Category Archives: Lent

On the Power of Guilt

Dearest Father,

As you well know, we are once again in the Season of the Fast. It seems like barely any time has passed since I wrote you about the last season, and I am certain that it won’t be long before I find myself yammering away about the next Season of the Fast, wondering what happened to the year in between. Such is the way of our childish minds; time seems to fly when we give it little attention, and appears to crawl when we focus on it most intently.

I almost missed the bells this time. So far have I travelled that the sound barely resonated in my ears. I was actually stunned by how little I was affected by the noise. There was a time when the sound of the bell would have evoked strong emotions in my heart, when I would have been compelled to face the Season with all the solemnity deserving of your trials in the wilderness. There was a time when I would have prepared for the arrival of the Season days in advance, eagerly awaiting the bestowment of ash upon my forehead so that I could mark time till the celebration of the resurrection of the Brother-Saviour. Such a time is long gone, dearest Father, for I almost entirely forgot about the Season this year, and I when I did hear the bells, it was with heavy reluctance that I dragged myself to a House outpost to participate in the receiving of ashes.

I am sure you are not surprised by this, Father. The past months have seen me devolve ever so slowly into condemning what I perceive to be the flawed and counterintuitive manner in which you have made and ruled our world. With my mind drawing farther from you is it any wonder that my heart has started to do the same? Among the greatest motivations claimed by your children for their worship is love. Where others claim to be cowed into submission by your awesomeness and power, or cajoled into acceptance by promises of paradise, your children say that they are with you because you love them and they you. They say that your love is the reason for everything around them, that your love is all that they need to live and breathe. As you can tell from the tone and topics of my letters past, I have looked upon your world and my poor eyes are finding it very difficult to see this song-inspiring love all your children seem to speak about. Perhaps if I were a child of the Crescent or the Star such an absence would have had no bearing on my closeness to you, but in a House built on love it is little wonder that it has left a sour taste in my mouth.

Of course the fact that my heart has been drifting from you did not prevent me from receiving the ash many days ago. And the fact that my ire has been raised towards you has not prevented me from wondering once again what to give up in these 40 days. Try as I may dearest Father I cannot shake off the biting guilt that I am doing something wrong by not fasting this holy season. I am angry with you, distant from you, unsure of whether or not I shall ever return to you. I have questioned everything in the doctrines that the House and the Family have told me about you. Even last year, when I was much closer to home, I pondered on the effectiveness of the Brother-Saviour’s sacrifice and in so doing drew into question the point of the entire season and the celebrations that it preceded. And yet, even as I tell myself that I owe you nothing until my questions are answered, I still cannot ignore the pangs in my chest from ignoring tradition. I feel as though I am betraying not just you by failing to observe the Season’s solemnities, but myself as well, and try as I may I cannot convince myself otherwise. My heart, it seems, is set in its guilt.

Perhaps it is my devout upbringing speaking. Perhaps it is the effect of years upon years of Universal Family training via the Catechism, and the host of prayers I had to memorise as I child. Perhaps it is in fact you that is talking to me, in one of the famously ambiguous (and quite frankly ineffective) ways many claim you speak to your children. Or perhaps it is the famed guilt all children of the Universal Family claim to possess, even those like me that have strayed far from home.

It matters not, dearest Father, for regardless of its cause this guilt has kept me up at night and caused me a lot of bother. I have considered simply defaulting to fasting from food as I did last year, but Doubt has warned that such a sacrifice would be hollow for I already go 12 hours between meals quite frequently. I do not know what to do, but I know that this compulsion will not cease until my guilt is sated.

I find it most strange that this guilt has had such sway over me these past few days. It would be funny, would it not, if my guilt ends up being the reason I remain close to you, if even when faced with all I cannot accept and all I do not understand, I end up back in your arms in a desperate bid to hush the disquiet in my chest. One must wonder how many remain in the House not because they truly believe in your power and your love, but because they feel too guilty to take a step outside the gates.

With a guilty heart,

Your Prodigal Son

P.S. Please forgive the lateness of the letter, Father. I was to send it shortly after the Day of Ashes but my earthly duties have kept me quite busy and I haven’t had the time. Hopefully it arrives before the Season ends.

P.P.S. Doubt has suggested meat, Father. Do you think that is a worthy sacrifice from a heart mired in guilt?

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On Sacrifices and Their Worth II

Dear Father,

But a few days ago, the Season of the Fast reached its end. Whether or not this was the initial intention of the Family elders when they planned the House Calendar, the end of the season coincides with the birth of spring and this, I believe, carries with it some powerful imagery. In my homeland, once termed the Dark Continent, we do not experience such things as spring and winter. For us, there are two seasons. The rains come and then they go, and they do so on a cycle that has nothing to do with the Season of the Fast. As a result back when I was young and in the House, any significance attached to the timing of the season’s end was lost on me. Not so in the land in which I find myself. Here the rains are beginning to fall after months of snowy skies. The trees are growing leaves again; the birds have picked up their songs, and squirrels have resumed their foraging. As the members of the House beat their drums and blow their trumpets in celebration, so too does the rest of nature. Significant, for the end of the season marks what has been termed the three most important days in the history of House, and by dogmatic extension, the history of the entire earth. It marks the death and resurrection of our brother and saviour, your perfect incarnation among your children.

But a few days ago the Universal Family, and those in the House that have not yet cast aside everything connected with the Family, bowed their heads to mark the Brother-Saviour’s crucifixion.  This, we are told, was the sacrifice of sacrifices, the sacrifice that ended all sacrifice. So great is the significance of this sacrifice that its extent is among the things that caused one of the greatest splits from the Universal Family. The reach of this sacrifice, the permanence of its effects, is a key dispute between my Family and the ever dividing Family of Rebels. Without this sacrifice, all is lost. Your children are eternally doomed, and You-Know-Who has won the battle. With this sacrifice, not only do we have a fighting chance, the tides have been turned irrevocably. Because of the blood of the Brother-Saviour, You-Know-Who is bound to lose. We know not the day or the hour, but we have been assured that when it comes, he will fall once and for all, never to rise again.

But anyone can die, or so they say. The real special thing about your sacrifice was the resurrection, the rebirth, so to speak. It makes for wonderful symbolism when your children’s voices are raised in praise, joy and exultation, marking the anniversary of your resurrection just as the very earth gives new life to the its inhabitants. Perhaps this is why the House elders in the days of yore picked this time for the season. Or perhaps, as some say, they were simply trying to garner the favour of the Outsiders whose lands and hearts they wished to capture. It is of no consequence. Your death and subsequent resurrection mark the very foundation of the towering domicile I have left behind. They give reason to the lives of all those within the House. They bring hope, they bring the good news, and they provide the basis on which the House has spread its message over continents and over oceans, growing its bounds though blood as much as through words.

Sitting, contemplating the significance of these events, with my undesirable friend on my shoulder, I was struck by how foolish, how petty, my ramblings were a little over forty days ago. While acknowledging the fact that the Season of the Fast was to prepare us to appreciate the greatest of all sacrifices, I still had the audacity to wonder whether or not certain sacrifices were worthy of your person. It is rather evident that none on this earth is. So much so that you, purest of the pure, had to take human form and die, in order to show us how it was done. You had to take it upon yourself to demonstrate to us that no sacrifice, however great could possibly match what really was necessary to save us from ourselves.

The sacrifice we celebrate marks why the House is often called the House of Love, especially in the face of other Houses. None other claims to have a Father that so loved his children he was willing to lay his life down on their behalf. None other claims to have a Father that boldly and unflinchingly went into suffering and pain and torture, just so that he could be with his children again. It is among the greatest calls to uniqueness, the greatest points of appeal, that the House has been able to lay claim to over the centuries. Deep inside, dear Father, your children simply want to be loved, and what better way to pull them to your bosom than by erecting a House whose very symbol is the ultimate gesture of expressible love?

But while I sat and mused on the wonders of the season’s end, filled with what can only be called nostalgic appreciation, my little friend, ever ready with cancerous utterances, had a word or two on this very subject. Now I would rather not mention the horrendous things he said; but I promised to write you about our experiences. Such a promise is not one that should be cast away so easily.

Per his name, my winged friend saw fit to cast his deep shadow over the very notion that the Brother-Saviour’s sacrifice, your sacrifice, is in fact the greatest of all sacrifices. If, as I have discovered, sacrifices must be measured by not just what they deprive us of but also by how much they achieve, it seems only fair that your sacrifice be brought under the microscope as well.

To that end, dearest Father, the question is thus: Exactly what were you deprived of in your sacrifice? In the weeks past I have abstained from food for the duration of the sun’s journey across the sky. I have endured my natural hungers, so that by suffering through them my mind may be driven towards you. This entire journey is predicated on discovering you more; what better way to ensure that you stay on my mind all the time than by tying it to something the body cannot do without?

Now when Doubt asked this question I was quick to provide an answer very much like the one I arrived at myself. Your sacrifice aside, the very act of coming to us and taking human form allowed you to experience life as we saw it, to identify with us. And Doubt, the ever wily and disgustingly brilliant little fellow, laughed and pointed out that per House dogma, you know everything. What more is there for you to know, dear Father? How could you, perfect being that you are, not know what being human feels like? You made us, down to the last hairs on our heads, or so they say. It is unfathomable to think that you do not know how we feel. The subject of suffering makes this an even bigger conundrum. What purpose did your suffering serve dear Father? Can one even say that you suffered, in the same way that your children suffer? And even if you did, why would it matter? For a being as knowledgeable as yourself, suffering would simply be experiencing something you have already “experienced”, something that you would not need to be reminded of as you can never forget. No. It seems your sacrifice then was for our benefit, perhaps to make us see you as we see ourselves… to humanise you, so to speak. We are the ignorant ones, not you. We are the ones that need to see the truth.

While this answer seemed to send Doubt flapping away in silent thought, the reprieve was not to last too long. He was back soon, with even more disturbing words. He pointed out that this fact, that the incarnation of yourself in flesh was simply to humanise yourself, had diluted the effect of what was to be considered an amazing sacrifice. You cannot suffer, in any way that makes sense; the feelings cannot be new to you, and you in your almighty glory, were already aware that you were to break the chains of death and rise again on the third day. In fact, this last bit reduces the sacrifice even more. There is, in effect, no sacrifice, for you died knowing full well that you would rise. There wasn’t, at the very least there shouldn’t have been, any fear or uncertainty in your heart. There was no finality. Listening to his words the sacrifice that defines the House suddenly seemed like a small thing, a simple formality. When one knows the outcome of an event, when one knows that it shall go in his favour, does one really lose anything by fulfilling all righteousness? Does one learn anything by going through the motions?

Of course I have heard such musings before, and it seems Family dogma on the full humanity and full divinity of the Brother-Saviour was crafted specially for such purposes. By being just as human as the rest of your children, he was subject to the fears and uncertainties that we feel every day. So even though he knew that he would rise, it did not make the experience any more enjoyable, or perfunctory. I can understand this. But my friend was not convinced, and I am afraid I must agree. Just as the Brother-Saviour is a man, he is also you. And you do not fear; you are not ignorant nor are you weak. It feels safe to assume that in a battle between Fatherly natures and childish natures the Fatherly would win, awesome and mighty as it is, especially when it exists in such great amounts as it did in the Brother-Saviour. So even as he approached the cross, bleeding from back and breast, he must have known all too well how everything would play out, and I cannot help but feel that that makes him no more than an actor on a very elaborate and realistic stage. And actors make no sacrifices, except to sell the act that they are making sacrifices.

Now there is the issue of the justice which must be served. We, your children, abandoned you Father, and made a rift so great that only the death of someone as awesome as yourself could heal it. To that end the sacrifice was absolutely necessary. Of course this raises other questions, such as the nature of justice itself, and punishments and sin, questions I hope to pose as I grow wiser on this journey. But it doesn’t answer the question of ultimate purpose. Per your omniscience, you already knew this was to be done; one can go as far as saying you already “did” it. You gained nothing doing it, and, perhaps more importantly, you lost nothing. You didn’t really die, and whatever part of you one can say perished that day was soon recovered … resurrected. Once again, it feels like everything was nothing more than a performance, more for our adulatory, love-seeking eyes than anything else.

In a final attempt to wipe the smirk off my friend’s face I half-heartedly muttered that perhaps this was one of the many things we could not understand, and he laughed a deep, cruel laugh, his eyes rolling in their dark sockets. Even he could see that I knew (as well as he) that such an answer, such a subdued acceptance of ignorance, would not be enough to quiet him. A quest for truth is among the reasons for my journey; what would be the point if whenever confronted with the tough questions I simply waved my hand, like the wizened and disinterested elders of the Family, and said “We cannot understand.”? The Numidian references such wonderful, unfathomable paradoxes in his Confessions, waxing poetic about how you are “most merciful, yet most just … stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old…”, and for a case like this, I suppose he would say that you are “dying while still alive; suffering, yet unaffected; reduced yet whole”. But while such words filled me with awe and wonder once upon a time, on this day they do little to calm my faltering, perturbed heart.

It pains me to say it, Father, but my little friend does have a point. A sacrifice’s worth is measured by things lost and effects had. I lost some culinary satisfaction, and in return I can only imagine that I was brought closer to you in some manner; I certainly felt so. But your sacrifice, when put against yourself, feels hollow, staged. A being that has everything has absolutely nothing to lose. And looking upon this earth you have made, looking upon the children in your image, I cannot help but feel that nothing has changed. There were wars before your death on the cross; there are still wars today. We died of disease and hunger and pain before your death; we still die today. We murdered and pillaged and lied and stole and cheated and raped before your death; we still do so today, with more pomp and flair in fact. As I sit here and pen this letter to you dear Father, I cannot help but feel that whatever You-Know-Who was supposed to have lost that day must have been trivial, for he carries on like nothing happened. Whatever the effects your death was to have had that day, they must be ethereal, for we are not much different than we were before. We are just as sad, just as fallen, and this realisation fills me with a sorrow that eclipses whatever appreciation I may have felt as I contemplated the joys of spring many days before.

And so, confused and afraid, I ask you my dearest Father: what was the worth of this sacrifice, this greatest sacrifice of them all?

With a heavy heart,

Your Prodigal Son

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On Sacrifices and Their Worth

Dearest Father,

I was walking on an ill-seen path when I heard the bell toll. The sound was a powerful, familiar one; it was a sound I had heard many times in my childhood. When I left the House I had taken it for granted that I would hear the bell again, and lo and behold, with heaven knows how much distance between myself and the Gates of the Rock, I was greeted with its deep, rich, overtones. The pitch, the number of strikes, meant one thing and one thing only; the Season of the Fast had begun.

As you know, Father, not many in the House still pay attention to the Season of the Fast. Many years after the House was built it was beset by a number of scuffles, and where there had once been simple, amorphous groups, united under the same roof, monolithic Families began to sprout. As with all things, I assume you sat on your Holy Throne in the great Upstairs, watching in whatever inscrutable emotions you possess as your children squabbled over who had the right to make Families and who had the right to break them, each of them claiming authority from your lips and inspiration from your spirit. I, by virtue of birth, am of the Universal Family, a name so given because we trace lineage to the foundation of the House itself, when the House’s purpose was to serve all men upon this earth. I need not tell you how vehemently said lineage has been disputed, even to this day. The Universals, dare I say, are by and large the most popular amongst the Families, mainly through conquest and age, but also because the other Families were for a long time defined by their non-Universalness, and the disunity that came with it.

Regardless of reason Father, many of your children within the House do not observe the Season of the Fast. However, they can by no means ignore it. The tell-tale remnants of ashes on the foreheads of all Universals alert them to the beginning of the season, and the requisite festival at its end is one that no child in your House can claim to ignore. And then there are people like me, who, while no longer squarely within the boundaries of the House walls or the enclosures of a Family wing, still hear the bells and still feel the strong pull of years of instruction and indoctrination. This is the season, Father, the season in which we get ready to celebrate our reason for existence. But in order to fully appreciate this celebration we are told that we must suffer; we must find ways to come in contact with our limitations and our weaknesses. We must give up the things we value most, so that through our simple penance we may come to appreciate the greatest sacrifice of all: your sacrifice.

Per the aforementioned tradition, members of the Family are required to give something up in this season; by and large the most common I have seen is food. As I a child I was spared this choice; I was much too young to willingly give up the pleasures of a full stomach. Nonetheless my good parents made sure to instil the spirit of sacrifice in me and my siblings; the season was, and still is, marked by a universal absence of meat in my home. As a young man however, I am free to choose my object of abstinence, and it, quite frankly, is a very difficult choice. As you know, while I am not austere, Father, I am also not extravagant. I can go hours without food; oftentimes I find that the more occupied I am the more likely it is that I would forget to eat altogether. Sacrificing food, while a tad inconvenient, is by no means difficult.

I had spent the past few days of my journey wondering what to give up, when I was greeted with a message from the winged creature. His question was simple, and is one that has bothered me since: Why must I give anything up?

Now, this question came as I quite nearly discovered an apt item to fast upon in this forty-day period. As you know, my time on this green earth has been dubbed the Age of Networks, perhaps because your children have never been more connected, and in some ways more distant. It has oft been suggested in these times that we ought to give up the tools that facilitate these connections, freeing ourselves from the glut of information and embracing silence and solitude. I have never considered myself to be one of those bound by such admonitions; in fact I have many times looked down upon those that considered such tools fast-worthy. That one could be so attached to the network that liberation from it could take on religious significance is a phenomenon I have always found deplorable. And yet it was but a few moments before I realised that I relied on similar tools for my fill of news and information, which, while not centred around my person, had become intrinsic to my way of life. I immediately rejected the thought, telling myself that my habit was not a guilty pleasure, but a necessary one; it pays in my field to be abreast of the happenings of the time, payments that have come in handy in the past. It would be senseless to give up something that I, in my opinion, do not overindulge in. And in that moment my irritating friend had the audacity to whisper his first horrible statement: The fact I considered my sources important, but by no means indispensable, was the very reason I should let them go. As I turned to the fellow in anger, a random thought entered my mind: Shouldn’t an item’s worth in sacrifice be evaluated by how much said item drives me from you, instead of how much I rely upon it?

This thought calmed me. It seemed I had found a good counter to the irksome whisperings of my pest. My thoughts turned then to whether or not I could give up other things that this network provided, such as entertainment. No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than did the dastardly creature return, in his tiny, high-pitched voice, asking whether or not this consideration was an attempt to find a more palatable alternative to the immense sacrifice of my news sources. I was back in my ugly bind, with a tiny pang of guilt eating at my core. Was I trying to shirk my Universal responsibility by finding an item easier to give up?

I would spare you the back-and-forth between me and this fellow I have been cursed with, Father. As I brought new items that I could give up, he questioned their relevance, their position, and the weight of their sacrifice, each in a harsh and biting tone. Would it be true sacrifice if one such as myself could be made to feel nothing in their absence? Would I have to force myself to constantly wish for these things, only to be reminded that I could not have them, in order for my sacrifice to be made complete? I found myself wishing that the initial thought had not occurred to me, only to have the question put forth on whether or not my wishes were sound and just, whether I had the right to even think such thoughts.

It was at this juncture that he asked me the question I mentioned initially: Why must I give anything up? I have left the House, and while some parts of my being still lie within its confines, my behaviour, and the very nature of these letters, betrays my true position. Should I put myself through the stress and strain of deciding on a worthy sacrifice when the true question of my soul must be answered first, before the sacrifice would mean anything? Last year, when I told a friend of mine from the huge and segmented Family of Rebels about my fast, he frowned in what I felt was pity, asking how the elders of the Universals had convinced me that my place Upstairs was dependent on the timing of a few scraps of food. His pity was misguided, for I did not do it for my salvation, but his question has remained with me, resurfacing from the lips of my unwanted acquaintance. Where does this compulsion come from, and why is it so strong that I devolved into a bottomless argument with my acquaintance about worthy sacrifices and guilty consciences? Is any sacrifice worth it when I know that I will still indulge in other vices this season, when I know that nothing I give up would cause me to turn around and return to the House I was raised in, before my journey ends?

We are five days into the season, and I am yet to make my decision. I am considering simply abstaining from food by default, but even I know that that is by far the easiest of all my options, and that I run the risk of complacency in defining the actual sacrifice. The tendency would be to keep with the food-fast, all the way until the day that marks season’s end, ignoring perhaps more admirable choices for abstinence. If I do decide to fast, it would be for the same reasons that I did last year: in the hopes that by giving something up specifically for this season I would be constantly reminded of your role in my life, and perhaps come to see that to which I have been blinded this entire time, the impetus behind my journey. It is unlikely, in my humble opinion, but at least I would be able to say that I tried.

I will end here dearest Father, but before I go let me leave you with the question that has plagued my irresolute heart since I heard those bells many days ago: What would be a worthy sacrifice from this your prodigal son?

With indecision,

Your Prodigal Son

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