hadn't even noticed in a half dozen places.

Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.  I went to an Ash Wednesday service yesterday at the Old South Church in Copley Square.  The ministers spoke about how our need for mercy is constant and how we are not God.  In the small, spartan chapel at the back of the church, to listeners seated on wicker chairs, they lamented that the havoc of evil is in us all, and confessed our sneer at grace.  The first hymn was set to Bach's achingly penitent Passion Chorale, the tune known in the Mormon hymnal as "O Savior Thou Who Wearest A Crown".

62 Chorale-Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden- by Johann Sebastian on Grooveshark

And yet.  Because every day is short, the preacher said, every day is shot through with import.  What gets me every time about that tune is how its frank acknowledgment of sin and loss is the dark backdrop to a tiny point of brilliant hope in the last line's resolution.  There is power in deep and abject humility; the kind one does not seek but is forced to; the kind at the edge of the mind's sheer cliffs.  The scripture reading underlined the spiritual force of naked need.  Psalm 51David pleading for forgiveness.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness;
that the bones which thou has broken may rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
I had been one of the last to arrive, and the only seating left was on the front row.  So I was the first in line to get an ashen cross painted on my forehead by this bright-eyed lady priest, who told me "Remember, mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  But for today, you live.  May God grant you the power to do all you need to do, and then some."  As I returned to my seat, I heard her saying the same words to everyone else.  But it felt like the Spirit was dictating to her a personal admonition just for me.

From the front of the program: "Today, we begin a forty-day journey through the wilderness of Lent and into newness of life."  I love the wilderness, but lately I'm plagued with doubt about the journey.  I'm in the middle of my life's season of abundance of rejection letters from PhD programs.  They are ripening and falling off the trees all around me.  I second-guess the gifts I thought I had, choices I might have made, things I should have learned.  More than usual, my desert wanderings feel aimless and meaningless.

But Lent, like the Passion Chorale, like winter, holds the promise that He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces.  Lent is the chance -- the decision, really -- to consecrate loss and failure, compost it with the dust of mortality and grow something beautiful.  To go hiking in the wilderness, deliberately, trustingly.  To step calmly into the flames of nature's Heraclitean fire and to find God there.

Bring on the locusts.  Bring on the wild honey.