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 Gendlins 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 outthe Resurrectiona
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 lifes 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 contactie., absolution. Secondly, we must cleanse ourselves
of anxious and obsessive attachments to the things of this world. Like
suckers 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
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 defiencies 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 souls pain. Yet all we really get are paltry substitutes
for our souls longing. If we can discover the needs, traumas and deficiencies
behind our anxious attachments, if we can go through our souls 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
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
"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 Selfthe Christ within.
-- Rev. Steven Marshall