Path of Restoration
by the Rev. Mary Earle
Some years ago, when I began work as an associate rector at the Church of Reconciliation in San Antonio, I inherited a prayer desk that had seen better days. The pad on the kneeler was ragged, and the stuffing was gone. The wood had been painted over many times. I was on the verge of relegating it to the youth room when the sexton, a feisty redhead named Linda, offered to take the prayer desk home and see what her husband could do with it. He loved working with old wood, she said, and had a heart for this kind of restoration.
Weeks later, she knocked on the door of my office. She’d brought back the prayer desk. Her husband had carefully removed all of the layers of old paint. He’d discovered that underneath all of that grime and grit was sturdy oak. He had stripped off the last layer of old varnish and then lovingly sanded the wood. Clear varnish, applied with care and attention, now allowed the natural beauty of the oak to shine through.
Linda had made a new pad for the kneeler; it was a beautiful cotton print, simple in design and evocative of altar hangings. She’d made sure there was sufficient padding for my sore knee.
When she handed it to me, she said, “It’s been fully restored, and made beautiful all over again.”
As I write these words, my forehead is adorned with a cross of ashes. Every Ash Wednesday, I recall the prayer desk. I remember all those layers that obscured the inherent beauty of the oak. I remember the painstaking effort involved to remove the gunk so I could see the beauty of the wood, shining through again.
This Lenten journey, in the words of one traditional Gaelic prayer, reminds us that we are “fashioned for joy.” For all sorts of reasons, we discover that we, too, are covered over with layers of gunk and grime. Our innate beauty, the beauty bestowed when the living God brought us forth in God’s own image, gets obscured and hidden. Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and self-denial are intended to allow the Holy Spirit, through this sacramental life, to return us to that first beauty, and to begin transforming us into the divine likeness.
We cannot do this by ourselves. And we cannot allow it to happen merely by being grim, earnest and zealous. The Celtic Christian tradition has bequeathed to us a living sense of robust confidence in Jesus’ willingness to heal us and make us whole. From those prayers, both ancient and contemporary, we remember to sing, “Be Thou my vision,” and to enter these 40 days trusting in the abounding mercy of the God who keeps us in being at every moment.
I am drawn to the Celtic Christian tradition because of its willingness to look sin and evil straight in the face, name them, and forsake them. John Philip Newell hands on a story from his mentor, Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, an Irish scholar and Roman Catholic priest. O’Donoghue was presiding at a baptism in the west of Ireland. When he asked the gathered faithful if they were willing to renounce the devil and all his works, they responded with joy, “We do, the dirty bastard!”
Their exuberance overflowed. The congregation was not mumbling their response, wondering when the service would be over. They took the vow to heart, knowing that they and the baby being baptized were fashioned for the “gift of joy and wonder” in all of God’s works.
The living God and the God of the living desires deep restoration for each person, and for the entire created order. This Lenten season offers us space and time to remember, to give up our habitual busyness that leads to forgetting and addictive self-importance. As we let go of those habits and behaviors that lead us away from our deep identity in Christ, we will need to encourage one another along the way. We will need to name the good, as Archbishop Tutu as pointed out. We need to remember and invite the restoration God so desires to work in us through Jesus.
In the words of one of Newell’s prayers,
“In the morning light, O God,
may I glimpse again your image deep within me
the threads of eternal glory
woven into the fabric of every man and woman.
Again may I catch sight of the mystery of the human soul
fashioned in your likeness
deeper than knowing
more enduring than time.
And in glimpsing these threads of light
amidst the weakness and distortions of my life
let me be recalled to the strength and beauty deep in my soul
Let me be recalled
to the strength and beauty of your image in every living thing.”
(from Celtic Benediction, by John Philip Newell, Eerdmans, 2000)
The Rev. Mary Earle is author of several books and is writer-in-residence at The Work+Shop in San Antonio TX.
Reach her at email@example.com or leave a comment below. For a list of Mary’s books, visit http://marycearle.org/
Art: “Puddle in the Park” by Terry Gay Puckett. Puckett is one of several artists from around the Diocese of West Texas whose work is part of a special exhibit, “Lent through the Eyes of the Artist,” that will hang at Cathedral House Gallery at the Bishop Jones Center in San Antonio until mid-April. The opening wine-and-cheese reception is Sunday, Feb 26, 4 to 6 p.m. The public is invited free of charge.
The gallery is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The address is 111 Torcido, San Antonio TX 78209. For more information, contact Marjorie George at firstname.lastname@example.org or 210-857-5387.