Lent Is About Transformation

02/22/2012 11:36 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2012

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Did you ever notice that Jesus does not tend to give what we would call "inspiring" or "motivational" talks? He is not a football coach, nor does he try to engage your will power as such. Your common Christian sense would deny this until you actually study his recorded Gospel messages, and see that it is factually true! Jesus is much more concerned about shaking your foundations, giving you an utterly alternative self image, world image, and God image, and thus reframing your entire reality. Mere inspiration can never do this.

If you depend on being emotionally inspired or newly motivated, you will need a new fix almost every day. If it is a true Gospel message, it will be more about regrounding, reshaping and redirecting you from your core. Thus the quintessential Lenten reading is Jesus' first public proclamation that we know of. In some ways, it summarizes everything he says: "Now is the time, God's reign is present, change your life, and believe some very good news" (Mark 1:15, my translation).

Yes, we do need an emotional charge to make most decisions, adopt specific behaviors, "give up candy for Lent," or make some changes in our life. But Jesus is not talking about changes. He is talking about change! Many changes might well be good and even needed, and surely some changes will result from any shaking of the foundations, but they are not what we mean by Biblical conversion or transformation ("changing the form itself"). These things do not change the seer as such, but only his or her acceptable self image -- and usually for a short while. It is the old and perennial problem of putting the cart before the horse, or thinking that lots of carts ("changes") will eventually create the horsepower. It never finally works.

Any appeal to will power, or even the presentation of some good new ideas, merely engages YOU, but at your present level of maturity and consciousness. Now YOU (in your old form!) try harder, think more or better, and do something different, but your YOU has not been changed in any substantial way. It is still "You" who try harder, think more or better, or do something different. Maybe this will get you into the right ball park for eventual and actual conversion, but in my experience, most people stay right where they are, and wait for the next motivational spiritual message. This is why so much organized religion is so ineffectual in actually changing people.

As the AA people say, religion usually depends far too much on "promotion instead of attraction." The old self needs constant promotional material to keep it going. The new self "hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3) is both attracted and attractive just by being itself. A transformed self engenders life from within, pulls life from without, and channels life in outer directions -- without "trying." The essential religious question is always this: "You must get your WHO right!" Who is the subject here? Who is doing the acting, the loving, the motivating, the repenting? Is "little ol' me" doing this or not doing this? All mature religion is somehow talking about finding your God self, your Christ self, your Buddha self, your Sufi dance. And when it happens, you know it was not a "change" after all, but a wondrous discovery and constant rediscovery of what was always true anyway.

After transformation one realizes that one is a participant! And always has been! It is being done unto me, through me, with me, and for me? Until we realize and act from this larger I AM, there has been no essential transformation, but only an accessorizing of the old outfit. For many of us, this change of form is summed up rather perfectly in Paul's oft quoted line "I live no longer my own life, but the life of Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). Choosing this or that religious form is often nothing more than a delay tactic avoiding our participation in a Ride that is already happening beneath, before, and beyond all of the forms, and this Ride is much larger than ME. Paul again says shortly thereafter, "It does not matter whether one is circumcised or not, what matters is that you become an altogether new creation" (Galatians 6:15).

The big rub is that to surrender my "singularity" (John 12:24) and fall into this "altogether new creation" will always feel like dying. How could it not? It is a dying of the self that we thought we were, but it is the only self that we knew until then. It will indeed be a "revolution of the mind" (Ephesians 4:23). Heart and body will soon follow.

This is the real "try harder" that applies to Lent, and its ultimate irony is that it is not a trying at all, but an ultimate surrendering, dying, and foundational letting go. You will not do it yourself, but it will be done unto you (Luke 1:38) by the events of your life. Such deep allowing is the most humiliating, sacrificial, and daily kind of trying! Pep talks seldom get you there, but the suffering of life and love itself will always get you there. Lent is just magnified and intensified life.

To purchase, Fr. Richard Rohr's books, please visit this website.