Aids to Navigation

(This is a re-run of a post I wrote last Lent.  It's sort of a reminder - why are we doing this again? - about liturgical observance and how it underscores, but doesn't take the place of, personal discipline.  We do both during Lent, which helps us remember that it's not all up to us.  I wanted to revisit this as we prepare to journey through this intense period of the end of Lent and Holy Week and then begin another season of Easter.)

This is a channel marker. The Coast Guard builds and places these buoys in federal waters to mark navigational channels and give people steering boats a sense of direction. They are navigational aids, directional signs, signals to let boaters know where they are and where they should and should not go. After all, it can be difficult to see where one is supposed to go in the water, especially in areas where there are shifting sands, shoals, currents, and all that. Where is it deep enough to take a large boat; how does one get to the harbor from open water; which way is out or in? These ways may be known to those who are underwater, fish and octopi and dolphins and such (the Irish poet Seamus Heaney often uses the phrase "whale road" in his poetry, including his translation of Beowulf, to describe the sea), but to those of us who make our way above the waves, topside navigational aids are necessary.

This particular buoy is found in deeper water and has a bell and a light so that it can be perceived at all times and in all weather. Its color signifies that it should be on the right side of any vessel approaching the harbor (and thus on the left side of a boat leaving the harbor, although the captain of that boat should be looking for green buoys or signs on its right). So, if one is a boater, one needs to know all this stuff. These are, indeed, navigational aids. They signify that the water is not too shallow. They keep one from running aground. They direct one out into the open ocean. And they direct one home.

Navigational aids for the spiritual journey are harder to perceive. Where is the manual for "how to find one's way along the spiritual road?" Where are the green lights and the red lights and the bells for us?

Observance of the liturgical year provides the navigational aids for one's spiritual journey. Not only is it color coded, but it operates on the idea that everyone needs periods of feasting and fasting, of introspection and study, of living out one's calling, as a Christian discipline. The liturgical year assumes that we are on a journey and so provides an opportunity to study the cycle of Jesus' birth, ministry, death, and resurrection while at the same time practicing the proper attitudes and "ways of being" that go with those times and seasons.

 Practicing the virtues, being trained in the virtues, is an ancient but not at all quaint philosophical idea. It is at the heart of Christian formation still. We learn to be Christians by learning about the life of Jesus and by learning the appropriate seasonal spiritual affections and practices - all of them. Joy, penitence, renunciation, fasting, reflection, preparation - alternating feast and fast, promoting spiritual growth and depth. And because we observe the whole liturgical year, we must be attentive and intentional and move through all of them, not allowing ourselves to become fixated on one season or practice (joy, perhaps) or another (say, penitence). Living in liturgical time allows us not to have to make it up as we go along but to enter into the tradition of the church and allow ourselves to be formed the way Christians have been formed for centuries upon centuries.

The channel markers in our spiritual journeys are now (still) purple for Lent. The course will deepen with Holy Week (red) and then radically change for the season of Easter (dazzling, glorious white).  Some of us may have headed out to the open ocean for this time, while others are headed home. But wherever we may be headed, in or out, we know the markers along the Lenten way, both individual and corporate: intentional prayer and discipline, abstaining from celebratory worship (no glorias or alleluias), perhaps temporary abstention from certain foods or habits or activities, almsgiving, self-examination and penitence as we learn again this part of what it means to be God's people.

Soon and very soon, we will move into a new place.  Alleluias will return.  The time for joy will be upon us; we will put away our fasting.  And yet we will have profited by our time in the wilderness.  What will we bring with us from the Lenten season as we move into Easter?


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Ellen said…
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