For this episode, we felt drawn to reflect on a couple of “liturgical paradoxes” coming up now and in April: that the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday corresponds to Valentine’s Day; and that Easter Sunday falls on All Fools’ Day, April 1.
Valentine’s Day originated as a Christian memorial (for Saint Valentine), but in its secularized form it is a day for celebrating romantic love — complete with flowers, a nice dinner out, and of course, plenty of chocolate. But this flies in the face of the meaning and observance of Ash Wednesday — as the first day of the penitential season of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a solemn occasion for reflecting on our mortality (“remember that you are dust”), our sinfulness or woundedness, and — at least in some traditions — is a day for fasting — hardly conducive to indulging in sweets!
Of course, even without the religious overlay, Valentine’s Day can be paradoxical even on its own — as a day of sorrow for those who are lonely, or bereaved, or even navigating a relationship where love is absent.
How do we hold these paradoxes together? Could silence be a key to finding a way to honor both the pleasures of love and the invitation to self-forgetfulness?
“Paradox is paradoxical only to the linear, self-conscious mind,” says Maggie Ross in her recently published book Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume Two: Application. She goes on to consider an alternative to the limitations of the linear mind, which she calls “deep mind.” “Deep mind is inclusive, what ancient writers refer to as the place of unity. Its ways of thinking are holistic, even holographic.”
“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” — attributed to Niels Bohr
Put another way: perhaps paradox is itself a gift, a reminder that there’s more to our minds (and our capacity to know and to understand) than the limitations imposed by language and linear thought. Perhaps when we try to make sense of how to hold a paradox like Valentine’s Day falling on Ash Wednesday gently and authentically, we are invited into a place of deeper and higher knowing — and the portal to that place is not logic or language but simply silence.
Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:
- Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
- Niels Bohr, Niels Bohr: His Life and Work
- Nicholas of Cusa, Selected Spiritual Writings
- Marvin C. Shaw, The Paradox of Intention
- Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching
- Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach
- Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
- Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
- Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
- Pope Francis, The Hope of Lent
- T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”
- Carl McColman, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism
Another poem we didn’t mention in the podcast, but that deserves a shout out here, is Walter Brueggemann’s “Marked by Ashes” (from his book Prayers for a Privileged People). Also check out Thomas Merton’s thoughts on paradox in The Sign of Jonas…
Like the prophet Jonas, whom God ordered to go to Nineveh, I found myself with an almost uncontrollable desire to go in the opposite direction. God pointed one way and all my “ideals” pointed in the other. It was when Jonas was traveling as fast as he could away from Nineveh, toward Tharsis, that he was thrown overboard, and swallowed by a whale who took him where God wanted him to go…But I feel that my own life is especially sealed with this great sign, which baptism and monastic profession and priestly ordination have burned into the roots of my being, because like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox. — Thomas Merton
Episode 10: Silence & Paradox: Ash Wednesday & Valentine’s Day
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson and Carl McColman
Date Recorded: February 9, 2018