Barnaby Riedel’s Ash Wednesday Sermon

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Barnaby Riedel

Just before dinner, after she served him his nightly cocktail, the writer Joan Didion’s husband of forty years suffered a massive heart failure and died. Having returned from the hospital just two hours later she penned the lines that would open her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking:

Life changes fast

Life changes in the instant

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

The question of self-pity

Now a play at the Court Theatre, Didion’s book chronicles the difficulties of letting go. And a metaphor that runs through it is that of learning to exit a coastal cave where she and her husband used to swim. The only way out, they found, was to let go of the rock wall and trust the retreating swell to carry them through to the other side, ocean side. Always scared she’d get the timing wrong, her husband would encourage her to feel the swell change. “You have to go with the change,” he would say.

Didion’s book is a memoir of letting go, not so much of her husband, as one might expect, but of what she calls the “magical thinking” – the thinking that acts as if time can be reversed, accidents avoided, pasts revised and made right; the thinking that refused to dispose of her husband’s shoes months later, that raked over the details of his death, looking for a clue that might be out of place, and with it, a chance to bring her husband home alive. Magical thinking did not deny her husband’s death, it denied her own, for with his passing, parts of her also had died, were dying. “I could not count the times during the average day,” she writes, “when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.” Her dying was not, obviously, a physical death, but one far more ambiguous and inconclusive; a spiritual death, or perhaps, a soul death, a dying of those myriad associations and habits that once constituted her life and sense of self.

The worst kind of death is the one we live through; that leaves us with all the attachments of our former life intact but absent the cathected object – a loved one, an imagined future, a picture of ourselves – scholar, boyfriend, wife, athlete, healthy. Life seems to be far more the artist with these forms of death, which can never be reduced to the singularity of bodily arrest – heart failure. Instead, we die such deaths countless times and in ways endlessly diverse in magnitude and form –from the embarrassments of an artless comment, to events that devastate our life-world. Mothers and fathers grow old, fall ill, die. Husbands walk out, wives walk out, divorces happen. Friends fail us when we most need them. We fail them. Accidents and afflictions of spell-bounding variety happen. It is a feature of life that it changes in the instant and magically we don’t expect it. Loved one’s die, love dies, jobs disappear, even God’s die, as our tradition well knows. And parts of our selves die beside them. “It will happen to you,” Didion says. “You too will go through this.”

Life changes fast

Life changes in the instant

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

The question of self-pity

On Ash Wednesday we meditate on death and the sins of self-importance that spring from our denial of it. We spread ashes on our faces. We ask for forgiveness. We look forward to Lent and the wisdom of the desert. But make no mistake about it. This ritual takes our physical death not as the only real thing, but also as metaphor and koan of the countless metaphysical deaths, soul deaths, life will (already has) confronted us with. “You too will go through this,” Didion reminds us.

Today we struggle to make real our bodily death, life’s fragile impermanence, symbolized by the ashes, in order to kindle and set aflame those parts of ourselves that need to die – the parts that prevent us from giving ourselves over to God’s wild and uncanny immanence. Today we struggle to let go of the cave and trust the swell. For the swell is God, both as ebb and flow, the growing and the dying. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” it says in the book of Hebrews – fearful, yes, but transformative and life giving. The swell brings us into the cave, but it can also bring us out, out of the darkness of our Janus-faced satisfaction and self-pity, beyond the magical thinking which says rather self-confidently, “Everything is going to be okay,” as if it were up to us to make it so, as if we had that power. Soul deaths are also the provocations of God, asking that we trust our lives to Him, that we let go, that we go with the change. And the fear that we feel as we fall into His hands is just this – the birth pangs of new life shaping us to be less ourselves and more a part of everything else, ocean-side. Amen.

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