So now we're well into Lent and its novelty has surely worn off. The pathos of the Ash Wednesday's sorrowful soot-smudge has been washed away and we are starting to notice the nagging itch of what we have given up/taken on, this itch of desire. Such is Lent. It's a strange "presence-in-absence" sort of moment. We make a promise to ourselves to abstain from something for self-betterment. That's one desire. There are plenty of unnamed others. But we focus on the one that has caught our fancy for whatever reason.
And for what?
Some would say that we do it to become "closer to God" (though, I think, for my subculture, Trent Reznor has sufficiently ripped that slogan down from the wall). But there is an inherent paradox in that statement that is not without irony. "Closer" is a matter of proximity, but what kind of proximity do we mean? And are we ever, really, so close?
When the sun went around the earth, things were easier. Up was up. Down was down. Heaven was above the blue sky and Hell was below the dirt. Literally. Gods, angels, demons, and souls ascended and descended and interacted with humanity on a casual basis. There was a tight logic to it. In Genesis 11, when humanity says in one language, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth" and builds the Tower of Babel to the sky, Yahweh says, "Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” Up. Down. God comes close and confuses our languages and meaning. God comes closer when we tried to get closer to God.
Oh, but that was our pride, you say. Fine. Up. Down. In Genesis 28, Jacob, evading his brother, Esau, falls asleep and "he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." It's a dream, yes. But it's a dream in which Heaven and Earth are fixed entities. There is no spin. There is no orbit. When Copernicus and Galileo offered their undeniable alternatives, the very axes of Heaven and Earth came into question and the physical connection between God and Humanity was ripped asunder. And the Roman Catholic Church was very uncomfortable and unhappy about this until, even, 1992.
So, with the pesky intrusion of Science, the idea of proximity had to be rethought. And God becomes closer to one's more dubiously located "heart" and "soul." One feels God's presence within – something rarely stated or described in the biblical narratives. There is an aesthetic logic to it – such that if one says "I don't feel that God and I are close," this is considered a mark of the lack of devotion, orthodoxy, and faith. This logic of orthodoxy has found its influence in Protestant circles through John Wesley's "heart strangely warmed" by faith in Christ. And this internal aesthetic has sought to be developed as surely as one of the five senses. But the senses can be both deceiving and deceived.
I would suggest that losing this feeling for God is a good thing. Our orthodoxy of aesthetics has become the touchstone by which we gauge our proximity to the divine. So we have engaged in these Lenten practices and we don't feel it anymore. Good. Keep going. You may feel nothing in the end. And that's much of life, actually. Our consumerist culture has taught us that we have to feel it to have it be real. And our theologies have taught us much the same thing. No wonder the megachurches have grown so much. They've dealt with the problem of the divine longitude of up/down and transformed it into a fat latitude of big and wide to compensate. It's all empty calories, but it feels oh so good.
So continue with what you have abandoned for Lent (and I hope part of it is the need for the power of feeling). It is your shining star above. It may seem constant, but you are the one spinning around and around for forty days. You are not constant. And your relation to the stars and your god is not constant either. Proximity is uncertainty. The human heart and soul are terrible maps and gauges. Have you never been in love? Such internal and emotional astrolabes can dash you against the rocks. Instead, stay on your course. Listen not to heart-warming sirens with their sweet songs. They will only bring you closer to what may be, indeed, your undesired end.