Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for Ash Wednesday, p. 217, Book of Common Prayer
As many of you know, I always do a study project for Lent. This year, I decided to meditate and study upon each of the collects for each week of Lent in the Book of Common Prayer. Since we start off the season on Ash Wednesday, I pasted the collect for Ash Wednesday above.
This is a collect that certainly reflects the penitential theology of earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer. We have a delicate balance in our Anglican heritage with some of the words that carry over from the original Elizabethan-era language in the first prayer books. Many of us struggle with some of the older language in it--words like "wickedness" and "wretchedness." Many people don't realize that the 1979 Prayer Book--the one we presently use--created major shifts in our theology. It was a major outward sign that we were moving from being more "penitential" to being more "incarnational" in our theology. Eucharist moved from being once a month in most parishes (with Morning Prayer being the worship form for most Sundays) to weekly.
One of the hardest things for folks when they start or renew a journey of faith, and start to participate in a worship community, is when a word or phrase or symbol leaves them cold, or becomes a stumbling block in that journey. I remember when I first returned to a church community, I was stumbling over words and challenging them left and right. It was almost like "them's fightin' words."
"Wretched" was one of those words.
"Wretched" is one of those words that I want to yell back at--"I'm NOT wretched! Don't throw that 'sinner' stuff at me! I KNOW I'm a sinner already! I came back here because I wanted to feel BETTER than that!"
Also, Ash Wednesday is a piece of our church where people tend to very strongly "choose up sides." Folks tend to either be "all about it" or "want nothing to do with it"--especially that "imposing ashes" part. The ones that are okay about it, it's more or less about "an acceptance of our mortality." The ones that are not, it feels very personal--"I don't need dirty ashes put on me to be told I'm a dirty person." I find it interesting that people okay with it, it tends to be seen as "outside of a view of self," and the ones not okay with it, it is strongly connected to "self" and much more visceral.
I've always found it a little paradoxical that even though I can be very prone to visceral dislikes of things, I have always been okay with the "ashes" thing but it is some of the words in the Prayer Book that viscerally eat on me in the Ash Wednesday liturgy--more so when I first came to the Episcopal Church than of late. The word "wretchedness" was one of those words.
Words are awful triggers for me. Any time I've been in a situation where I've been on the short end of it, I have had to struggle with certain collections of words that became strongly hooked in my mind to "the abuser(s)." If I were to tell you my most common trigger in situations prone to re-ignite an old stress in me, most of them are words. The kicker is that the words can be uttered by someone who had absolutely nothing to do with the abusive situation, and would never imagine they "did" something that causes me stress. A very key feature in relieving my own anxieties is to "take words back for my own use." I have learned a part of my healing is taking ownership of those words again for a better use--and to no longer acquiesce power to the abuser for the use of the word or words. But that also means it is not helpful for me to school others "not to use that word." When I teach others to avoid my "trigger words," they are just perpetuating the power the abuser had on me, and transferring power to themselves over me.
One of my growing edges is to simply accept that words are just words.
In the case of the word "wretch," It is a huge trigger for me with "Bad religion I've experienced."
It reeks of every tent revival I've ever peeked under the tent at, when I was a kid. It reminds me of a traumatic time I was caught peeking under the tent at a revival in my home town and dragged to the front and told I was going to hell. It stinks of every hellfire and brimstone street preacher that ever accosted me. Those experiences left me feeling very violated, in a psychological sort of way.
For years, I broke out in a sweat over the song "Amazing Grace." Seriously. A song that was beloved by so many was like fingernails on the chalkboard for me. When I began to be part of a faith community again, the first time I did Ash Wednesday upon my return, I literally felt the breath knocked out of me over the word "wretchedness."
But one of the things I've learned to do with words, to reduce their power in my psyche, is to study them and take them apart. I often discover how we think of them in our present vernacular is not how they started out. "Wretch" is one of those words.
"Wretch" comes from the Old English word "wrecche/wrecca." It originally meant to be exiled or driven out--a person exiled, or a stranger.
That knowledge was a light bulb for me.
It wasn't about me, it was about where I was.
That makes sense, really.
When I don't feel right about myself, or don't feel right about my actions, or have that soul-sickness from not being within the place my Baptismal Covenant demands of me, I do feel exiled--self-exiled. God didn't drive me out. I drove myself out.
The word "wretch" wasn't about me, it was simply about a spiritual GPS point.
For the first time this year in the liturgy, the word "wretch" didn't take the breath out of me--it didn't even blip my radar.
What I noticed this year was, instead, I heard the line "you hate nothing you have made," loud and clear. I heard the messages of God's infinite love for me--and that my waypoint on the spiritual GPS map had nothing to do with it.
I'm going to let you all in on a little secret--Lent feels very, very different for me this year.
This year, I feel literally held in the balance of mortality and immortality--the recognition of only having a finite time in this world in which I can ripple it, while at the same time feeling like we are allowed multiple do-overs in it.
I feel hope and faith in this season like I've never felt it before. I feel very intentional about being in the "now."
But it really is feeling like I'm being held in this balance, rather than the old feeling of having a foot in each world and them pulling against each other until I am doing the splits.
I can't really describe it yet, other than that. At the end of the 40 days, perhaps I can--and I hope some of you all can travel alongside of me and feel it in yourselves along with me.