By Sarah Bessey
I found myself wandering into the Anglican Church many years ago. I still have no idea why I did this. I was craving an encounter with the Spirit, but my grief had erected too great a wall between me and my tradition. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to go to the stadium-style church with light shows and happy-clappy choruses. I found myself craving a God who would meet me in lament and silence and darkness. When I spotted a tiny stone church downtown near my work shadowed with live oak tress, I felt drawn to it.
I randomly pulled in, and it happened to be an Ash Wednesday service. I sat in the back row to listen and I thought, I have no idea what is happening right now. It was confusing and weird to me but there in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, as we prayed and read and worshipped through the admission of our sin, I released a breath I didn’t know I had been holding.
Finally. Finally someone was acknowledging the shadows, the grief, the repentance, the sometimes inescapable sorrow of our existence.
I found myself heading up the aisle with the congregation to have some guy in a robe draw a cross on my forehead out of ashes. Now I would say that I was compelled by the Spirit to receive the imposition of the ashes because when the priest touched my forehead and said the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” it seemed as if the disconnected joint in my spirit between the solar and the lunar were popped back into its right place. We prayed through the Psalms, we listened to the challenges of the prophet Isaiah, we read the Gospels, we prayed and confessed our way corporately through a litany of repentance:
“Most holy and merciful Father: we confess to you and to one another and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
But make no mistake: I wasn’t longing for “more candles” or a cool new experience to chase.
I was craving Jesus. Desperately.
Not seven steps to a better life, not practical how-to stuff for the week ahead, not more sermons about “what women really want.” I certainly wasn’t longing for vestments and hierarchy, smells or bells: @@I was longing for Jesus. I wanted to be with people who loved him, too.@@ I longed to remember him, to commune with him, to sit in his dust in the dark and in the light, and to learn, as Jesus offered in Matthew 11:28-30, how to live freely and lightly in the unforced rhythm of grace.
I simply wanted Jesus, and since I couldn’t seem to part the weeds of my own tradition to find his face (that, most assuredly, was because of my own baggage), I began to walk in the well-worn paths that the pilgrims before me had carved out. The Holy Spirit met me there, in a blend between my own past and the ancient heritage of my faith, helping me to find a way to the future, to my born-again-all-0ver-again self.
When I couldn’t find my way through the clutter of praise and worship, I found Jesus in the silence and in the liturgy. When I couldn’t go into a megachurch, I could sneak into a small chapel and light a candle. When I had no words to pray, the Book of Common Prayer gave me back the gift of prayer. When I couldn’t sing along with certainty, I could hold a hymn book and simply listen, let the voices of others carry me. When I was consumed with my own life, blinders on, the liturgy reoriented me to the real story – to redemption, justice, and confession and to worship and community. I learned to orient worship around Christ and the Spirit and the Father.
And just like the grief stained everything, the hope and the rebirth – my Jesus – brought that renewal and the new narrative of wholeness to my life.
(excerpted from my book “Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith” pages 141 – 143)
If you’d like to observe Lent this year, I’ll point you to a few resources that I have appreciated over the years:
- I’ve gotten to know the folks at Trinity Grace Church in Chelsea thanks to our mutual involvement in a gathering called Praxis (it’s for us happy-clappy charismatics who are also liturgical). A.J. Sherrill and his team have created a lovely and accessible Lenten devotional – for free download – so check it out here. It’s a great resource for any beginners to the practice as it will explain what Lent is and how it works as well as walk you through what to do.
- A New Liturgy has a beautiful and powerful audio walk-through of the Examen with a musical score.
- Phyllis Tickle’s full Divine Hours series has been my companion for praying the offices and observing the Church calendar for many years now. I cannot say enough good about it! But the full trilogy (Springtime,Autumn & Wintertime, Summertime) can be a bit overwhelming for beginners, so there’s also this pocket edition of the full set. However for Lent, I’d recommend this one that excerpts the prayers for Eastertide: Prayers for Lent through Easter from The Divine Hours. If you want a physical book in your hands, this is a great start.
- This Lent, I’m planning on using the Anglican Prayer Beads that I bought at Westminster Abbey in London this past October. I’ve never practiced this discipline so this will be new to me and I’m using this resource.
- And of course don’t feel that Lent is a solitary exercise. However you worship, I hope you can find a way to connect with the larger community of believers in some way during this season, too. Perhaps you could participate in any one of these practices as a small group of friends or as a faith community, too.