Friday, February 24, 2006

Exile

It’s almost Lent. If we are to make it a spiritually beneficial season, we have to go beyond a perfunctory giving up of things (though we still ought to maintain the discipline). We have to develop a new way of looking at things, a new awareness of the central place God ought to occupy in our lives. We need to do things for Lent that will benefit our life, not just fulfill a temporary obligation. That’s why I sometimes say that for Lent we should give up things that we’re not going to get back on Easter. If you’re addicted to chocolate or French fries or beer or tobacco or TV, and you give them up for Lent, there is, to be sure, a certain benefit gained by the effort. But if you resume your addictions after Easter, you stand to lose what you gained, and you relativize the negative impact those things had on you in the first place. Is it the risen Christ who hands you a cigarette or a beer on Easter and says: “you can recover all your attachments now”? Isn’t it better to give up gossip or complaining or laziness or anger—and then continue to grow in virtue well beyond Easter?

One of the changes to our spiritual perspectives, which can perhaps facilitate our letting go of faults and bad habits, is to realize that this life is but an exile from our true home. In the Byzantine tradition, on the three Sundays that precede Lent, we sing at Matins, in a plaintive melody, Psalm 136(137), a lament of the Jews in exile from all that is sacred to them: Jerusalem, the temple, their cultural and spiritual heritage. For us the application is wider—we are exiled from Paradise.

That is precisely the theme of the liturgical texts for the Sunday before Lent: the fall of Adam and Eve, their banishment from Paradise, and their (our) cry to God to for restoration and return. But let’s get back to the psalm. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, remembering Zion.” Despite some liturgical encouragements to enter this season joyfully, it is essentially a time of mourning, of weeping in repentance for our sins and where they have landed us. It is also a time of hope for full restoration, but that restoration is not yet. In this sense our whole life is a continual Lent. But how many of us weep, realizing that we are in exile, and that the joys of Heaven are still far off, obscured by the clamorous seductions of the world, which only leave us empty and jaded?

The Babylonian captors asked the Jews to sing them some songs of their homeland. But “how could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land [or, on alien soil]?” The season of Lent reminds us that the entire earth is a strange land, alien soil, and we are here in exile. St Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven, and from there comes the Savior whom we await (Phil. 3:20). If our citizenship is in heaven and we are not there, then we are in a foreign land, away from our homeland, in a state of waiting. I often feel that quite profoundly. I am not at home here; I don’t really belong here. Nothing here really satisfies; nothing gives a sense of security, of permanence. Everything is provisional, breakable, disappointing, unfulfilling, and burdensome, occasional consolations notwithstanding. I pray with the psalmist: “How long, O Lord…?”

“O Babylon, destroyer, blessed is he who will repay you for what you have done to us.” I understand the destroyer to be the evil one. Look at what he has done to us! (though not without our co-operation). Look how weak, sick, confused, blind, and broken we are! We’re a race of walking wounded, so it’s not surprising that we should eagerly lap up the world’s narcotic solutions to our existential misery. Drink from my cup, beckons the Whore of Babylon, and you’ll forget your childish pieties; you’ll forget that I have robbed you of your only hope.

The world (like Babylonian captors) would have us forget Heaven’s “pie in the sky” and get it while we can, party hearty today, for tomorrow we die. But “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither…if I do not hold you as the source of my joy.” Again, for us it is Heaven that is the source of our joy, and when we forget that, we fall into sin, self-indulgence, and the myopia that cannot see past earth’s horizon. If we’re not in exile, then go ahead, live for money, possessions, pleasure, power—be at home with the ways of the world and eat its bittersweet fruits. But if we are in exile, if Heaven is our true home, then our values, our desires, must be different. We may weep for a season, but joy comes with the dawn of the Resurrection, and that joy no one can take from us. The joy of Heaven, like love, is stronger than death. Death is the great thief and spoiler of all that this world offers, though few take time to reflect on that. Death forces us to leave behind the glory and riches of this world, which shall be pursued by future generations of fools.

So, as the Church brings us to Lent, she invites us to relax our grip on ephemeral things, things on which we rely for pleasure or security, things that dull our sense of exile and hence draw us into compromises with the short-sighted ways of this strange, alien land in which we now live. This is a time to open our eyes, see where we are, remember where we belong, and really live as if Heaven were our homeland, live as if we were awaiting the Savior—as indeed we must. For if we forget that we are in exile, we’ll never find our way back home.