A Homily for The First Sunday in Lent
by Bishop Steven Marshall
The season of Lent extends from Ash Wednesday up to the eve of Easter Sunday. The word “lent” comes from a German word meaning “spring.” It is a time of purification and introspection in preparation for the renewal in spring. The first day of Lent occurs on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter Sunday. The number forty has much significance in relation to the mythic story of Jesus and the preparation of Lent. According to scripture and tradition, Jesus was forty hours in the tomb before his resurrection and forty days fasting in the wilderness before undertaking his public mission.
The forty days before Easter is a time for us to also fast from the outer world. In an agricultural society, Lent is the time in the year when the winter stores are dwindling and it becomes time to tighten one’s belt, until the food stores can be renewed in the spring. It represents a period of self-examination, rest and introspection prior to the arrival of spring. In our self-examination, it is a time to work on overcoming our weaknesses, rather than a time to mourn over our past errors—a time to die to the old in preparation for the renewal in spring.
As we turn our attention inward in self-examination psychological energies are stimulated that lead us toward a reconciliation of the Shadow elements in our psyche. We experience a tension and dynamic resolution of the opposites and a unification with the contrasexual image within ourselves. As stated in the Gospel of Thomas: “when you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and female into a single one,…then shall you enter the Kingdom.”
Introspective self-examination helps to bring the contents of the unconscious into consciousness, which results in a conjunction of the opposites. When we make the two one, when we unite the opposites, something new arises within the psyche on a higher level of manifestation. We meet a transcendent and transpersonal being within us. Gnostics have compared this experience to viewing a light-being of oneself in a mirror. “…when you make eyes in the place of an eye, a hand in the place of a hand, and a foot in the place of a foot, and an image in the place of an image, then shall you enter the Kingdom.” The Jewish Gnostics write about a stage in Kabbalistic meditation where one meets a figure of light resembling oneself, a light twin, that is necessary before one can ascend in the Divine Chariot (Mercavah) to the place of light.
In medieval times, Lent was a period of bitter fasting and self-mortification. Self-punishment and intentional suffering was considered an act of piety pleasing to Deity. This idea sprang from the Old Testament concept of a jealous God, jealous of the good fortune and happiness of humanity. The theory arose that, if our life was too good, we would forget about the gods, and thus the gods would visit adversity upon us to make us need them again. If we voluntarily took on suffering we could escape the jealous God and prevent him from visiting evil or punishment upon us to remind us of his existence and power. The medieval idea of penance was that, if we took it into our hands to punish ourselves, we could escape the punishment of God in the hereafter.
There is some truth to this conception, in that the evil or punishing circumstances in our lives are often the result of the activity of the gods of the unconscious that we have ignored. Yet our austerities and mortifications will never be effective, unless they can bring the gods of the unconscious into consciousness. In this instance, the jealous gods are but the inversion of the helpful powers of the unconscious. “Diabola est Deus Inversus.” (The Devil is the inverse of God)
The religious practice of fasting is universal and not a phenomenon of Christianity alone. The initiation of a shaman is generally preceded by a three day fast. There are many references to this three day period throughout the Biblical literature. Jonah spends three days in the belly of the great fish “Dag Gudul,” three days elapse between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus and St Paul is blind three days after his encounter on the road to Damascus. The ordeal of the fast in the Native American practice of the vision quest produces the experience of a visionary death and rebirth in which the young shaman finds his or her helping spirit and other spirit powers.
In our modern culture, it is difficult to artificially create the conditions necessary to call forth these helpful powers. It cannot be made to happen by self-serving or self-deprecating acts of mortification. Such acts become another manipulative act of the ego personality, which inevitably fails, somewhat like the child who attempts to get what it wants by holding its breath until it turns blue. Eventually it passes out and begins to breath again.
The personal sacrifice and austerities of the Native American vision quest is intended to bring one to the brink of death. When one comes to the lowest point, when the ego is at its wits end, then one calls forth the healing powers of the psyche. In the vision quest, the Native American youth goes out into the wilderness alone. He fasts and prays, offering himself up to the elements of nature and the higher powers. He continues to fast and suffer until the higher powers take pity on him. When the spirits come to him he gives prayers of thanksgiving not self deprecation. The dual qualities of spiritual courage and humble emptying are required to make this sacrifice of self to Self. The Elder Edda describes this initiation. “I know that I hung on the wind-swept Tree for nine full nights wounded with a spear, and given to Odin, myself to myself, on that Tree from which none know of which root it rises.”
Christian mystics have also used fasting to stimulate mystical experience. The prayers of the Christian mystics are filled with wonder, love and thanksgiving, not self-deprecation and confessions of guilt. We must first feel that we are a worthy offering before we can courageously empty ourselves in humble sacrifice and thanksgiving. When we offer our inner first fruits upon the altar of our hearts, we experience a mystical transformation and rebirth. What originally was thought to be so important about one’s life is no longer so important. We find the hidden pearl within. We find that we have gained the spiritual treasure that eclipses all worldly treasures.
This loss of self-importance and discovery of Self is a continuous process. It is not done once and for all time, with the receipt of perfect Gnosis. If approached with the appropriate psychological intent, a retreat to the wilderness and short period of fasting may indeed call forth the helpful and instructive powers of the unconscious. The key to the retreat and fasting is to lose one’s self-importance. Isolation and austerity in voluntarily giving oneself over to a symbolic death is an aid to this psychological preparation. Coming to the powers of the unconscious with a planned agenda or desire to wrest away some importance from the experience only leads to failure.
An Elder of the Brule Sioux describes the necessary humility and self sacrifice to obtain a vision and discover one’s Self in a story of a young man’s failure on a vision quest. “You went after your vision like a hunter after buffalo, or a warrior after scalps. You were fighting the spirits. You thought they owed you a vision. Suffering alone brings no vision nor does courage, nor does sheer will power. A vision comes as a gift born of humility, of wisdom, and of patience. If from your vision quest you have learned nothing but this, then you have already learned much.”
It might be thought strange that I should compare Native American shamanism with classical Gnosticism, for, in the popular view, Native Americans are earth-worshippers and Gnostics earth-haters. Yet, a deeper appreciation of both begins to demonstrate their kinship, and to reveal that neither dichotomy is accurate. The Happy Hunting Ground of the Native American is not a place in this world, nor was the Gnostic paradise. The Native Americans respected the earth because their life depended on it, yet, in the extremities of the vision quest, the earth is acknowledged as a place of suffering, a place to perform one’s earthly and spiritual calling until the time comes to join the Sky People of their ancestors.
So, why do we not suggest that we all leave this vale of woe in some mass suicide? Because there is something yet very precious about human consciousness—there is an insight, a resurrection, a Gnosis that can only be achieved in this embodied consciousness. This Gnosis not only liberates one from the attachments and snares of the world but also awakens a compassion for all sentient beings and a desire to remain and help others with the task of Self-knowledge. Liberation from the chains of attainment frees us from bondage to our demiurgic egos. The fasting and mortifications of the vision quest comprise one of the ways that have been used to burst these bonds of the Demiurge who says “I am the only god.” Under this tyranny a vision of Gnosis cannot come.
An extended fast is only one means of producing the altered state of consciousness that can knock the ego-personality out of its autonomous tyranny of self-importance. Until the autonomy and resistance of the ego is broken down, there is no place for the helpful powers to come forth and communicate. According to the teachings of Don Juan in the writings of Carlos Castañeda, we find our personal power when we loose our self-importance. The oppressive circumstances of our lives, the petty tyrants and jealous gods that we meet, help us to lose our self-importance and to find our personal power. When we lose our self-importance, all the things that push our buttons no longer affect us. The archons (the jealous gods) have no power over us. We find the personal power to transcend the petty archons and ascend to the realms of light.
We lose the self-importance of the ego-personality to find the Self. According the Gospel of John, “whosoever shall lose his life shall gain it.” Self-importance is not the same as self-worth. We find something we think will make us important in order to cover a lack of self-worth. When we release the self-importance of our ego-personality we find the worth we have in the eyes of the Father from the beginning. In the death and rebirth experience of Gnosis, we lose our life in order to gain it.
The visionary experience of shamanic initiation is a vision of dismemberment and death. The shaman sees his or her body hollowed out and filled with crystals, wounded and healed, in order that he or she might heal others. From the wounding of Jesus upon the Cross to the stigmata of the saints, the wounded healer remains an archetype of our own death and rebirth in Gnosis.
In this day and age, we can come to this experience of death and rebirth through invocation and prayer. We can simply invoke the helpful powers of the unconscious into consciousness. Such a prayer opens a direct line to the driver of the cosmic dump truck where is accumulated all of our lifetimes of psychic and karmic refuse. Such a prayer sends out a call that we are ready for it to fall on us. This is what the helpful powers are for. This is why they are called forth; to help us take care of our garbage, to polish the glass of our spiritual vision, to purify our refuse in the furnace of our fiery being, composted and compressed into crystal, to fashion the diamond body; to make of it a bright and pellucid mirror, reflecting to us the radiance of our Divine Self.
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.