A Homily for Ash Wednesday
by Bishop Steven Marshall
The significant rite of the beginning of Lent is the signing with the ashes on Ash Wednesday. The sign of the cross is traced upon the forehead with the words, “Remember Thou, O soul, that thy body is dust and unto dust it shall return.” These words signify a release from the identification of the self with the mortal and corruptible body and personality. A detachment from our conventional identification with our mortal shell can result in an altered state of consciousness where our bodies can communicate to us a spiritual reality and we can develop in actuality a more caring attitude toward it. St. Francis often referred to his mortal frame as his humble and dutiful “donkey” that bore him through this life, like the donkey that bore the blessed Virgin to Bethlehem.
Some modern psychotherapeutic practices that change the nature of our bodily awareness and consciousness may give us a key to this disidentification of our ego with bodily consciousness. In Gendlin’s practice of Focusing, the focusing of our attention on our bodily sensations as autonomous sources of psychological information stimulates spontaneous, imaginative imagery that is autonomous to our ordinary ego consciousness. In the practice of “authentic movement,” the stilling of the senses and relaxation of physical tension, we temporarily lose our usual consciousness of the body, our consciousness becomes a detached observer of involuntary yet deeply meaningful movement and expression. It is in this conscious state of freedom, where the ego personality in identification with the mortal body melts away that we may discover the incorruptible and immortal body of light.
The words, “Remember, O Soul, that thy body is dust and unto dust it shall return,” is a reminder that the body is not immortal, and that we must turn our attention to that within us which truly is immortal. Many scholars accuse Gnostics of not having any eschatology or discussion of the afterlife. The reason for this is that the Gnostic view is very different from the mainstream view. Because the Gnostic afterworlds are not described in terms that mainstream theologians understand, they miss it. The fact of the matter is that the Gnostic writings have more references to an afterlife than the mainstream Bible. For the Gnostic, the afterlife is an alternative spiritual reality of this life as well as any life beyond it. The words accompanying the imposition of the ashes on Ash Wednesday is meant to remind us of that alternative reality.
Yet Gnostics are not escapists. Before we can experience liberation; before we can achieve the freedom and insights of Gnosis concerning our mortal existence, we must first fully experience, know and accept what it is to be in a physical body without fear, guilt or shame. Next, we must remember the freedom and joy of existence in the spiritual body before coming into this world. Only then can we recognize the Gnostic insight of physical incarnation as the limitation and prison that it is.
Existence in a body is as if we were in a penal colony with the only escape being death. However, the Gnostics found another way out—the Resurrection—a transformative increase of spiritual consciousness even while in the flesh. In fact, according to the Gospel of Philip, it must occur in this world: “If you do not receive it in this place, you will not receive it in the other.” This transformation lifts us out of the vortex of the dark, roiling, grasping energy manifest in our obsessive passions and attachments to the world. It purifies the unconscious of the needy, driven, addictive impulses of the lower self, which has its root in a pit of unconscious feelings of want and deficiency. In the Gnostic accounts of Sophia, her abortion, the demiurge, is often referred to as such a deficiency. When giving up something for Lent, we do not abstain from life’s pleasures or the physical needs of our bodies but give up an obsessive attachment that keeps us in thrall, that prevents us from becoming aware of the mysterious other, the Divine Friend, the redeeming Light-Power within us.
The Lenten Purification with the ashes represents the purifying of our connection with this higher and divine Self. To accomplish this purificiation we must first release the guilt and shame that prevents us from feeling worthy of that contact—that is, absolution. Secondly, we must cleanse ourselves of anxious and obsessive attachments to the things of this world. Like stickers on a rose bush, they draw off our spiritual, psychological and emotional energy; they prevent the rose within our hearts from budding forth and blossoming.
“My heart was pruned and its flower appeared, then grace sprang up in it.” (The Odes of Solomon)
The purification of the heart is not something we can do entirely on our own; it requires a self examination and a reaching out on our part, but also the spiritual assistance of our higher Self. The pruning of the heart is not about willful denial of our physical and emotional needs. This can only exacerbate the guilt and shame involved and is merely a reaction to, not a release from our anxious attachments and obsessions; we still remain stuck in the quicksand of that dark, roiling, grasping energy, in that deep pit of want and deficiency.
We can cleanse ourselves of these anxious attachments through self examination and through centering, invocational prayers, not through petitionary prayers for the objects of those attachments. In giving up something for Lent let us:
1) Take inventory of our anxious and obsessive attachments.
2) Pick one to give up for this season.
3) Invoke divine aid in releasing that attachment.
The purification of Lent is not about punishing self-denial, nor wallowing in guilt and shame, but revolves around self-reflection, introspection and invocation of the helpful and spiritual powers that can cleanse our channel of communication with the Divine. In this process we do not punish the body or the animal self but heal it. Our animal needs are not met by addictive behaviors; our bodies are not helped by self-punishment. According to esoteric wisdom, it is the animal soul, often suffering from internalized guilt and shame, which is our connection to the higher, divine Self. The ego, the lesser self, imposing its obsessive attachments upon the animal soul, does not have a direct connection to that higher Self.
The ego often uses the anxiety of the animal soul over the needs, traumas, or deficiencies that were not resolved in childhood, to further its autonomy and power within the psyche. It creates a false self that is emotionally invested in compensatory mechanisms and substitutes for true spiritual fulfillment and happiness. This false self of guilt, shame and anxious attachment is the source of most of our dysfunctional desires, thoughts and behaviors. The false self becomes convinced that more sex, more unconscious highs, more food, more money, more of whatever addiction we choose will fill that pit of internally felt deficiency and lack of wholeness, and the elimination of our soul’s pain. Yet all we really get are paltry substitutes for our soul’s longing. If we can discover the needs, traumas and deficiencies behind our anxious attachments, if we can go through our soul’s pain, the deception is broken; the anxious attachments can be cleared. We can discover the spiritual aspiration that is our true longing for the Divine; we find the immortal spirit within us which is our authentic Self.
The symbol of the ashes has a great deal of significance relating to that immortal fiery spirit within us. In the writings of the Kabbalah, the souls of the saints are called “Ashim,” meaning “fiery ones.” Fasting in sack cloth and ashes is an important Jewish rite of purification, and was practiced by the early Kabbalists as a means of reducing the resistance of the body to the influx of the divine light, and of releasing the human soul from the material bondage that keeps her from ascending to that supernal light. A rite of purification and fasting accompanied by empassioned prayers is common to many shamanic traditions as a preparation for shamanic initiation and the vision quest.
The Mercavah mystics of the earliest Kabbalistic schools required a purification rite with the ashes of the Red heifer in order to make their shamanic flight in the Mercavah, The chariot of God. The ashes could only be obtained from a special sacrifice of a red heifer in the Temple of Jerusalem. When the temple was destroyed and the carefully guarded ashes were used up, the Mercavah mysteries came to an end.
The Gnostic Holy Eucharist reenacts in a more spiritual form the temple sacrifice of old. The ashes of the palm branches blessed on Palm Sunday become our Ashes of the Red Heifer. The signing with the ashes on Ash Wednesday is an important part of a powerful sacramental system. These potent symbols have power in the unconscious and in themselves. In order to have a conscious awareness of this power, we must empower the rite to reveal the meaning that it has for us. The conscious awareness and meaning does not happen automatically. The sacrament does not happen somewhere out there, it happens in here, in the heart.
The signing with the ashes relates as well to the Gnostic baptism of fire described in the Gnostic Book of Jeu. In this account, Jesus builds a fire of vines and incense. From the ashes of the fire He traces the Seal of the Virgin of Light upon the foreheads of the disciples gathered around Him. “…and he sealed them on their foreheads with the seal of the Virgin of Light which would make them to be numbered within the inheritance of the Kingdom of the Light.”
This rite of purification is not a purification focused on the worldly transgression of cultural taboos but purification from darkness and ignorance. The Lenten purification is the purification that prepares us for Self-Knowledge (Gnosis). The purification with the ashes prepares us to confront the archons of our own evil impulses and frees us to ascend to the realms of light. The Gospel of Philip recounts the importance of this self-knowledge to the task of the Gnostic.
“Is it not necessary for all those who possess everything to know themselves? Some, indeed, if they do not know themselves, will not enjoy what they possess. But those who have come to know themselves will enjoy their possessions.”
Not until we know the Self as one can we overcome our addictive attachments to worldly things and truly enjoy what we possess on earth. Those who put on this light of Self-knowledge will pass by the archons while in the world and make their mystical ascent into the light. According to the Gospel of Philip:
“Not only will the archons be unable to detain the perfect ones, but they will not be able to see them, for if they see them, they will detain them. There is no other way for a person to acquire this quality except by putting on the perfect light and becoming perfect oneself. Everyone who has put this on will enter the Kingdom. This is the perfect light, and it is necessary that we by all means become perfect ones before we leave the world.”
In the Lenten purification with the ashes we can take on this perfect light, not in another world after death, but here in this flesh. In this manner, we return our dust to dust, and find beneath it the fiery being and incorruptible light of our true Self—the Christ within.
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.