This is the first of two posts originally recorded for the Inglorious Pasterds’ Lenten Reflections series, “From Inside The Whale.” Visit their site, support them on Patreon to hear this and other materials, or listen to their main podcast for free.
Set amidst the turbulent years surrounding Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, Boris Pasternak’s sweeping novel, Doctor Zhivago tells the life of a brilliant doctor named Yuri Zhivago. Known for his intuitive, yet spot-on diagnoses, he is also an ascendant scholar and writer with a poet’s heart caught up in multiple wars, ideological shifts, and bloody regime changes.
Early in the story, Yuri marries the quietly lovely Tonya, but is haunted by a terribly beautiful woman who for years lives on the edges of his consciousness, her story only brushing against his occasionally. This woman, Lara, almost preternaturally beautiful, is living through her own sort of hell, with a lecherous old man misusing his power to force her into an affair at a young age, and a pure, idealistic friend who desperately desires to marry her, but for whom she feels as much pity as love. Yuri, of course, knows none of this until he meets Lara during the First World War and, though they choose not to discuss it, the connection between the two is instantaneous and grows under the pressurized environment of the wartime hospital in which they work. Much later, they run away together and begin a new life, which inevitably falls apart amidst the tensions of their spurned lovers and the spiraling civil war.
Now hang with me here. I tell you all of this seemingly useless information about a morally ambiguous story during our Lenten devotions for a reason. You see, there’s this line. This poignant moment. It was, in fact, the first line from this story I ever read, quoted elsewhere. Coming from a particularly complicated episode in Lara’s early life, we find her trying to make sense of the disgusting man who has controlled her heart and body like puppet and contemplating the brighter future she wishes for herself, and all of the other joys and pains filling her heart for which she has not the language to utter:
Lara was not religious. She did not believe in ritual. But sometimes, to be able to bear life, she needed the accompaniment of an inner music. She could not always compose such a music for herself. That music was God’s word of life, and it was to weep over it that she went to church.
There is something almost mythic in this story and its main characters’ pursuit of that inner music: that tune at once beautiful, mysterious, and harsh; as broadly sweeping and intricately complex as the country in which their story is set. Through Zhivago and Lara, we encounter the tangled webs of passion and desire; honor and failure; joy and pain; hopes realized and deferred. Through their fictional experiences and others like them, we are able to inhabit another’s life; which is, after all, what we do with any truly powerful tale: we live and move and breathe in a new air; we experience other people’s minds and learn how to deeply, empathically feel their experiences . . . as well as our own. See, it is through Myth and Story that we are provided with the accompaniment of that inner music which we cannot compose but desperately need in order to live life fully as human beings. They are part of that symphony that provides us with the music giving shape to our lives and allowing us to feel the depths of it all.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that this Lenten series has been called From Inside the Whale, a reference to one of the most memorable myths in the Bible. Though we don’t have time to dive into it today, the tale of Jonah as understood in its post-exilic Jewish context displays the soul- and community-shaping power of “true fiction,” of Story and Myth’s potential to engage us at a deeper level about all we are and hope to be: good, bad, beautiful, ugly.
Similarly, the Gospel is a work of “true fiction”: a story with historical settings and roots and often casting historical figures, but which nonetheless traffics in myth. Most modern scholarship (excepting inerrantists) is fairly decided that the Jesus we meet in the pages of Scripture is a curated Jesus. A man whose story has been shaped and molded to fit the needs of individual communities wrestling with the transformed expectations of a crucified messiah. These stories were told . . . and re-told . . . and re-told again . . . and then written down. And the reason this story stuck around, the reason it kept getting re-told was not because its original audiences prized its historical accuracy but because it did something to them. More specifically, like any good story, it did something in them, for them, and ultimately, through them.
The Church Calendar is also myth, and Lent is a story of “true fiction” within that larger narrative.
As an campus pastor, I spent a great deal of time trying to teach my ex-evangelical students about the world of liturgical-contemplative Christianity. I felt that these stories and the yearly movements into which they invite us had the potential to shift our lives’ lenses. With Lent, especially, I had to exert a great deal of effort trying to convince my community to not “give up” something, but rather to engage the story of the season in order to shift their thinking. The story of Jesus and his sufferings – at once mythic and historical, true and fictitious – his simple life “well-acquainted with suffering,” his testing, betrayal, torture, and death.
I mean, look, if cutting out chocolate or beer helps you enter into the suffering of Christ, go for it — though I have it on good authority that both of these things in fact bring you much closer to God (but that’s for a different meditation series). Anyway, what I’ve found is that centering the discussion of Lent around fasting is yet another way for the modern Church to take the easy way out, in which we display our preference for superficiality and guilt over-against consciousness-transformation. As Fr. Rohr likes to say, transformation comes from either great love or great suffering, and Lent is a season that is intended to show us both.
We look down and see that it is our feet suspended and nailed to a cross or burning against the hot sands of the wilderness. It is our tattered robe, stained with the sweat of countless Judean summer days and encrusted with freshly dried blood, being fought over by the soldiers nearby. We sense the dereliction and childlike sense of abandonment of a man suddenly bereft of his constant peace, caught flat-footed by the absurdity of human life and violence. In our association with Christ our egos are stripped away and we come, slowly, to turn our hearts and eyes upon this wounded world and begin see our neighbors not as objects of our charity or scorn or even affection, but as Divine image-bearers, as mythic characters in the Great Story with their own parts to play, their own joys and struggles.
Of course, we need seasons and stories like Lent because, well, we forget. And we forget because . . . reasons. Life gets in the way, we become concerned with cares both trivial and weighty and forget that to be human is to be, as Schmemann puts it, “by nature and vocation a pilgrim of the Absolute.” That this is all headed somewhere.
I don’t mean we’re headed for the Big Rock Candy Mountain, or some ethereal sweet by and by, but that this larger myth (of which Christ’s story is one translation) of humanity has a dark beginning and an uncertain end, guided by, in faith we suppose, by Something that loves complexity and the gratuitous expansion of life. And, since we regularly lose the awareness that our steps affect the steps of others, we need a rhythm to bring us back. A collective myth, a story to inhabit.
Enter the liturgical year.
Advent helps us ask what, exactly, we are expecting from the Divine while in Christmas we bask in the blinding ordinariness of the Incarnation.
The Epiphany suddenly surprises us with the realization that we are the ongoing Incarnation, the locus of the Cosmic Christ on earth but Lent is for seeing how far short we fall in that calling – and the long road of ego-stripping required to live fully within that vocation.
Easter, feasts on the possible-impossibility of Love’s answer to all our attempts to save ourselves and end our degenerative cycles of violence on our own. Hope is realized and life bursts forth from the settled soil of the grave.
We have Ordinary Time so that the fields of our souls may lie fallow as we “number our days” and see the holy in the midst of the mundane.
And then . . . back to Advent.
Now that’s a story. And honestly at this point, I’m not concerned (either as a Christian or a pastor) how much of it is “accurate,” or “real” because it is here that I find a myth (which by now I hope you understand I’m talking about Deep Truth) capable of carrying the collective freight of our hopes and disappointments, our sorrows and joys. And I need that. The rest is fascinating study that only touches on my commitment to being made in the likeness of The Christ.
The problem, however, is that when your personal and communal faith expression isn’t deeply rooted in this story – returning to it year after year, allowing the sheer weight of time to impress its importance upon your heart – you will miss the transformation and substitute a series of pious activities instead: Advent wreaths and “reading the Christmas story” before opening presents; giving up chocolate or beer for Lent and being angry about the Easter Bunny. Yet all the while this story of faith’s mythic pilgrimage leaves no discernible shadow upon our hearts because they aren’t attuned to its transformational message, merely superficial actions and sentiment.
So, in keeping with my recent tradition, for Lent this year I’m not giving up anything.
Personally, I feel like I’ve already lost enough in life and I need most in this season is to use this time to take stock of the how the dark – which God made as well – has penetrated my soul and made it an appropriate vessel for the light of new life tinging its eastern edge – always only 40 days of struggle away. So, you do what you need to, but I’m spending this time remembering the Myth and seeking new ways to inhabit this part of the story.
Because, if The Christ has suffered, then all suffering is hallowed.
If The Christ has died, all death is now a passage.
If Christ has descended, can even Hell remain unchanged?
And if Christ has been raised, what now is as it once was?
Blessings on your Lenten pilgrimage.
This post is compiled largely from “Lent,” originally published on March 1, 2017, as well as other sources on this site.