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Other people? They’re your biggest Lenten penance


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David Mills - published on 02/18/18

Oh, the horrid French ...

I like you, dear reader, more than some people I actually know. Your faults I forgive, your failings I accept without complaint. I don’t mind that you’re always late and that you stick your friends with the tab. That needling sense of humor that’s gotten you hit more than once? Not a problem. Keep needling.

But then I don’t have to deal with you. The people I know, gosh, they’re sometimes harder to like. I’ve been blessed with good friends who are good people, but they have their faults. You want sinners? I can show you sinners. But you, you’re okay.

Real people, they’re the problem. Lent helps us solve it.

The horrid French

G.K. Chesterton got at this in a poem called “The World State.” It begins: “Oh, how I love Humanity, / With love so pure and pringlish, / And how I hate the horrid French, / Who never will be English!” We have our own versions of this, say the feelings of Texans for New Englanders, or southerners for New Yorkers, or everyone for southern Californians.

He ends his poem talking about the sanctimonious places “where / I learned with little labour, / The way to love my fellow-man / And hate my next-door neighbour.” In one of his more cynical moments, he wrote, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

The Church throws us together with our neighbor-enemies. Of all human institutions, it’s the one where, as I wrote last year , we live in a community rather than a network. The Polish scholar Zygmunt Bauman explained: “You belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate.”

In the Church, you can’t so easily control the people to whom you relate. The more seriously you practice your faith, the less control you have. You must live with, work with, worship with, people very different from you. Some you will like, some you will dislike, and some you may want to hate. About some you won’t have any feelings, and that’s not much better than hate.

And you’re stuck with each other. God doesn’t say “Network.” He says, “Community.”

The Lenten discipline

As Our Lord says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go be reconciled to your brother.” He doesn’t leave us any room even for mild dislike.

What does this have to do with Lent? Aren’t other people a pain all year round? Yes, they are. But there’s one thing about Lent that helps us better love every one else, including those who are the horrid French in our lives. It’s focused in the moment on Ash Wednesday when the priest says “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” and puts the cross of ashes on your forehead.

We will all die. We will all be as if we had never been. Just dust. Walk through a parish cemetery and look at two old graves of people who died about the same time. If they hated each other, does it matter now? Do they now think it matters? We know it doesn’t. We pray they know that.

That’s part one. Here’s part two. We have all been redeemed by the Son of God dying on the Cross. The priest’s action reverses his words. He could say, “Remember that you are dust, but dust you will not remain.” Because Jesus died for you, you will be redeemed dust, transformed dust, the man and woman you always wanted to be. And so will your version of the horrid French.

Through Lent, the Church says, “You’re all the same and Jesus loves you all, so love each other.” Lent provides a chance to actively break down our hatreds, when we’re already working on our disciplines and the Church helps us up our game. Make one of your Lenten disciplines praying every day for your Horrid French by name, and doing something else good for them if you can.


Read more:
Why and how to make this Lent a season of “death-cleaning”

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