“Noughting” as a Lenten Practice
As we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, February 17 this year, we should remember that Blessed Julian of Norwich in her first “Showing of Divine Love” says that every person who “desires to live contemplatively” must desire “to nought all things that are made in order to have the love of God that is unmade.” Lady Julian had a very specific thing in mind when she used the word “nought.” The word came into use in the English of the 12th century as a noun meaning “nothing” or “zero.” Among medieval mystics, the verb noughting meant deliberately letting go of attachment to self, intentionally renouncing worldly goods and worries as a practice to achieve deeper spiritual union with the divine. Noughting was ridding oneself of distractions, things that got in the way of illumination and union with God. It does not necessarily mean abandoning those we love, forsaking all things in which we find pleasure, and withdrawing from the world God created and declared “very good.” It means placing all things in their proper order and priority, a confession of placing first things first, essential to any spiritual growth.
Julian recognized that we are made first and foremost to love God. She agreed with St. Augustine’s prayer, “our souls are not at rest, O God, until they find their rest in thee.” Those seeking earthly well-being and pleasure as the most important thing were doomed, Julian said, to be “not completely at ease in heart and soul.” Noughting is denying self-centeredness to focus on the Love that lies beneath, within, and behind all of creation.
This year, Ash Wednesday services will be online due to Covid, and I as priest will not be able to impose ashes on your foreheads. I invite all before the service to take a single white sheet of paper, and write upon it what we believe distracts us from God, whether besetting sins, or specific pleasures we want to forgo during Lent to help us focus on God. Then, as a sign of our noughting these things, burn the sheet. Grind and keep the ashes, and then use them to trace out a cross on your foreheads at the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” during the live-streamed and recorded service. The imposed ashes will serve as a symbol of what you hope to nought this Lent.
This Lent, let us follow Julian and Augustine by the practice of resting in God. Let us naught our distractions. Perhaps we might let go of worry and fear, judgment of others, addiction to social media, sins, or simple appetites in which we take, perhaps, a bit too much pleasure. Let us observe a holy Lent by cultivating contemplation and listening in our hearts.
Grace and Peace.