Lent is a good time to learn dying and rising with Christ.
What if Lent weren’t meant to be merely “useful”? (By that I mean, Lent corrupted by fasting becoming dieting, etc.) What if prayer were not meant to be a means to self-improvement? (In saying that, I have in mind the invitation I once received to talk to college students about “spirituality as aspect of wellness.”) What if, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die”? That’s a good question to ask, especially during Lent, isn’t it?
What if Lent were a time to come to terms with our terrible poverty, need, and incompleteness? What if Lent were a time to come to terms with the soaring and searing majesty and holiness of God? What if Lent were a time to come to terms with the shocking truth that God will not be satisfied unless we have nothing but him?
And while many these days talk (perhaps too glibly) about “mindfulness,” and while it is certainly true that self-knowledge is an essential element of the moral and spiritual life, what if God wanted to give a knowledge we dare not ever forget? What if God wanted to give us a knowledge of seeing ourselves as he sees us?
What if we stopped hiding from those truly awe-full truths? What would the season of Lent look like then? And the Season of Easter? And the Solemnity of Pentecost? And all our days and nights afterwards?
These things come to mind as I have just finished an interview with Father Donald Haggerty (you can listen to it HERE) as we discussed his third book on contemplative prayer, Contemplative Enigmas: Insights and Aid on the Paths to Deeper Prayer.
His account of the deeper recesses of prayer is as daunting as it is compelling. His speaks of prayer as a “wonderful and exacting journey”; he writes of the “thirsting effort” of prayer. Perhaps during this season of Lent, as we pray the Stations of the Cross in the company of Our Lord, we can begin to consider making our own “exacting journey.” Perhaps as we hear Our Lord cry out from the cross, “I thirst!,” we can dare to allow ourselves to say the same.
And if we do …? Will we submit to God finishing the process begun by a firm commitment to deeper prayer? Can post-modern modernists, raised in the cult of self-esteem and bribed with “Participation Trophies,” dare to consider the despoiling and loss of (the false) self? Consider these words from St. Edith Stein:
To give oneself to God, recklessly forgetful of self, not to take account of one’s own individual life to allow full room for divine life, this is the profound motive, the principle, and the end of religious life. The more perfectly it is carried out, so much the richer is the divine life that fills the soul.
By dint of noise, distractions and “busy-ness” we shield ourselves from the only knowledge of self that is worth fighting for, and that is the painful gift of seeing ourselves as God sees us. It is devastating to begin to taste and see our own poverty, misery and self-generated squalor. Only the truly prayerful can look at that mess long enough, and with enough compassion, to see through it to the mirror and vessel of divine love hidden underneath. That kind of prayer (just in time for Lent!) entails the death of every illusion we cling to. Who could bear it?
What if we took Lent to be a most urgent reminder to stop for good our futile attempts at hiding from God, we who have apparently learned so little from the example of Adam and Eve? Father Haggerty writes that,
Without someone in our lives who knows us deeply, before whom nothing is hidden or disguised, we are liable to ignore the real poverty that resides in our soul. And we may miss, too, the beauty that God has planted in a concealed manner within us.
Unless we come to see ourselves as God sees us, Father Haggerty warns, we “… will never come to know being loved by God in a deeper portion of the soul, where the nakedness and need of the sol and its unseen beauty are gazed upon.”
On this view, then, Lent is a time to surrender the self-generated and unnecessary poverty of blindness to ourselves before God, in order to enter into the liberty and fulfillment offered only to those who surrender illusion for the sake of truthful love.
So understood, Lent need not be lived as a grim form of duty, but as a first step towards the freedom that God fiercely wants his children to enjoy.
When I write next, I will offer another meditation for Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.