We Need to be Put in Spiritual Traction: An Ash Wednesday Homily

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Ash Wednesday, Year C 2019

March 6, 2019


We Need to be Put in Spiritual Traction


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       I realized the other day that I had slipped back into my old pattern of checking the news first thing when I wake up.  I caught myself sitting on the side of the bed when my alarm went off, reaching for my phone, and immediately opening up a link on my phone to check what strangeness had occurred during the night—because nothing says “Good Morning” like being slapped in the face with insanity.

Sitting there in my pajamas, I was disappointed and frustrated with myself.  Why would the first thing I take into my eyes be images like this and not the sunrise?  Why would the first words I read be news of willful ignorance and arrogance and not, say, the words of a psalm or a Rilke poem?  Why would the first thing I hear be news commentators spinning something to gain ratings and not birdsong or, better yet, my daughter’s voice?

Being aware of what is going on in the world is one thing.  It is important to have a basic knowledge of world events—rooted in fact and not anxious spin or fear-mongering.  But why was I feeling as though I needed my morning briefing before the UN Security Council had even found out?

I am very aware of the tendency I have to be distracted, to have something flashy catch my eye and lure me away from where my heart needs to focus.  I am aware of how giving in to such sensationalism and distraction spikes my anxiety, robbing me of that peace that surpasses all understanding.

For Lent this year, I want to face my tendency for distraction.  I recognize that some intentional, conscious action needs to be taken given my demented morning ritual.  Now that I am aware of my tendency to be distracted—and the spiritual danger of being untethered from what truly nurtures my soul—I am responsible for how I choose to practice my faith.  That is how mature Christianity works: with awareness comes responsibility to practice what we say we believe.

So, I have removed every app on my phone dealing with news or Facebook.  I made a conscious choice that my soul needs space to breathe, to pause before reading what is going on in the world.  I need to do something to address that part of me that is enticed, somehow, by this level of distraction.

Distraction is an interesting word.  The root of the word has to do with pulling away from, being separated from.  Our attention is pulled away from where it needs to be focused.  More so to me, I have come to understand spiritual distraction as that dynamic that separates or pulls my mind away from my heart.  How am I aware of my distraction, the way that my mind, mt capacity for controlling and organizing, so easily becomes separated from my heart’s yearning for wholeness and compassion?  When my heart is pulled away from my mind, my mind does what a mind does: try to rule the world or at least have a barely informed expert opinion on most matters.

If the deepest goal or reality of spiritual practice is the recognition of our union in and with God, then distraction is its true antithesis.  The Spirit yearns to weave us in; yet something yearns to pull us away.

The beauty of Lent is that it offers us a space and time that we can become more aware of the suffering of our distraction, the suffering of having our minds and hearts separated.  And, there is definitely suffering in such a pulling away, because we easily yield to the temptation to misuse power and control.  Think back to Sunday’s Gospel lesson when Peter sought to build structures to contain the divine glory that had been revealed.  In his effort to assert his control, they are overshadowed by the cloud of unknowing, and they are reminded of who is truly in control—and how God’s power to create and nurture and make whole is so different from how we understand power to assert our agendas and interests.

In terms of our call to divine union, I think about the word traction, the image of tires having sufficient tread so that there is ample contact between rubber and road to prevent slipping and wrecking. If there is too much pulling away, we find ourselves in danger.  Our souls need ample contact with the Spirit.

I think about traction as a medical procedure as well, and how sometimes pressure must be applied in order to pull a muscle, bone, or one’s spine into its proper alignment so that healing can take place.   What an image this can be when we translate it into Lent.

Perhaps we can see the Season of Lent as a time in which we are put into spiritual traction.  Certain parts of ourselves (our minds and tendency to grasp and control) need to be pulled into their proper alignment with the muscle that anchors our lives and our desire for wholeness: our spiritual hearts.

Things that have been pulled way—things that have suffered dis-traction—are healed through the pressure of this season of intentional prayer and reflection—the spiritual traction offered through our liturgical tradition and practice of prayer.

And, here’s the thing to remember: spiritual traction most likely won’t be an entirely pleasant experience.  The treatment or spiritual medicine for your particular dis-traction may be the spiritual traction of silence.  Or it may be a difficult conversation that you need to have with someone.  Or it may be giving up something—not to appease some superficial sense or to bask in a sense of accomplishment—but because it just may be the thing that saves your life.

So, let us enter into this Season with open eyes and hearts, with open ears and hands, willing to receive the grace God is offering us.  And let us have the spiritual courage—literally, the spiritual heart-centeredness—to practice our faith deeply and sincerely.

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