This past Wednesday was the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur marks the end of ten days of repentance which begins with, Rosh Hashanah, also known as Jewish New Year. And this ten day period follows a month of introspection where the main task is to reflect on one’s life, one’s relationships and deeds during the past year. At Rosh Hashanah, God opens the book of life and inscribes the names of all who are to go on, but allows the ten days as one last opportunity to repent. At Yom Kippur, there is a twenty five hour fast from food, sexual relations, bathing and anointing one’s body, and for the very observant, most of the day is spent at the synagogue in prayer. On this day, God pronounces final judgment, and the book of life is closed for another year.
We see this focus on self examination and repentance in all the major world religions. Some of us grew up Roman Catholic and remember the season of lent, culminating in Holy Week and Good Friday, when the tabernacle is opened and from noon to three oclock, the Eucharist removed, and the really holy would remain on their knees in prayer.
In Islam, Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, fasting and sacrifice, in order to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities. It is a time of letting go of what Allah Has prohibited and returning to what Allah has Commanded.
Likewise, Buddhism includes a focus on purification, and the the regular practice of Pali, which is wise reflection on one's own actions, in relation to others and the bigger picture.
Religions of the Indigenous People also include practices of reconciliation and forgiveness. In native Hawaiian it is known as ho-o-pono-pono, and is echoed across other indigenous communities as well.
In 12 step spirituality, there are the 4th and 5th step, making a searching and fearless moral inventory, then admitting to God and another person the exact nature of our wrongs.
Now certainly this emphasis on self examination related to moral failure has been misused by many religions and spiritualities. The concept of sin has done endless amounts of psychological, emotional spiritual and, indeed, physical damage, breaking the spirits of so many, and leading to a life of chronic struggle just to climb out of the self hatred each day, let alone to claim and operate from a healthy sense of empowerment. Religion at its worst uses sin to blind us to the divinity within each of us, to make us tolerate hatred, both self hatred and the rage and violence of others, which we decry today for the now silent witnesses who will stand among us for the month of October. We will unveil four new silent witnesses after worship today, in tragic commemoration of four more Lake County women killed by intimate partners in the last year. Religion has too often perpetuated this kind violence, based on misogyny, disempowerment and the theological concept of sin, using a heinously warped, oppressor’s view of morality to keep the disempowered in line.
That twisted version of sin is not what we are talking about today. I want no part of that, and I know you don’t either. If we did many of us would still be in the pews from whence we came.
What we are talking about today is what our wise elders called facing our shadows; with extravagant love and from a place of profound self-acceptance, inviting what Jung called our shadow selves out into the open, only to discover that they are indeed not evil, just unfinished parts of us needing not judgment but healing. Rumi said,
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
And as we begin to embrace all our inner guests, we can find the courage to go to the other, in beloved community, and name where we have hurt and been hurt, and find the joy of true forgiveness and reconciliation, also known as heaven on earth.
But oh my, (oh my oh my oh my!) is that difficult to do! Some of us have made it our life’s work to be beyond reproach. Oh sure, we may be willing to admit our wrongs on the surface levels, but it is rare for us to go deeper and acknowledge that ego mind that we talked about last week, that part of us mostly hidden to ourselves but so abundantly clear to others, especially those closest to us, the part that so desperately needs to be right, that so loves to assess and judge everybody else, even if it is a nearly unconscious tendency; the part that, out of brokenness, seeks too often, in one form or another, to break others.
I will never forget a powerful, watershed moment in my own life from about fifteen years ago. We were still living in Minnesota at the time, and our son was maybe five or six years old. My sister had flown out to be with us for a wonderful, laughter filled long weekend, and we were taking her back to the airport. As often happens in families, some combination of my husband, my son and I, had gotten into a little tiff about some insignificant thing…I don’t remember the details because whatever the issue was, it was so trivial. But after hearing us bicker for a bit, my sister finally laughed, and said, “one thing has become abundantly clear to me this weekend. In your family, proper fault assignment is obviously very important.” Ouch…was she right! In that moment, she humorously pulled back the curtain and exposed the full and ridiculous ABSURDITY of what had become an unconscious way of being with one another. We had developed something of a hobby of operating out of a subtle, yet more or less constant, defensive position where we felt like we were willing to go down to the death over things like whether or not one of us had, say, forgotten to pass along a phone message or left left another pile of dirty dishes. My sister’s humorous diagnosis suddenly pulled away the veil. In an instant, we saw what we had been doing, and we saw that it wasn’t at all the way we wanted to live, and we were free then to turn around, to climb onto a more life giving path, not to deny real issues when they emerged, but to handle them directly and kindly, and thereby to create a much warmer atmosphere in our home.
This is what these seasons of spiritual reflection, at their best, are about! taking the time to reflect on areas in our lives where we may have strayed off of the life-giving path and into the ways, sometimes subtle, but ways nonetheless of living death…and then pressing the reset button, returning to the home of our soul. Therein, we find spiritual liberation and freedom from the deadening snares that sometimes entangle us, and estrange us both from our best selves and from the warmth and love of one another.
I think we are more likely to do this if we can come to trust some deep foundation, some ground of being at the deepest level, which is gracious, call it God, call it love. Whatever. Once we know that unconditional love undergirds it all, we can begin to get free. We can risk facing the shadow parts of ourselves, invite them out into the open, and learn to love them. Because you know what, so what if the worst we fear about ourselves is true? So what if the thing I am feverishly denying about myself is true? Really, so what? At rock bottom, beneath all the fears and estrangements and opinions and protestations, beneath all that is still broken, there is, for lack of a better, word, grace.
Paul Tillich says this: Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when… our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed."