English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in high school, I did something that deeply shames me even today, thirty-three years later. A classmate and someone I knew from church asked me to take his tray since I was going to put mine up. The proper thing to do would be to say, “Sure, I’ll be happy to,” and put the tray up–it is a small thing, but as Jesus said, a cup of cold water given in His name is of eternal importance. Out of nowhere I said, “Why should I help you?” and walked away. I had no excuses. To this day I cannot explain my actions. I suppose that I was on the low end of the social totem pole and this individual perhaps was a bit lower–so I did a cruel, mean, and hateful thing to make myself feel better. I do not know if the person remembers it–in any case I have no idea where that person lives and that person may not remember what happened so long ago. I wish I had apologized at the time–too late now.  Psychologists have referred to a person’s “shadow side” that seems to come out of nowhere. Superficially that sounds profound–that at a subconscious level we have a cruel side that can break through into consciousness unexpectedly. I suspect, however, from the standpoint of Christian theology there is a simpler explanation–we are fallen, sinful beings. A natural love of self, which is good, turns into selfish pride, which is evil. The tendency to pump up one’s own pride by demeaning another person is part of that tendency. We have free will to resist, but we do not. We all sin, we all fall short of God’s glory. Thus, we all need God’s grace. If we have a shadow side, it is on the very edge of our consciousness rather than being far from it–we are responsible for our evil thoughts and evil deeds. Even a shadow side is a side, not separate from the self but part of the self.

I know that I cannot–and neither can any of you reading this post–overcome the temptation to pride on our own. It requires God’s help to do so. Even then, we will often fail. I suppose that is why the Catholic Church in all its branches affirms some kind of intermediate state between death and resurrection even if it is not called “Purgatory.” That prideful tendency to cut down others that reveals itself in cruelty when one’s guard is down must be, with God’s help, drawn out of our system. In my own tradition (Anglican Catholic) the Eucharist is the way to improve while in this life so that the next time an opportunity to help someone arises, I will help gladly and without complaint.

This is Ash Wednesday–“Remember, O man, that dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” Keeping that mortality in mind focuses us to be motivated to seek something beyond ourselves, our Creator God, to help us live a life in love and service to others and live with God and our loved ones (and, I believe, plants and animals too) in eternity. Hopefully all of us can put on that armor of light during this Lenten season.

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