The season of Lent extends from Ash Wednesday up to the eve of Easter
Sunday. The word "lent" comes from a German word meaning "spring." It is
a time of purification and introspection in preparation for the renewal
in spring. The first day of Lent occurs on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before
Easter Sunday. The number forty has much significance in relation to the
mythic story of Jesus and the preparation of Lent. According to scripture
and tradition, Jesus was forty hours in the tomb before his resurrection
and forty days fasting in the wilderness before undertaking his public
The forty days before Easter is a time for us to also fast from the
outer world. In an agricultural society, Lent is the time in the year when
the winter stores are dwindling and it becomes time to tighten ones belt,
until the food stores can be renewed in the spring. It represents a period
of self-examination, rest and introspection prior to the arrival of spring.
In our self-examination, it is a time to work on overcoming our weaknesses,
rather than a time to mourn over our past errorsa time to die to the old
in preparation for the renewal in spring.
As we turn our attention inward in self-examination psychological energies
are stimulated that lead us toward a reconciliation of the Shadow elements
in our psyche. We experience a tension and dynamic resolution of the opposites
and a unification with the contrasexual image within ourselves. As stated
in the Gospel of Thomas: when you make the two one, and when you make
the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the
below, and when you make the male and female into a single one,...then
shall you enter the Kingdom.
Introspective self-examination helps to bring the contents of the unconscious
into consciousness, which results in a conjunction of the opposites. When
we make the two one, when we unite the opposites, something new arises
within the psyche on a higher level of manifestation. We meet a transcendent
and transpersonal being within us. Gnostics have compared this experience
to viewing a light-being of oneself in a mirror. ...when you make eyes
in the place of an eye, a hand in the place of a hand, and a foot in the
place of a foot, and an image in the place of an image, then shall you
enter the Kingdom. The Jewish Gnostics write about a stage in Kabbalistic
meditation where one meets a figure of light resembling oneself, a light
twin, that is necessary before one can ascend in the Divine Chariot (Mercavah)
to the place of light.
In medieval times, Lent was a period of bitter fasting and self-mortification.
Self-punishment and intentional suffering was considered an act of piety
pleasing to Deity. This idea sprang from the Old Testament concept of a
jealous God, jealous of the good fortune and happiness of humanity. The
theory arose that, if our life was too good, we would forget about the
gods, and thus the gods would visit adversity upon us to make us need them
again. If we voluntarily took on suffering we could escape the jealous
God and prevent him from visiting evil or punishment upon us to remind
us of his existence and power. The medieval idea of penance was that, if
we took it into our hands to punish ourselves, we could escape the punishment
of God in the hereafter.
There is some truth to this conception, in that the evil or punishing
circumstances in our lives are often the result of the activity of the
gods of the unconscious that we have ignored. Yet our austerities and mortifications
will never be effective, unless they can bring the gods of the unconscious
into consciousness. In this instance, the jealous gods are but the inversion
of the helpful powers of the unconscious. "Diabola est Deus Inversus."
(The Devil is the inverse of God)
The religious practice of fasting is universal and not a phenomenon
of Christianity alone. The initiation of a shaman is generally preceded
by a three day fast. There are many references to this three day period
throughout the Biblical literature. Jonah spends three days in the belly
of the great fish "Dag Gudul," three days elapse between the Crucifixion
and the Resurrection of Jesus and St Paul is blind three days after his
encounter on the road to Damascus. The ordeal of the fast in the Native
American practice of the vision quest produces the experience of a visionary
death and rebirth in which the young shaman finds his or her helping spirit
and other spirit powers.
In our modern culture, it is difficult to artificially create the conditions
necessary to call forth these helpful powers. It cannot be made to happen
by self-serving or self-deprecating acts of mortification. Such acts become
another manipulative act of the ego personality, which inevitably fails,
somewhat like the child who attempts to get what it wants by holding its
breath until it turns blue. Eventually it passes out and begins to breath
The personal sacrifice and austerities of the Native American vision
quest is intended to bring one to the brink of death. When one comes to
the lowest point, when the ego is at its wits end, then one calls forth
the healing powers of the psyche. In the vision quest, the Native American
youth goes out into the wilderness alone. He fasts and prays, offering
himself up to the elements of nature and the higher powers. He continues
to fast and suffer until the higher powers take pity on him. When the spirits
come to him he gives prayers of thanksgiving not self deprecation. The
dual qualities of spiritual courage and humble emptying are required to
make this sacrifice of self to Self. The Elder Edda describes this
initiation. "I know that I hung on the wind-swept Tree for nine full nights
wounded with a spear, and given to Odin, myself to myself, on that Tree
from which none know of which root it rises."
Christian mystics have also used fasting to stimulate mystical experience.
The prayers of the Christian mystics are filled with wonder, love and thanksgiving,
not self-deprecation and confessions of guilt. We must first feel that
we are a worthy offering before we can courageously empty ourselves in
humble sacrifice and thanksgiving. When we offer our inner first fruits
upon the altar of our hearts, we experience a mystical transformation and
rebirth. What originally was thought to be so important about one's life
is no longer so important. We find the hidden pearl within. We find that
we have gained the spiritual treasure that eclipses all worldly treasures.
This loss of self-importance and discovery of Self is a continuous process.
It is not done once and for all time, with the a receipt of perfect Gnosis.
If approached with the appropriate psychological intent, a retreat to the
wilderness and short period of fasting may indeed call forth the helpful
and instructive powers of the unconscious. The key to the retreat and fasting
is to lose one's self-importance. Isolation and austerity in voluntarily
giving oneself over to a symbolic death is an aid to this psychological
preparation. Coming to the powers of the unconscious with a planned agenda
or desire to wrest away some importance from the experience only leads
An Elder of the Brule Sioux describes the necessary humility and self
sacrifice to obtain a vision and discover ones Self in a story of a young
mans failure on a vision quest. You went after your vision like a hunter
after buffalo, or a warrior after scalps. You were fighting the spirits.
You thought they owed you a vision. Suffering alone brings no vision nor
does courage, nor does sheer will power. A vision comes as a gift born
of humility, of wisdom, and of patience. If from your vision quest you
have learned nothing but this, then you have already learned much.
It might be thought strange that I should compare Native American shamanism
with classical Gnosticism, for, in the popular view, Native Americans are
earth-worshippers and Gnostics earth-haters. Yet, a deeper appreciation
of both begins to demonstrate their kinship, and to reveal that neither
dichotomy is accurate. The Happy Hunting Ground of the Native American
is not a place in this world, nor was the Gnostic paradise. The Native
Americans respected the earth because their life depended on it, yet, in
the extremities of the vision quest, the earth is acknowledged as a place
of suffering, a place to perform ones earthly and spiritual calling until
the time comes to join the Sky People of their ancestors.
So, why do we not suggest that we all leave this vale of woe in some
mass suicide? Because there is something yet very precious about human
consciousnessthere is an insight, a resurrection, a Gnosis that can only
be achieved in this embodied consciousness. This Gnosis not only liberates
one from the attachments and snares of the world but also awakens a compassion
for all sentient beings and a desire to remain and help others with the
task of Self-knowledge. Liberation from the chains of attainment frees
us from bondage to our demiurgic egos. The fasting and mortifications of
the vision quest comprise one of the ways that have been used to burst
these bonds of the Demiurge who says I am the only god. Under this tyranny
a vision of Gnosis cannot come.
An extended fast is only one means of producing the altered state of
consciousness that can knock the ego-personality out of its autonomous
tyranny of self-importance. Until the autonomy and resistance of the ego
is broken down, there is no place for the helpful powers to come forth
and communicate. According to the teachings of Don Juan in the writings
of Carlos Castaneda, we find our personal power when we loose our self-importance.
The oppressive circumstances of our lives, the petty tyrants and jealous
gods that we meet, help us to lose our self-importance and to find our
personal power. When we lose our self-importance, all the things that push
our buttons no longer affect us. The archons (the jealous gods) have no
power over us. We find the personal power to transcend the petty archons
and ascend to the realms of light.
We lose the self-importance of the ego-personality to find the Self.
According the Gospel of John, whosoever shall lose his life shall
gain it. Self-importance is not the same as self-worth. We find something
we think will make us important in order to cover a lack of self-worth.
When we release the self-importance of our ego-personality we find the
worth we have in the eyes of the Father from the beginning. In the death
and rebirth experience of Gnosis, we lose our life in order to gain it.
The visionary experience of shamanic initiation is a vision of dismemberment
and death. The shaman sees his or her body hollowed out and filled with
crystals, wounded and healed, in order that he or she might heal others.
From the wounding of Jesus upon the Cross to the stigmata of the saints,
the wounded healer remains an archetype of our own death and rebirth in
In this day and age, we can come to this experience of death and rebirth
through invocation and prayer. We can simply invoke the helpful powers
of the unconscious into consciousness. Such a prayer opens a direct line
to the driver of the cosmic dump truck where is accumulated all of our
lifetimes of psychic and karmic refuse. Such a prayer sends out a call
that we are ready for it to fall on us. This is what the helpful powers
are for. This is why they are called forth; to help us take care of our
garbage, to polish the glass of our spiritual vision, to purify our refuse
in the furnace of our fiery being, composted and compressed into crystal,
to fashion the diamond body; to make of it a bright and pellucid mirror,
reflecting to us the radiance of our Divine Self.
-- Rev. Steven Marshall