ash-wednesdayTomorrow, if we choose to participate in an Ash Wednesday liturgy, we may receive a black smudge of ash on our forehead in the sign of a cross, as we hear the words,

Remember you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday encourages us to ponder the hour of our death, to contemplate our mortality. Ash Wednesday invites us to meditate on the Psalmist’s words that

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:15,16)

This is not something most of us are eager to do. Most of us will go to considerable lengths to avoid confronting the inevitability of death. We flee anything that might cause us to face the aching sense of loss that attaches itself to our awareness of death. But, we all know our days are numbered. Our physical presence will one day be gone from this material time-bound realm.  This place we now inhabit will know us “no more.”

Death feels so inextricably connected to a deep aching sense of loss.  All those things in this material realm that we cherish slip through our fingers and are gone. Loss feels like the enemy to be resisted at all costs. And so we cling to life; we cling to those things that reinforce the illusion that this time-bound realm is secure and never-ending. We seek to establish a sense of permanence in this material realm.

But, perhaps there is another way to look at the loss we fear. Perhaps there might be another way of seeing death.

Between 4 Oct 1999  and 13 Nov 2003 in a series of meditations Cynthia Bourgeault offered on Kabir Helminski’s book Living Presence, she reflected powerfully on the important role loss can play in our spiritual pracitce.

In 2001, speaking about loss and death, Cynthia said:

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What I’ve learned and can state very directly out of my own experience is that what appears as loss is a shift to a more subtle state of consciousness.  And if you are open enough and courageous enough to take that shift, what appeared as loss will come back to you in an infinitely more wonderful, subtle form.

As John Donne said so many years ago in his poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
   Like gold to airy thinness beat.
And what happens? … take the obvious loss – the loss of a person who’s beloved to us, be it a spouse or a child – if you stay there and just say, “This person is gone, it’s over” and you do closure and grief work and get on with it, it feels like a diminishment.

But loss is an invitation.

Rafe used to say, “When the building is built you no longer need the scaffolding.”  And the way this is always driving is toward the more subtle manifestation.  It’s like we’re being weaned gradually so that we can finally draw our nourishment directly from Source itself rather than from the diversity of the forms.

So the real challenge in loss…  And when I speak about loss, I’m speaking about genuine loss – not histrionic loss [like] misplacing your watch band – the really deep heart-wrenching loss of those who we’ve lived with in love, those losses that absolutely cut a groove in our heart.  Those ones have the potential to be turned to a direct and more powerful opening to Being at a more subtle level.  And if you can do that, it will shift the centre of your own identity deeper so that you live at the more subtle level…

And this is one of the ways that God pushes and nurtures us and bumps us along – growing us up – through repeated loss which is the repeated invitation to shift to the subtle, which is the increasing ability to sustain our self at the subtle.  Until finally – if we’ve done this right and if we’ve accepted the challenge moment after moment after moment, apparent loss after apparent loss after apparent loss – we ourselves become all subtle.  We live no longer in egoic consciousness; we live no longer in our bodies even though we inhabit them for as long as they hang on.  But we’ve already been transmuted into that quality that we are all along.  And then the loss of the physical poses no interruption to our identity.

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Still suffering under great affliction, Job in the Old Testament affirmed

I know that you will bring me to death,
   and to the house appointed for all living. (Job 30:23)

In this life here on earth, we have the opportunity to build “the house appointed for all living”.  As  we journey along this fleeting horizontal plane, we have the chance to prepare ourselves to take up residence in a house that can never be destroyed.

Jesus promised

‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.’ (Matthew 7:24,27)

The final storm is the storm of death. It beats against the house of our lives. As we enter the season of Lent, we are invited to ask ourselves:

What kind of building am I building?

What is the foundation of my life?

Where are my energies being spent?

Is the primary focus of my life on the temporal impermanent realm of the material sphere, or the invisible dimension of depth revealed in Jesus that permeates this realm but survives into all eternity?

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nb: in observance of Lent, and in recognition of the fact that even a blog purportedly dedicated to offering spiritual nourishment risks becoming little more than a source of entertainment and distraction, for the next forty days IASP will be posting only reflections on the Gospel of Luke.

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