It’s Lent

Independence Pass, Colorado

It’s Ash Wednesday, March 6, and Lent is beginning. The Christian season of Lent has many meanings, but essentially it is a season of preparation, observed during the forty days leading up to Easter. Over the centuries, many Christians have chosen to make this a season of self-denial, mortifying their flesh in imitation of Christ, who, according to the Gospel, spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness just prior to his crucifixion.   Scroll to the bottom or click here to listen to the audio version of this post.

Although Christ did withdraw for a period of fasting and prayer, during which time he was tempted in the wilderness by a “deceiver” whose temptations he resisted, the larger purpose of Jesus’s spiritual retreat was to understand his mission on earth: how he should live the remainder of his days, what he had been put here to do.  In this sense, Lent is a season of spiritual renewal, or, as our dean has informed us in this week’s newsletter, ”Lent is Easter in disguise.” It’s a time to be revived, renewed, and rejuvenated. At least, I am approaching Lent as a season of renewal this year.

Specifically, I’m going to be reading a devotional booklet put out by an Episcopal organization called The Living Compass. The booklet is called Living Well through Lent 2019, and its overarching theme is Practicing Forgiveness With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind. Although I’m using the booklet in printed form, it’s also available as a free downloadable PDF.  Or, you can sign up to receive the content of the booklet via email daily.  There is a Spanish-language version, too.  For more information about Living Well Through Lent 2019, go to the website, livingcompass.org.

The opening reflection for Ash Wednesday, written by the Right Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, introduces the topic of “extreme” or “radical” forgiveness. At the outset, she describes extreme forgiveness as a divine attribute. It is in the character of God to have mercy and to forgive every category of human sin. She then describes the case of Ms. Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who was subjected to Dr. Mengele’s eugenic testing. Late in life, Ms. Kor, who emigrated to the US, has chosen extreme forgiveness as a way to transcend the weight of all that she, and millions of others, suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Reverend Burrows writes,

Lent is our time to be intentional about taking stock of the most broken parts of our lives and our world as we seek forgiveness for our sins of omission and commission. It may be too much to imagine writing a letter of forgiveness to someone who has caused us pain or done violence to us. It might be beyond our fathoming to recount the pain, let alone forgive. It may seem too extreme. And yet . . . Jesus, who had an enviable well of forgiveness to draw upon even as he hung from the cross, continually calls us to the Way of Love and new depths of grace, mercy, and liberation. There are many paths to liberation, and extreme forgiveness is but one. However we get there, may this Lenten journey lead to the healing of ourselves and our world that allows resurrection, not evil, to be our defining story.

For each day of Lent, the booklet offers a brief written meditation on a different aspect of forgiveness as a concept and a process, and how the work of forgiveness can engage our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. The reader is then invited to write a response to each day’s reading. Here is my response to Reverend Burrows.

To be honest, I worry that thinking too much about forgiveness will destabilize me. It is a complex topic, embracing as it does sins of commission and omission (i.e., “things done and left undone”), as well as social wrongs for which we might bear complicity. Meditating on this topic involves dwelling on recent and perhaps slight hurts, as well as those that are more grave and may have occurred long ago. In addition, “practicing forgiveness” is an entirely different process, at first glance, than seeking forgiveness—the former involves giving pardon to someone who may have wronged me, while the latter involves being pardoned for something regrettable or damaging that I have done. The process of forgiving seems to involve almost godlike strength, but for that very reason promises to draw us into a new relationship with one another and with God. 

Many of my sins are those of omission, for I have often been indecisive, immobilized by doubt and fear: in a word, cowardly. I often wake up feeling awful about something decent that I just don’t have the nerve to do, or do yet.

 Finally, in thinking of forgiveness and those who have hurt me, I am struck by how few of those people have ever taken the initiative to acknowledge their injurious acts and how they wounded my feelings or inflicted tangible and lasting harm. But in the “practicing forgiveness” model, that doesn’t matter, because putting my finger on those hurts and proactively pardoning the people who inflicted them is all on me. When someone hurts me and doesn’t admit that or apologize, that leaves me feeling very small. So I get why Ms. Kor found that offering radical pardon to a Nazi perpetrator left her freer and lighter afterward.

Image: Independence Pass by Susan Barsy

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The Thinking Cap

Toward El Morro, © 2017 Susan Barsy

My father’s death a month ago overshadowed the calendar: overshadowed politics, Christmas, the work on my desk.  Though long-expected, his dying was startling and awe-inspiring, as awful and absorbing as seeing a ship sink or a comet flicker out.  Will the final disappearance of someone so constant and strong bring on other mysterious changes, too?

Writing about it feels strange: words, like shovels, make his demise and burial more definite, undeniable.  Besides, when I write, I put on my ‘thinking cap,’ which amounts to a return to habit, the resumption of a normal routine.  I doubt my father would have it any other way.  The deaths of his parents were followed by silence, their funerals unadorned with eulogies, the family sitting together at home after a noisy funeral luncheon, each mourner quietly nursing a whiskey.  The next day it was back to work, with nary a tear or outward trace of loss.

This much tribute, though, must be paid: without my father I would not have the intellect I have today.  Not only was he the model of a thoughtful and curious being, but he encouraged these attributes in his children and respected our gifts.  He was happy to have daughters with musical or mathematical abilities, who had political opinions, or were good at problem-solving.  Not surprisingly in high school I was a math nerd, a National Merit Scholar along with 5 boys and my friend Wendy.  In college, when my literary interests flourished, I found gifts like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Edmund Wilson’s collected letters under the Christmas tree–reads that defined my earliest intellectual goals.

In a way that my formal education did not, my father stood for an active engagement with society.  He was someone who understood every physical feature of a landscape: its plants, institutions, machinery, and buildings.  Besides being a businessman and industrialist, he was a worshipper and a forward-looking inquirer.  He looked out.  He was interested in our futures, in the direction of society.  He traveled widely for work, bringing back gifts and stories; otherwise he remained in motion, always busy with projects that would bring new beauty or marvels home.  His view of us and of other people was profoundly egalitarian and mercifully free of social-science thinking.  Despite his practical, scientific bent, my father’s worldview left plenty of room for the ideal and the miraculous.

I’m fortunate to have had such a wonderful father.  He left me an heiress of sorts.  Some such is my song as I put my thinking cap on.

Image: ‘Toward El Morro,’
© 2017 Susan Barsy

Graces I grew up with

1.
God is great, God is good
And we thank him for his food.
By his hand must all be fed.
Give us, Lord, our daily bread.

2.
Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts,
Which we are about to receive of thy bounty,
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

3.
Be present at our table, Lord;
Be here and everywhere adored;
These morsels bless, and grant that we
May feast in paradise with thee.  Amen.

4.
Bless, O Father, these gifts to our use
And us to thy service,
And keep us ever mindful of the needs of others,
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

How these graces and not others came to be used in our household is a complete mystery.  Yet these are among the most durable prayers I know today.

The backward-looking person

photograph of a slice from our Christmas tree.
The backward-looking person is by definition some kind of historian: genealogist, stamp collector, spinner of yarns.

Likes: old movies, old pictures, old people, antiques, closets, old wine, old letters, long-unopened boxes, old houses, etiquette, graveyards, and some museums.

Remembers: what her best friend said in the upstairs bathroom in 1966, where long-demolished buildings used to stand, what was planted in the garden three seasons ago.

Occupational niches: therapist, humanist, detective, literary scholar, auctioneer, biographer, architect, cook, librarian, judge, tour guide, preservationist, priest, grammarian, lexicographer, hand-writing expert, estate lawyer.

Keeps: used calendars, concert programs, pianos that nobody plays, grandpa’s hats, old cameras, sample ballots.

Can imagine: being on a ship in 1803, being enslaved, being a Founding Father, being a fin-de-siecle beauty, being Teddy Roosevelt, cooking and eating in colonial times.

Can’t fathom: how much happens in a day.

Image: a ring from our 2013 Christmas tree.
Susan Barsy

A Valentine’s Day Idyl

Idyl by Lorenzo Taft, © 2014 Susan Barsy

Idyl, by Lorenzo Taft, in the fern room of the conservatory

Thinking back on all the wonderful adventures my husband and I have shared this year, my mind turns to one particular autumn day, when we ventured to the Garfield Park Conservatory for the first time.  We were both overwhelmed by the beauty of this enormous old hothouse, filled with ancient and awe-inspiring plants, which, though battered by time and a recent devastating hailstorm, seemed to distill all the wonder of the natural world, and the essence of our beloved city itself.

The tree, © 2014 Susan Barsy

An Eden of sorts

We wandered the place in the company of many other pilgrims, our necks craning this way and that, faces upraised, our reverence as thick as the air itself.  After we had ambled for several hours, we wandered outside, where the splendor of an autumn afternoon greeted us, and, with a scattered assembly, we gloried in the radiance of being alive.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  Especially Bob.

Click on the images to enlarge.

Thank Goodness for Their Goodness

1948 photograph of Susan Barsy's ancestors at a feast table  (Credit: Our Polity)

Thanksgiving is certainly my favorite holiday.  Until lately so peaceful, uneventful, and familial, it demands nothing more than gathering together in a proper spirit to eat an unusually large meal.

Thanksgiving is American, but, alone among American holidays, has nothing to do with the military.  Thanksgiving has to do with peaceable survival.  Whether you are a member of the DAR or the descendant of slaves or recent immigrants, Thanksgiving is about the generations.  It’s about the struggle of each family to gain a foothold, earn a livelihood, and avoid adversity.  Each of us who celebrates is celebrating not just a nation but a family and that family’s particular and miraculous story.

We all know the Pilgrims encountered a hostile place.  Then as now, life was unkind, and the essential task was to avoid illness, starvation, destitution, and death.  In the Pilgrims’ case, survival entailed building alliances, banding together, welcoming newcomers, and becoming more savvy about living in an environment that was harsh and incomplete.  The Pilgrims’ adaptability, no less than their faith and courage, continue to furnish a pattern of virtue for all Americans today.

Of particular importance were their concerted efforts to prevail as a civil community.  The individualism we so prize today, and that we think of as being so essential to America, was not an option for the early colonists.  Practically and spiritually, individualism was a heretical abberation, one likely to bring chaos and death in its train.

It’s hard to imagine all that the Pilgrims endured.  The material comforts and security that are staples of modern American life are baffles, cutting off our imaginative access to the past, with its zeitgeist of solidarity and far-seeing sacrifice.

My father took this picture in the 1940s.  It shows his grandmother and her sons gathered around the table about to enjoy a holiday meal.  One of her grandsons reaches for the dressing.  The many women who prepared this feast are not in the picture because the table wasn’t big enough, and they hung out and ate together at a second table nearer the kitchen anyway.  Reproductions of the Last Supper and of the Virgin Mary (and elsewhere pictures of the Angelus and of Jesus wearing his crown of thorns) adorn the walls.

My great-grandmother’s face is full of benignity.  Her children have all flourished despite being left fatherless in 1918, when my great-grandfather died in a coal-mining accident; most of their seven children were still in their teens.  The children all worked and somehow became educated, the older ones becoming coal-miners, then mine superintendents, then jointly owning a coal mine: strategies pursued so that some of the younger children could stay in school longer, becoming teachers and engineers.  There were still sorrows and disappointments—the son to her left had multiple sclerosis and would die in the 50s (his wife is by his side to assist him)—, but their strength and sacrifice laid down the foundation that enabled me and my siblings, and my cousins, to thrive.

Today, most of the people in this picture are buried in the graveyard of an Orthodox church that stands on a hill above the house.  They helped build the church on land that had once been the family’s potato field.  Even when I was a child, the custom was to walk up to the church for the long holiday services, then back down to the house for the holiday meals (and for the long hours of visiting, card-playing, and yes drinking afterward that were a fable of naughtiness to a girl like me).

Thank goodness for their goodness, I say at Thanksgiving.