taking the first step of the journey beyond
My Dear One,
This week marks one of the most spiritually significant weeks of the year and, if we will embrace it, one of the most significant weeks for us on our journey towards transformation.
In many Christian traditions, such as my own Episcopal Church, this week begins the season of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. We gather in the darker hours, often in the early morning hours or late hours of evening, to enter into this somber season, a time for reflection, self-denial, and penitence. The priest stands before the congregation and issues the words of the “Invitation to a Holy Lent” reminding us that we repeatedly stand in need of a new start in our journey of faith, and concluding with these words:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
And then, after a time of silent observance, the priest picks up a small bowl of ashes and calls people to rise up, step forward and receive the sign of the cross on their forehead with these words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This is the liturgical equivalent of this week’s stage of the Universal Transformative Journey, the Crossing of the Threshold. Having spent the last several weeks listening to God’s call, which often takes the form of a deep longing within our own heart or a restless whisper within our own mind, and then noticing all the reasons we might have to resist that call, this week we too are being asked to rise up, step forward, and move closer to the place where we too are called to die.
Our eventual physical death is one that usually comes upon us through disease or old age, whether we are ready to embrace it or not. One of the gifts of the journey of transformation is that through it we practice for this larger death by learning to embrace the smaller deaths of life. For if we are to become something new, we must inevitably die to what we once were. As fearful as this process might be, those who submit to it over and over again in their lives are usually those most ready to embrace the final death when it comes.
Many people choose to continue to refuse the call. They might well hear the call to transformation but out of fear they refuse to go further and thus the Universal Transformative Journey is arrested in place. As Joseph Campbell writes about standing at the precipice of Crossing the Threshold:
“The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored …” The Hero With a Thousand Faces, p. 64
What holds us back is a fear of what will be found on the other side of the as yet unopened door. In mythology, folk tales, and religion, it is very often a great beast or temptation of some kind. The troll guards the passage of the bridge, scaring off any would-be adventurers. An evil creature takes the form of a wizard, witch or temptress, distracting the hero from their quest. Satan appears at just the opportune time to invite us to remain trapped within our own fears and fall victim once more to the tempting fruit of self-reliance.
What makes the difference, then, for those who choose to push beyond the usual bounds, who choose to step forward and see where the adventure of transformation leads? Marian Wright Edelman is quoted as recalling that Dr. Martin Luther King once urged “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.” And it is faith, be it faith in God, faith in the process, faith in the mentor, faith in our abilities, or any combination of the above, that becomes the deciding factor. Standing at the threshold of The Crossing, we are always required to place our faith in something uncertain, to trust in a power or wisdom beyond our own.
The one who has much faith is willing to walk forward on little evidence. The one who has little faith cannot be persuaded no matter how mountainous that evidence may be.
Movie Example: The Way
In Week 1 of the Universal Transformative Journey, The Ordinary, we were introduced to the Martin Sheen movie The Way. Martin plays a doctor named Tom and Martin’s real-life son, Emilio Estevez, plays his son Daniel. Daniel is about to set out on the adventure of walking the Camino de Santiago across Spain, which Tom feels is an epic waste of time. Tragically Daniel dies on the first day of this journey after getting turned around in bad weather while crossing the Pyrenees mountains. This actual first crossing on the Camino over the border from France into Spain is a way of awakening ourselves to the very real dangers of making such a journey. The stakes are real and Daniel ends up having to pay the price.
Tom, learning of Daniel’s death, travels to the beginning point of the Camino (Spanish for “the Way” or “the Path”) to identify Daniel’s body, have him cremated, and bring his remains home. Once there, Tom meets a kind local law official named Henri. Over the course of a couple of days, Tom and Henri, strike up a friendship over this shared loss, it turns out, Henri’s own loss of a child previously.
In this story, Henri serves an important dual role, that of both mentor and “threshold guardian,” another common figure in the Universal Transformative Journey. A threshold guardian is someone who, usually literally, stands at the doorway, the crossroads, or the bridge and discourages the hero from beginning the journey. Here, after Tom decides to walk the Camino himself with the box containing Daniel’s ashes, Henri protest that he is not adequately prepared, “You haven’t trained for this walk and, no disrespect, you are more than 60 years old.” You aren’t prepared. You don’t have what you need. You aren’t well-suited or fit enough. These are the voices of the discouraging guardian.
But Tom is not dissuaded. He has already in his mind crossed the threshold, now all he needs is to do so with his feet. Tom’s first step out of his hotel the next day, wearing Daniel’s clothes and Daniel’s backpack, his first steps are in the wrong direction as he meets a large group just setting out themselves. A few minutes later, Henri greets Tom at the bridge he must cross to begin the journey. Standing at the place of the expected threshold guardian, he does not discourage Tom but instead becomes the mentor once more, steering him back in the right direction after he begins a second time to walk the wrong way. “Tom!” Henri calls, pointing across the bridge, “This is The Way.”
Correcting course, Tom turns back and sheepishly smiles at Henri as he crosses the threshold to begin his journey.
Biblical Example: Jesus Crosses into the Wilderness
For Jesus, the threshold is clearly his baptism in the Jordan River. Having met his mentor, John the Baptizer, and having been strengthened for his journey by a voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as beloved, Jesus emerges from the river and instead of going back to the familiar bank from which he came, he instead heads into the wilderness of the other side of the Jordan. As Mark’s gospel recalls,
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Mark 1:9-13
Here we have within just a few verses all of the things we’ve been speaking of: The Mentor - John, The Threshold - the river and the rending open of the heavens, The Supernatural Aid of the angels and finally, Jesus’ Threshold Guardian - none other than Satan himself. Satan has come to temp Jesus in three different ways to abandon his journey and instead give way to the temptation for his own self-preservation. Being tempted with bread for his weakness of Strength, with power for his weakness of Soul, and with domination for his weakness of Heart, Jesus successfully resists and returns from the wilderness ready to face the many other trials of his public ministry and seemingly inevitable death.
Whether you think of yourself as an adventurer or not, you are by now well-experienced in crossing thresholds. You went to kindergarten, letting go of your parent’s hand. You graduated high school, moving away from home. Perhaps you have graduated college, going out to start your first job. Perhaps you have gotten married, had children, bought a first house, lost someone you loved, buried a parent, changed careers, confronted people who hurt you in the past, made a change in yourself for the better, ended a friendship, started a new one, went to therapy, got divorced, entered seminary, moved across the country, or any number of other major life thresholds. Each one required its own measure of death. You had to let go of what once was, who you once were, in order to move forward into who you would become.
Draw great strength from this fact. You have done this kind of thing before and come through the ordeal. Whatever it is you are facing, with God’s help, you will do so again. You are not alone. Countless throngs of angels have gone before you, saint and sinner, doing what it is you are now considering. In every case, it required an ever greater degree of faith of them - as crossing this threshold does now from you.
Now is the time for greater clarity. What is it that you believe you are journeying towards? What is it that you know you will need to let go of? What is it that you know you must continue to work towards obtaining, your reward if you are willing to go on this journey? Again, it may be helpful to write some of this down to see it on paper, no longer just in your mind, to bring it into being in at least that physical form. Write your end goal down on a notecard and place it somewhere you will see it often, especially at times you may be tempted to abandon the journey. If you have the strength to make this first step, which is often the hardest, you have the strength you need for the coming trials and for the great ordeal ahead.
Your Journey this week
Crossing the Threshold is the final step of the first Departure phase of the transformative journey. If you’ve done your work over the past four weeks, at this point you have examined the status quo in The Ordinary, listened for the pull to something deeper in The Call, paid attention to all your excellent excuses in The Refusal, and found someone to lean on for the journey in The Mentor. Now is finally the time to decide if you are really ready to make the journey of transformation and walk towards the future God’s Spirit is beckoning you towards.
This invitation to cross the threshold comes at an opportune time as this week marks the beginning of the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. My recommendation is that you attend worship on Wednesday and enter that service with a particular purpose in mind. Don’t simply go to get ashes smeared on your head. Go to mark a very real transition from your present life into your future, which will require a choosing of death and mortality if you should hope to gain something that is immortal. As Joseph Campbell notes,
“… passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation … the hero goes inward to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of the worshipper into the temple - where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal.” HWATF, p. 77
Just as Jonah entered the belly of the whale after his own refusal in order that he might later be spit out on the shores of the land God had called him to visit in the first place, so too you can enter the church Wednesday as if it is the belly of your own whale. The journey ahead will involve facing your own trials and temptations and gathering the courage necessary to go to your innermost cave to face whatever beast may guard that later threshold. Lent is a perfect time to do this inner work knowing that giving into this death will not be in vain. As Christ’s death was necessary for his own resurrection, so too is ours.
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. Romans 6:4
Have faith. Move forward. Step across the threshold.
following The Way,