Editor’s note: This essay appears in He Spoke to Us: Discerning God’s Will in People and Events, by Father George William Rutler. It was originally published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2001.
Lenten days bring two images immediately to mind, at least to my own idle mind. The first is of the bishops’ gathering that first established Lent in 325 during the great ecumenical council in the Turkish town of Isnik—then called Nicaea. Some of the bishops there had been mutilated in the persecutions of the emperors Maximin and Licinius. A dubious record says there were 318 bishops in all, but we do know that their fifth canon ordered a time of fasting and penance lasting forty days, which we now call Lent, presumably because Moses, Elijah, and Christ had fasted forty days. There are bishops maimed like those Nicaean bishops today in China, though our government and many corporations have not advertised them. When one of them, Ignatius Cardinal Kung, was released in 1985 after thirty years in prison, he was surprised to learn that the Church’s Friday meat abstinence had been changed. Evidently he did not think this an improvement. While his internment had been a perpetual Lent, he thought the mortifications of his brethren in the West had been sustaining him. In fact, it had been the other way around.
The bishops of Nicaea knew the consequences of mortification, the grief of it when inflicted, and the grace of it when voluntarily assumed. So they extended to forty days what first had been a penitential period of three days before Easter. The season was catechetical as well as penitential, preparing catechumens for baptism and collaterally instructing all the faithful. Over the years, the nature of the Lenten fasts and penances varied, and not until the seventh century in the West was Ash Wednesday added so that Lent might last the full forty days if Sundays were exempted. As early as the time of the Council of Nicaea, however, the Church in Jerusalem had kept Lent for eight five-day weeks. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English lencten, after the season of spring with its lengthening daylight. Christians, bringing to fulfillment an instinct of most religions, have known that some period of mortification as a “prayer of the senses” serves as a prelude to a spiritual rebirth.
The second image that comes to mind when I think of Lent is that of the Church of Saint George in Velabro along the Roman Forum. Unlike the Church in Jerusalem, whose own altars fasted on the weekdays of Lent by forgoing the liturgy, the Church in Rome celebrated Mass every day of Lent and with special ceremony. At the end of their workday, the faithful would gather around the bishop of Rome and his deacons in procession to a church appointed for the day. The Church of Saint George was the station church for the first day after Ash Wednesday, and since Saint George is the patron of soldiers, the traditional gospel reading for that Thursday was about the centurion who asked Christ to heal his servant. To that church in the course of his tumultuous pontificate during the eleventh century, Pope Urban II brought a portion of the skull of the great martyr George. Others of his relics are entombed outside what is now the entrance to the Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.
When I was living in Rome some years ago, it fell to my lot to preach each year at Saint George on the Lenten station day, beginning when I was a deacon. By then, George’s official status on the Church calendar had been reduced in the neuralgic spirit of the late 1960s, though he continues to be the most honored saint—except for Mary—in many Christian nations. And of course, like the Nicaean bishops in their endurance, the survivors of Soviet Russia have restored Saint George to their banners, and a new Church of Saint George the Mega-Martyr shines in the sun across Red Square from the sullen tomb of Lenin the Martyrer. Ostpolitik is gone, and Saint George remains.
All this is by way of saying that Lent is not for the fey. That is because Christianity is not for them, either. Sentimentalists who are Catholics on their own jerry-built terms have no place for Lent. Cafeteria Catholicism, their fast-food version of the heavenly banquet, is neither feast nor fast. Its pastiche of Catholicism has become an anthropological vignette whose day is already past. The felt banners and ceramic butterflies that replaced crucifixes in the late 1960s and 1970s are fading away to the land of kitsch—detritus of the liturgical Martha Stewarts of their day. There is even a rumor that genuine observance of Lent is coming back. The anticipatory “gesima” Sundays that preceded Ash Wednesday before the Second Vatican Council, for all their psychological usefulness, unfortunately may have gone the way of all fleshlessness (pray to Saint George Redivivus for their return), but at least the sense of Lent perdures.
I live in the middle of Manhattan, where Ash Wednesday is perhaps the most popular religious day of the year, albeit confused with Mardi Gras the day before and being quickly surpassed in popularity by Halloween. Thousands come to the Catholic churches for ashes, many without full knowledge of what the ritual really is but at least palpably aware that we are dust. Even the bulimic syntax of the English translation of the rite cannot rob our sense of mortality of a pathetic majesty. We are an Easter people, and, as Saint Augustine was wont to say, Alleluia is our song. But without confession of our many morbid betrayals of the living God, the song becomes a ditty, and instead of the scarred bishops calling the people to repentance as at Nicaea, the Paschal landscape is festooned with harmless adults dressed as rabbits hiding eggs from bewildered children.
Thomas Merton recalled in The Seven Storey Mountain that before he became a Catholic, his Easter consisted of an abbreviated service of Morning Prayer followed by an egg hunt on a manicured lawn. Such Easters are like the festivals in the twilight of imperial Rome when, as Suetonius records, the great men spoke of the gods but secretly consulted the stars. Some have so lost confidence in the Resurrection of Christ that they keep little of Lent at all. There are places where there are Ash Wednesday and Easter and in between an extended Saint Patrick’s Day. Great Patrick would be the first to cry out against this from the heights of Croagh Patrick, his fasting place for all forty days.
One could go to the other extreme and think of Easter as merely an interruption of a yearlong Lent. That is the piety of the rigorist for whom every silver lining has a cloud. Worse, there are certain Catholic types with the mottled spiritual complexion of the Jansenist nuns of Port Royal, who were “pure as angels and proud as devils.” Patrick lit a Paschal fire, not a Lenten fire. All his fasts were for the feast ahead, and he knew that fasting is not only for the self, since in the Christian community one also fasts for the dead. A parable of the Lenten-Easter economy appears in the chronicles of Nennius the Briton and Tírechán the Gael. They wrote separately of how Patrick fasted another forty days on Mount Aigli near the end of his life:
And the birds were a trouble to him, and he could not see the face of the heavens, the earth or the sea on account of them; for God told all the saints of Erin, past, present and future, to come to the summit of that mountain which overlooks all others, and is higher than all the mountains of the West to bless the tribes of Erin, so that Patrick might see [by anticipation] the fruit of his labors, for all the choir of the saints of Erin came to visit him there, who was the father of them all.
First, fast to starve the devil, then feast with the saints.
Fasting, not dieting
For a long while, when there was a compact and coherent Christendom, Lent as the “truce of God” was a palpable social fact: charity was flaunted, wars were suspended, and executions were postponed. This last was not because anyone thought capital punishment was intrinsically evil. It was because the law courts closed for Lent. To meet the Lenten deadline (yes, I said deadline), executions in the Papal States were speeded up to get them over with by Ash Wednesday. The salutary moral effects of the papal executions often brought about a celebratory spirit inconsistent with Lenten sobriety. With a flair alien to the morbidly edifying public posture of contemporary social engineers, the papal executioner sometimes wore a carnival costume. Blessed Pius IX’s octogenarian executioner killed five hundred criminals during several papal reigns, including Pius’, but Lent was time off for him.
Lent is an occasion of sin, for it is a time when the flesh is made weak. It is the only occasion of sin that one can seek out legitimately. Saint John Chrysostom preached: “God does not impede temptations, first, so that you may be convinced of your strength; secondly, that you may be humble, not proud; thirdly, that the devil, who may doubt whether you have really abandoned him, will be certain of that fact; fourthly, so that you may become as strong as iron, understanding the value of the treasures which have been granted to you.”
Self-denial can strengthen the self as no glib kind of self-affirmation can. In California, I saw an advertisement for a preparatory school in which the top student in the senior class said that the school had taught her who she was, to feel good about herself, and to be satisfied with her choices. This Valley Girl vacuousness would have driven Socrates to drink a second nightcap. For those three smug confidences run afoul of the classical triad of erudition: Self-knowledge is delusional without perception of eternal beauty; self-contentment eradicates the civilized discontent born of a quest for eternal truth; and satisfaction with one’s choices is barbaric if one does not choose eternal good.
These transcendentals prefigure the temptations of Christ. During his forty days in the wilderness, the prince of lies would have had him turn stones to bread (nature defined materialistically in contradiction of natural aesthetics and supernatural faith); fly (happiness as vainglory in contradiction of natural wisdom and supernatural hope); and exercise power (morality as artifact of the will in contradiction of natural law and supernatural love). Diabolical deceit accepted instead of rejected now plays out its tragic drama in the wilderness of our schools and other social institutions.
Nonetheless, pilgrim voices still chant as guardian angels descant: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” This cantus firmus of Lent means taking evil seriously enough not to fear it. To neglect evil is to take the self too seriously, which soon makes the self a fearful thing. This is a stubborn canker in spiritual discipline, and it is especially a problem with mortifications such as fasting, which can be self-defeating when done apart from a transcendent love. Fasting and abstinence should be nonchalant, done with panache, for the life of grace is nothing if it is not graceful. “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face” (Mt 6:17).
We have all had the experience of meeting or knowing people who make a fetish of fasting, even to the length of weighing themselves in the process. With a deluded spirituality, they claim to fast but only diet. The scales of justice are not in the bathroom. Fasting is meant to teach humility: If I cannot do without a few sandwiches, I should speak with reserve about being a soldier of Christ.
Was it not a special favor from God to watch the joint beatification of Pope Pius IX, Abbot Columba Marmion, O.S.B., third abbot of Maredsous Abbey in Belgium, and Pope John XXIII? It was a happy day for goodly fat people like all three and a day of abasement for aesthetical ascetics in “a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion” who want only gaunt saints on their prayer cards. Enthusiasts who cut down on food principally to improve their tennis game would be less eager to fast if it added weight. In a perversely affluent culture where thinness is an outward sign of wealth, getting fat is not necessarily a way to humility, but it does guarantee humiliation. To paraphrase Chesterton on the angels, the key to heroic virtue may not be in being light but in taking one’s self lightly.
Much Communion, little confession
The sacramental economy of Lent acquaints earth with heaven without equating them. The forty days are dialectical (earth separated from heaven) in their stress on dying to the old man and denying the passions and analogical (earth in consort with heaven) by their focus on eternity. If you can get through the treacle in John Keble’s volume of poetry, The Christian Year, you can abide for a while in fine lines like this for Septuagesima Sunday:
The Moon above, the Church below,
A wondrous race they run,
But all their radiance, all their glow,
Each borrows of its Sun.
I am told that in the Eastern rites there is a custom of singing Alleluias quietly as Lent starts to remind the faithful of what the season of fast is all about: “Lord, let me know my end and the number of my days.” The Western rite’s Laetare Sunday in the middle of Lent does something of the same, prompting the faithful to keep an “eschatological perspective” or, more felicitously, to “keep an eye on the prize.” Lent is a sublime paradox, weaving the pattern of suffering and joy that is the human condition, mortally tragic for the behaviorist and divinely comic for the graceful.
John Paul II is a case in point. Surely the pope’s physical infirmities were a mortification for a man of such spiritual authority. He is the only vicar of the one of whom it was said: He saved others, but himself he cannot save. The sight of the pope so constrained by his illnesses makes him an icon of Lent, and as he gives his blessing urbi et orbi with trembling hands, he is an icon of Easter at the end of days many more than forty.
The saints have reiterated this: Unsought mortifications are more difficult than self-prescribed ones. Patience with long lines at the supermarket, rock music on public address systems, and the wrong people running things can be harder spiritual trials than fasts and vigils. If forty days pass with our thinking we have kept a good Lent, we have kept a bad one. That would break the commandment against tempting God. To tempt God is to put his justice to the test by the ridiculous spiritual impertinence that authors of spiritual manuals delicately call “presumption”. It is what provoked the biblical imprecations against meretricious rituals and abominable sacrifices.
This is a point that may have eluded a Catholic archbishop in South Africa who, in an earnest effort to make worship more indigenous, recently proposed sacrificing cows for blood libations at Mass. I never expected to have to take up my pen against animal sacrifice, but new occasions teach new duties. The Eucharistic sacrifice is different from all the other sacrifices of all the religions that have ever tried to appease heaven. First, it is all-sufficient, so we need not turn the sacristy into a butcher shop. Second, it is rational and therefore inseparable from moral truth. In Romans 12:1, Saint Paul declares the Eucharist to be an offering of spirit and mind, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has identified intuitions of this in the ancient Dead Sea and Alexandrian Jewish communities. The moral dimension of the “reasonable sacrifice” (logikē latreia) of which Lenten anticipation is a prophecy and an icon is the reason we call this sort of presumption a bad thing, like praying to God without having first incarnated that prayer in acts of charity or like receiving much Communion and confessing little. We may tempt God—that is the tawdriest privilege of a free will—but God is not mocked. Not for long. Presumption has its consequences. Look at the 360 degrees of desolation around us. Look at our parishes. Lent should mean more of both confession and Communion, spiritual reading, examination of conscience, benevolent acts, and prayer issuing in resolution.
Much ash but many miracles
Modern man has had a long Lent. You could say it lasted the entire twentieth century. Postmodern spiritual fatigue perversely engenders a kind of compensatory hysteria: eclectic revivals of blood sacrifice in sub-Saharan lands and liturgical dancing around altars in suburban America. As a Church, we have been mortified: by neglecting the intellectual case against Christ’s cultured despisers; by trusting in bureaucracies and utopian movements; by imputing divine inspiration to private conceits; by slothfulness in the face of infanticide; by complacency about hunger and injustice; by grossly exaggerating the value of entertainers and professional athletes while neglecting spiritual heroes; by confusing tradition and nostalgia; by degrading our artistic patrimony; by banality in the pulpits; by scandals and refusing to speak of them as unspeakable; by the consecration of mediocrity; by voting for degenerate Caesars when we had the political power to dethrone them; by contempt for history; by impatience with God’s unfathomable patience; by failing to give God thanks for the grace of living in a time of so many saints and miracles—in short, by softness in hard times.
In the same twentieth century of so much ash, we have witnessed many miracles, which perhaps only a later generation will recognize as such. Lents come and go, and however we may keep them, there is always Easter at the end. The Lent-Easter cycle has nothing to do with the change of season from winter to spring, for south of the equator everything is opposite. It has much to do with the rhythms of the body asleep and then awake and much to do with the course of history with its ups and downs.
I recall a lady who died a few months ago who often rode a bicycle around Rome and unobtrusively attended Mass at our college chapel years ago. Only when I first visited her for dinner did I find out that her home was the Palazzo Doria Pamphili, with its one thousand rooms, and that she was the Princess Orietta and part of the long Roman memory. A friend wrote after her death that when traveling with her recently on the Via Quattro Novembre, they went over a pothole, and she said, “That hole has been there since the war.” Civic intimacy of such charm is born of a profound acquaintance with and an even more profound love of the place where one lives.
Nevertheless, of Rome it has been said that one knows it well after a year and not at all after a lifetime. This is even more true of the mysteries of salvation. Every lapse into sin should remind us of the first pothole in Eden. Lent is a small familiarity with the inexhaustible drama of redemption in which eternity transfigures mortality: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). It is a radical break from all other dispensations whose only response to mortality is to ignore it, to flee from it, or to bury it with horrible dirges. We live many Lents during our lives, and we should not make a big burden of them. We should come to know them well and even cherish them, hot cross buns and ashes and all. But when Lent is done, souls attain to the stature of heaven by having measured their own smallness, and they become strong enough to bask in the blaze of glory by sensing their own fragility and turning it into the transparency of grace.
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