Today is Ash Wednesday, and the day before Valentine’s Day. I feel a bit like the Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl with black smudges on my face. from the noon day service, but I don’t mind. I learned this week that most of the fairytales Andersen wrote were his own attempt to deal with depression. Hans Christian had a propensity for falling in love with people who could never return his affection. He wrote The Nightengale after his bout of infatuation with the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind , and The Little Mermaid was written after he confessed his attraction for another man. Edvard Collin expressed not only rejection, but also repulsion at Andersen’s amorous leanings. But rather than be eaten alive by his broken heart or drown in shame, Hans Christian did the sort of profound thing art therapists everywhere encourage their clients to do: he turned his pain towards creating something of meaning and beauty. “Out of the depths, I cry to you” could have been his motto. He imagined himself as the little mermaid, and his version ( so different than the Disney cartoon) is a beautifully tragic stories of unattainable longing, where the desire for human romance, though thwarted, ultimately leads to union with the transcendent .
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent- that liturgical season that is so often confused with self flagellation, mortification of the flesh and holier-than-thou feats of supposed piety. I so appreciated our liturgy here at Bishop’s Ranch, which emphasized the opposite: humility and surrender and acceptance. To paraphrase the words of Isaiah, the fast God yearns for isn’t a sacrifice of oxen ( or coffee, or wine or sugar) but to loosen the bonds of oppression and let captives go free. And that set me thinking, because I am becoming more and more aware all of the time at the insidious ways that I and those I love are captive- to fear, worry, regret, shame. How oppressed almost everyone I know is by the tyranny of the voices inside us that say “Not enough! Be more! Do More! Hurry, Go, Achieve!”. Thomas Mertonsaid, “Lent is not about punishment. It is about healing.” And one of the biggest things we need to heal , individually and culturally, is the constant breathless sense of striving and acquisition as well as the feeling that we can do it (whatever “it” may be) on our own. If Lent is about abstaining, perhaps we could start by abstaining from defensiveness or contempt or judgment or workaholism . In the notes for today’s service, we were reminded that we were created to be fully human- a reality as Sam Portaro wrote, “forgotten and obscured by our headstrong striving for more and our headlong descent into so much less” .
Which reminds me of course, of how much pain the Little Mermaid endured in the original story when she tried to be something she was not. She was meant to swim in the depths, but she longed for human feet. She gave up her voice in order to have human legs, and yet every step was like walking on knife blades. I wonder how much of our own pain comes from the misguided notion of trying to be what we are not. As I reflect on my own life, my answer is: quite a bit.
The litany for the service of Ash Wednesday ends with Psalm 51, with the words “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
That is good news the day before Valentine’s Day. If you are one of the many people out there who is looking forward to tomorrow with dread and sorrow and loneliness, I offer up to you two men who are not found in the Lectionary, but should be: Beethoven and Hans Christian Anderson. Both of them opened up their wounded, bleeding spirits to pour forth their grief onto paper, and their broken and contrite hearts continue to feed millions. I doubt Beethoven ever had a romantic dinner with red roses and candlelight and tender words of undying affection. Apparently, neither did Hans Christian. If Valentines’ Day conjurs up loneliness or loss for you, I suggest that you might want to put on Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata or a late quartet and sit in front of the fire to read the original versions of Hans Christian Andersen’s brokenhearted fairytales. And then, even though it is Lent, I invite you to open up a bottle of champagne or box of chocolates to toast the journey of being human in all its frailty, messiness, pain and glory. You won’t be alone. You’ll be right there with Beethoven and Hans Christian Andersen, two members of the communion of saints who found out and lived the truth of the logion of the Gospel of Thomas: Bring forth what is in you, and it will save you. Thomas might have added, “and maybe help heal the world, too”.