Agony in Lent and beyond
“Either you’re a bad teacher, or philosophy is a stupid discipline, because a class shouldn’t be this hard.” So said a student to me some years ago regarding the introductory philosophy class in which she was enrolled. The only way I knew how to be both truthful and charitable was to reply: “Most people find that the rewards of the discipline are commensurate with the level of effort invested.” We parted, each having failed to persuade the other. I was convinced that the effort required was justified; she was unconvinced.
That event came to mind while reflecting on the role of pain, suffering and struggle during Lent. Is Lent (and all of Christian discipleship) worth the effort? If so, how shall we live? As we meditate on the Lord’s Passion, pray the Stations of the Cross and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, especially during Lent, we inevitably think of the word “agony.” Ordinarily, we associate “agony” with extreme pain. During Lent, we think of the “Agony in the Garden” (Matt. 26:36-42; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46), an event depicted frequently in religious art and music. What are the roots of the word “agony” and what wisdom can the word offer us for Lent and beyond?
“Agony” comes from the Greek agōn/αγών, meaning contest/struggle/trial/danger. A true agony is not simply an event of extreme pain—rather, the richer sense of the word is that it is a kind of battle fought by both the body and the mind. I once knew a retired Navy SEAL who described the admissions process that must be endured by those who would join that elite company of warriors. That weeding-out process tests both the body and the mind.
My friend said that the SEAL instructors would target first those applicants who were natural athletes, known as “the gazelles.” These were targeted first because, more often than not, feats of physical strength or skill came easily to them; they didn’t have to fight for it as much as others. Consequently, they didn’t have much experience with having to dig down deep to win, as my friend said, “the mental game,” in order to win the physical. According to my friend, the gazelles broke first.
Legendary SEAL and famous author Richard Marcinko wrote that he preferred his SEALs to be “sled dogs.” Marcinko described his best men, his sled dogs, something like this: “You tell them to run in a given direction and not to stop until ordered to stop, and that’s what they did. Maybe they didn’t set world records, but they never quit. They knew they didn’t have to like it, they just had to do it — and they did it.” In other words, these men understood the fullest sense of “agony”; they understood that the outer battle very often depends on the inner battle.
With this richer understanding, we can speak of the merits and wisdom of agony in our own spiritual lives, without turning Lent (and beyond) into a masochistic celebration of pain for its own sake. If we recognize that faithful Christian discipleship often requires a stubborn commitment to promise and persistence, then physical disciplines such as fasting as well as the corporal works of mercy will be seen to depend frequently on the agony of interior trials (what my navy friend called “the mental game”). That inner struggle, I am sorry to say, is one that we cannot win. And, I am relieved to say, we should not try to win it.
Well, at least not on our own. The great English poet John Donne, in his “Holy Sonnet 14,” understood that we need divine help in order to prevail in our inner agonies. He wrote:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. I, like an usurp’d town to’another due, Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end; Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain, But am betroth’d unto your enemy; Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Donne knew that because of sin, our hearts are divided and our reason is weakened. The outer struggle depends upon the inner struggle, and the inner struggle is unwinnable apart from God’s grace. The proper role of agony in Lent is to remind us that we finite humans in this fallen world must live a life of inner and outer struggle. There is no avoiding it. We may struggle wisely or foolishly, but we will struggle. Jesus, true God and true man, shows us how to struggle wisely — that is, how to live our agonies fruitfully.
Throughout all the gospels, Jesus always calls upon his Father. He always seeks his Father’s face, heart, will and wisdom. We must do the same. We so often hear the season of Lent depicted as walking with Jesus and we are exhorted to stay with him as his faithful companions — rightly so! But more is required of us and more is offered to us. In imitation of Jesus, we must so order our lives and live our agonies that it becomes as natural to us as breathing to seek and rely upon our heavenly Father.
Before we know it, Holy Week will be upon us, and Easter will beckon to us. Let’s resolve now to live our struggles, our agonies not as orphans but as adopted sons and daughters of a Father who loves us, provides for us, and will, if we let him, lead us to himself.
When I write next, I will consider Lent in light of “the Four Verbs of the Eucharist.” Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.