As soon as you heard the question, you knew the answer. No, God does not really care if we give up chocolate for Lent. The devil might, but for a different reason. His reason is so that this SMALL matter becomes the distraction that keeps you from the GREAT work of Lent. So, what is THE work of Lent? Let me tell you a story…
Once upon a time, a long time ago, and very far from here, a great Tibetan poet named Milarepa studied and meditated for decades. He traveled the countryside, teaching the practice of compassion and mercy to the villagers he met. He faced many hardships, difficulties and sorrows, and transformed them into the path of his awakening.Finally, it was time to return to the small hut he called home. He had carried its memory in his heart through all the years of his journey. Much to his surprise, upon entering, he found it filled with enemies of every kind. Terrifying, horrifying, monstrous demons that would make most people run. But Milarepa was not most people.
Inhaling and exhaling slowly three times, he turned toward the demons, fully present and aware. He looked deeply into the eyes of each, bowing in respect and said: “You are here in my home now. I honor you, and open myself to what you have to teach me.”
As soon as he uttered these words, all of the enemies save five disappeared. The ones that remained were grisly, raw, huge monsters. Milarepa bowed once more and began to sing a song to them, a sweet melody resonant with caring for the ways these beasts had suffered, and curiosity about what they needed and how he could help them. As the last notes left his lips, four the demons disappeared into thin air.
Now only one nasty creature was left, fangs dripping evil, nostrils flaming, opened jaws revealing a dark foul black throat. Milarepa stepped closer to this huge demon, breathed deeply into his own belly, and said with quiet compassion: “I must understand your pain and what it is you need in order to be healed.” Then he put his head in the mouth of his enemy.
In that instant, the demon disappeared, and Milarepa was home at last.
In so many ways, that story echoes the story of Jesus we hear each first Sunday of Lent. It’s the story of Jesus being LED by the Spirit into the desert – where there were no distractions – just the raw, naked elements and the silence. In that deserted place, Jesus meets HIS demons head on. What he learned there is the enemy he HAD to face there in that desolation was none other than the enemy within. The enemy was not outside of him, but rather, within. And He learned that the only way out was in. THAT is the GREAT WORK OF LENT. Not giving up chocolate. Not fasting between meals. Not even praying more or sacrificing more. Nope. The great work of Lent is to face the demons within!
The demons are all that is wrong with us that we continue to run from—that we refuse to attend to and refuse to treat with compassion in ourselves. They will surface again and again until we face them. For whatever we bury, we bury alive. They take on a life of their own. Robert Bly wrote: “Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.” Those parts of us become that demon we fear—they become the enemy! But once we face them, we can be transformed by them. Once Jesus learned THAT, he came to know that if there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm.
And what is the face of this inner enemy, those demons who would not go away? As Matthew and Luke were later to describe it – somewhere inside Jesus, he wanted to be powerful, he wanted to be noticed, he wanted to be celebrated and acclaimed. He was tempted to turn his considerable charisma and talent to his own ends. The temptation was to let it be about him. He had to wrestle with that in him. This was a frightening foe; the enemy within him would not go away. It would haunt him throughout his ministry. And it was that desire that he had to face down if he was ever to be free to love and to serve. Only by taking it on, only by facing it, only by putting his head in its mouth, could he have ever gotten free.
And so it is for us. This is where it all begins – what Lent is really about. Unless we start here we will not be able to love. And if we cannot love we do not live! Unless we face those “enemies of love” that are real and live in us, as surely as they lived in Jesus, we will not be able to know true love, healthy connection, a love that lasts – that for which we most hunger and thirst. Facing those “enemies”, we will begin to see that our enemy is actually our ally in disguise.
Once we dare face the ENEMIES that live in us—welcome them, bow to them; once we dare put our heads into their very mouths, then they can disappear. Oh they will hang around to come and tempt us again. But next time we will not be so afraid. And we will be that much less afraid of other people hurting us, or those demons having power over us.
The heroes and leaders of our times will be those women and men who have the courage to plunge into the darkness at the bottom of their personal lives and face the enemy within. Please God, give us the courage NOW, this Lent, to do just that!
And if we do so, then perhaps what we will learn is the most profound thing of all: That what was wrong with us, when faced and loved and understood, is exactly what is right with us.
Milarepa was a great sage who met his enemies with an enlightened mind and an open heart. “In that instant, the demon disappeared and Milarepa was home at last.” So will you be, home at last! Home, in your own home!