Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lent 04: Four of Swords

I got into studying the meanings of Tarot cards back in the late nineties as the result of reading a lot of books on Jung and symbolism, as well as Charles Williams' The Greater Trumps. I use them as devices of meditation and contemplation, a fact I would never have been able to reveal when I first started doing it. It was bad enough I played roleplaying games. To admit I not only avidly studied the Tarot, but also owned several decks would have been career suicide. For the record, I have four decks: The New Palladini Tarot was my first, based upon the classic Rider-Waite deck, and also remains my favorite; The Lord of the Rings Tarot, which I bought more out of Tolkien fandom than anything else; The Merlin Tarot, which has some gorgeous art for the Major Arcana, but the most boring Minor Arcana I've ever seen outside a regular playing card deck; and the Master Tarot, which utilizes both canonical and apocryphal scriptures of Jesus' words and actions in a doubly iconoclastic manner: it's not based on classic Tarot, and let's face it, a Tarot deck about Jesus might be the worst thing a practicing Christian could own in some people's minds.

I'm not interested in getting into an apologetic for why I own these. In fact, at this stage of my life, I don't see the point in apologizing for things I own or do that I've thought about carefully over a long period of time. One of the character flaws I fostered during my tenure as a paid minister was second-guessing. Since I had to defend nearly everything I did (roleplaying, rock music, wearing black), I often doubted my ability to make good decisions. I still did things that were counter-cultural in evangelical Christian circles, but those actions were framed by terms like "loose cannon", "rebel", or "shit disturber". While I'm no stranger to controversy, never lacking the courage of my convictions, my courage was undermined by several factors: I was a youth pastor, I looked young, and I had an unconventional appearance. Youth pastors are often conflated in congregations' minds as being youth themselves. When we advocate for our youthful parishoners, our advocacy is seen as a vested interest (which it is, but so is the senior pastor's interests: whenever I got in trouble with my senior pastors, it was because their older parishoners wanted the pastor to advocate on their behalf). When people think you're younger than you are, you're perceived as lacking maturity. When you have long hair, you get pulled over by the cops for no good reason, so why should anyone trust you in a church?

I digress. This was supposed to be about tarot, specifically the Four of Swords.

The Four of Swords is one of my favorite Tarot Cards. I think it might be the one meant for pastors, or people involved in caregiving. It signifies the idea of retreating, of rest and recovery, of taking time out. As Jana Riley puts it in her excellent Tarot Dictionary and Compendium, it can mean illness in order to recuperate (131). The three swords above the sleeping individual are aiming down, and will cut him if he sits up. The fourth sword is almost saying, "we're not quite at the point where you'll totally burn out, but if you don't keep resting, that last sword is going to join the other three."

That's been my March. I got sick right after that last Lenten post, mainly due to unhealthy stress created from a deadline for an article I should never have taken on. I stayed sick because I tried to keep teaching, as well as working on final edits for another article, as catching up on the marking I didn't do while I was writing the article I shouldn't have taken on. I'm feeling much better now: this past weekend my wife and I went to San Francisco on a research trip, and the humid air did me a lot of good. Being back on the dry prairies has been somewhat detrimental, but I'm not flat on my back with swords pointing down at me anymore.

Lent is a season of retreat and rest. We're driven into the desert to engage in Four of Swords work. As Sharman-Burke's entry on the Four of Swords in the Tarot Dictionary puts it, "A time of rest or retreat after a struggle: a quiet period for thinking things through, a slackening of tension and a relaxation of anxiety."

We could call it sabbatical time. The sort of time I rarely got when I was engaged in paid ministry, save for my last appointment at Holyrood Mennonite, where they let me have the month of December off the year Gunnar was born. That's incredible when you consider what that means: they gave me time off at one of the busiest, most high-profile times of the church year. More churches should take a cue from that. But then again, more pastors should too. It's not just that churches don't give their pastors time off, it's that pastors think they can't. Despite second-guessing our actions in paid ministry, we also end up with God-complexes. Eugene Peterson explains the importance of Four of Swords thinking in the chapter titled "Prayer Time" in Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. He defines Sabbath as "Uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week we take ourselves far too seriously." He goes on to say that Sabbath is time to "detach ourselves from the people around us so that they have a chance to deal with God without our poking around...They need to be free from depending on us" (73). I like this idea, which I break down simply to saying, take a break - the universe will continue to turn without your help.

I need to be reminded of this, as my recent turn in health clearly demonstrates. I often think of the Four of Swords as the card that says, "lay down now, or you'll be doing it for quite a while anyhow." In the wake of the article I took on that I shouldn't have, I've vowed to tone things down: no more than one active article at a time, since I'll likely be doing edits to several simultaneously in a month or two. There's a Lenten practice if there ever was one.

1 comment:

  1. Yup. Being busy is overrated. Particularly being excessively busy. There seems to be this unwritten rule (although sometimes vocalized by former teachers) that if you are not exceedingly busy all the time then you are a failure.

    Busy is overrated, rest is underrated. This is what I have learned over the past couple of years.