The savasana of Lent

I just finished proofreading a book on yoga, and one of its chapters in particular is going to stick with me through Lent: “Practice Dying.” In it the author, Michael Stone, discusses the significance of savasana (pronounced sha-VA-sa-na), literally “corpse pose,” which involves lying face-up on the ground, arms at your side, palms up, in a state of attentive relaxation. It is the final pose of every yoga session—and it’s the practice of death, of letting go.

In corpse pose, the practitioner embraces the impermanence of life and, by doing so, is empowered to live with greater gratitude for what is, right now, and with a continual attitude of surrender. Facing one’s mortality is seen as freeing rather than fearsome.

Savasana is a restorative pose, meant to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. It’s widely considered the most important pose in yoga and also the most difficult. It’s deceptively hard to slow down and be still! And still more, to let the unwanted elements within us die.

Preparing for Flight by Michelle Kingdom
Michelle Kingdom (American, 1967–), Preparing for Flight, 2016. Embroidery.

This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world will enter a savasana of sorts as they receive an ashen cross on their foreheads, along with the pronouncement that they are dust and will return to dust. Christians, like Buddhists, concede a great impermanence and teach nonattachment to the things of this life, but unlike Buddhists, we are theists who believe that there is One who is permanent, the only ground, the only stability, and that we are to attach ourselves to him at all costs.

In many ways, to observe Lent is to practice dying. We die to self—so that we can rise to new life in Christ. This act involves purging our hearts and lives of those things that only cause clutter, and relaxing into that empty space with God. In asana practice, it is, ironically, savasana, corpse pose, that wakes you up, that rebirths you into the rest of your day, the rest of your life. So, too, is Lent a putting-to-death posture that leads to resurrection.

Some people tend to associate Lent with extra exertion—and it’s true, there are disciplines associated with it (fasting, prayer, almsgiving). But what if Lent were reconceived as a time of “attentive relaxation”? Of meeting with the Breath (the Spirit) in stillness, listening and leaning into his promptings? Indeed, fasting and prayer are intended to open up that meeting space, and giving money and food to the poor is no burden to those who have relinquished their grasp on material possessions.

Like savasana, the “corpse pose” of Lent is both simple and difficult. Lying down and letting go. It can be painful to put to death those habits and things that have been keeping us from God, as can the sacrifice required to reach out to others in their need. But the life that awaits us when we die to self makes the choice obvious, and God’s very Spirit is active on our behalf.

Michelle Kingdom’s embroidery Preparing for Flight visualizes, for me, this idea of Lent as savasana. (That is, my theistic reinterpretation of it.) As the figure relaxes into the Ground of Being, she is made ready to soar.

Lent is about renewal, a coming to life that can happen only when we lie down and die (see, e.g., Jesus’s parable of the grain of wheat). In the stillness, in the dust, in the cessation of striving, is where God meets us and raises us up, as Rami M. Shapiro suggests in his poem “Renewal”:

Imagine not that life is all doing.
Stillness, too, is life;
And in that stillness
The mind cluttered with busyness quiets,
The heart reaching to win rests,
And we hear the whispered truths of God.

May your Lent be a time of blessed stillness that restores you to the abundant life of God.

The soundtrack for this post, embedded above, is “Death” by the Coptic Australian oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros, inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s poem of the same name. “. . . [L]ike seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. / Trust the dreams . . .”

Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources

I first learned about fumi-e (“stepping-on pictures”) while reading about the history of Christian art in Japan. These objects are bronze likenesses of Jesus, sometimes shown together with his mother, Mary, that the religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan required suspected Christians to step on in order to prove that they were not members of that outlawed religion. If the apprehended persons refused, they were tortured and, if that didn’t break them, killed—most notoriously, by being boiled to death in the volcanic springs of Mount Unzen.

fumi-e-3

e-fumi ceremony
This painting by Keiga Kawahara, ca. 1826, shows an e-fumi (“picture stepping”) ceremony in Edo Japan, in which a man proves his aversion to Christianity by trampling an image of Christ. Location: National Library of the Netherlands.

This period of persecution lasted from 1629 to 1858.

Fumi-e factor heavily into Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel Chinmoku (Silence), which tells the story of two Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan in 1639 to find their missing mentor—rumored to have apostatized—and to continue the work he started there with the underground church. Written by Endō partly in response to the discrimination he experienced as a Japanese Catholic, the novel is about the struggle for faith in a world marked by God’s seeming absence. It received the highly esteemed Tanizaki Prize the year of its release and instantly became a best seller; it was translated into English in 1969.

Silence book covers
Two cover designs. Left: Christ is crucified on the Japanese kanji for “silence.” Right (illustration by Yuko Shimizu): Father Rodrigues prays desperately on a cliff’s edge, foregrounded by a blood-drenched moon.

Since then it has been the basis of several artistic adaptations: a stage play, also by Endō; a Japanese film by Masahiro Shinoda; a Portuguese film by João Mário Grilo; an opera by Teizo Matsumura; a symphony by James MacMillan—and now an American film by Martin Scorsese, the same director who brought us Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He dedicates it “to Japanese Christians and their pastors.”

Twenty-eight years in the making, Scorsese’s “passion project,” Silence, has been lauded as “one of the best films ever made about Christian faith.” The Telegraph calls it a “plangent, scalding work of religious art . . . soul-pricklingly attuned to matters transcendent and eternal.” Time Out says it “ranks among the greatest achievements of spiritually minded cinema.” “An anguished masterwork of spiritual inquiry,” the Los Angeles Times declares, that “ponders the dogmas, riddles and anxieties of Christian faith with a rigor and seriousness that . . . has few recent equivalents in world cinema. . . . A work of insistent, altogether confounding grace.” Eric Metaxas says, “This may be the most Christian film I have ever seen—and that includes The Passion.”

Released in theaters December 23, 2016, Silence stars Andrew Garfield as lead character Father Sebastião Rodrigues, and Adam Driver as his compatriot, Father Francisco Garrpe. Liam Neeson plays the apostate Cristóvão Ferreira. See the trailer below.

Before I found out Scorsese was adapting Endō’s Silence, I learned of the novel from visual artist Makoto Fujimura, whose own work and theology have been very much influenced by it. Last May he published the book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, about his journey with Endō through art, trauma, and cultural heritage.   Continue reading “Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources”