Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
Lent is upon us. Fifty years ago, this would have been a day on which some extravagant resolutions would have been made, and today would have been approached with dread. This past week I re-read The Last Catholic in America, the slightly irreverent but loving novel by John Powers, in which there is a chapter on Lent in the old days. I’d like to share some lines with you:
In Catholicism, the name of the game is pain. The more one suffers, the higher he gets in Heaven. After all, Christ, who began the whole thing was a great gourmet of pain. Although pain was a year-round pastime in St. Bastion Parish, the apex of agony was those forty days before Easter: the 960 hours of Lent when the pain of simply surviving in St. Bastion’s fell far short of the sacrifices necessary for salvation. About the only people who kind of looked forward to Lent were the fat Catholics.
In spite of the author’s exaggeration and humor, those of us who grew up and lived in the Church at that time can recall a great deal of the situation he described. However, Lent is an important part of Christian life. It may have been poorly explained in the past, or poorly understood, or poorly observed, but the purpose was – and is – good and necessary: We need a time to examine our lives, critically. The sacrifices we make should lead us to a deeper awareness of the meaning of the Christian life and our failures in this regard; that awareness should bring us to repentance, change of heart, and a new direction for our lives.
The first step in having a successful, productive Lent is getting in touch with reality. If you had a basic philosophy course, you should remember Plato’s Analogy of the Cave. Let me refresh your memory.
Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave their whole lives long, facing a blank wall. The prisoners watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them; they actually give the shadows names – because the shadows have become reality for the prisoners. Indeed, the inmates have no desire to leave their prison, so comfortable are they with their faux existence which, of course, they do not realize is fake. Eventually, however, they break loose of their shackles, come into the sun, and discover that what they thought was reality, really wasn’t. Interestingly, not only were they not eager to escape, but their discovery of reality was not a pleasant experience for them since it required them to acknowledge that they had been deceived in their previous life.
Can you not see in those cave-dwellers so many of our contemporaries who not only live a grossly deficient form of life but who have no interest in being liberated from it and even resent the suggestion that their perception of reality is, when all is said and done, a very shadowy “unreality”? Their attachment to drugs, sex, alcohol, money and power for years on end has blinded them to the truth – the truth that they are mastered by all those attachments.
However, before we cast stones at the culture – or anti-culture – as a whole, we need to recall that all sin is blinding. To the extent that we are sinners – and we all are – we are often blinded to the truth of our own captivity. Lent is God’s gift to us, whereby divine grace convinces us that the so-called “new normal” is, in fact, abnormal. And then, we hear the challenging but loving voice of the Savior say to us the same words he shouted to the corpse of his friend, “Lazarus, come out!” “Come out of your unreal, superficial, deadly, and ultimately unsatisfying cave.”
As you surely know, the original purpose of Lent was to provide proximate preparation of candidates for Holy Baptism. With the passage of time, its purpose expanded to provide all the members of the Church the opportunity to return to baptismal innocence. Which is to say, to get back on that straight and narrow road which leads to sainthood. T. S. Eliot, in his “Four Quartets” gives us a plan of action. We read:
The ordinary person will not experience the full grace within which the saint lives, however painfully, but will have ‘only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses’; anything more will come only through ‘prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.’
I suspect that most of us here today would consider ourselves to fall within the ranks of “the ordinary person.” Not content with “only hints and guesses,” we should move on to Eliot’s “Plan B”: “anything more [than "hints and guesses”] will come only through ‘prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.’”
So, how best to make a definitive exit from Plato’s Cave, especially in just forty days? Precisely by adopting Eliot’s Plan B. All too often well-meaning, overly enthusiastic folk resolve to change their whole lives in forty days, tackling every character flaw – giving up everything that stands in the way of total sanctity. And the result is that, usually, within a week, they just give up, period. How can one avoid that unfortunate development? I would suggest that it is by “doing Lent” in a reasonable way. Identify one virtue you would like to develop and one vice you would like to conquer.
That starts with prayer for divine assistance. We are not the Pelagian heretics of the Early Church, who thought they could attain holiness of life on their own steam. No, we need grace, which is God’s life and power within us, available to us “on demand,” as it were. The Council of Trent reminded all that every good work of ours is initiated by divine grace, is accompanied by grace, and is brought to a happy conclusion by that grace. The final line of Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos puts it succinctly and powerfully, “All is grace.”
Your prayer should necessarily include a petition that the Holy Spirit enlighten your mind and inflame your heart to see yourself as God sees you – and that should then lead you to adopt the most salutary Lenten program. So, a first question ought to be, “What is my one ‘besetting fault’?” That is, what sin keeps popping up in confession after confession? Is it rash judgment, seemingly uncontrollable anger, spiritual lethargy, addiction to pornography? Whatever the sin, zero in on that as your primary focus in “giving up” something. Then identify a virtue which you need to develop. Patience, chastity, generosity, truthfulness, courage? Seek to find at least one opportunity each day to exercise that virtue.
Now, in addition to divine grace, we also need help from our fellow believers, who are also fellow sinners. Select one such person to be your spiritual director or coach, someone who can inspire you to continue on in your holy determination – someone who will hold you accountable when you slack off. It works in athletic training, doesn’t it? “Five more reps!” “One more lap!” After all, St. Paul was not adverse to having recourse to sports imagery to describe the spiritual life (to deepen your awareness and commitment, read passages like: Ph 2:16; Gal 2:2; Gal 5:7; 1 Tim 4:7; 2 Tim 2:5; 1 Cor 9:24-26); nor did Paul have any hesitation in talking about spiritual warfare (meditate long and hard on Eph 6:10-20)!
That said, be prepared to be even more fiercely tempted than usual in your struggle to avoid vice and to advance in virtue. The Evil One will not be happy with your resolve and will do to you what he did to the Master Himself. Be consoled and buoyed in your resolve, however, by the brilliant and insightful observation of St. Augustine, from a homily he preached on the First Sunday in Lent in the fifth century: “If in Christ we have been tempted, in him we overcome the Devil. Do you think only of Christ’s temptations and fail to think of His victory? See yourself as tempted in Him, and see yourself as victorious in Him. He could have kept the Devil from Himself; but if He were not tempted, He could not teach you how to triumph over temptation.”
Discipline, then, is an absolute necessity. Sticking to the program and not losing heart when slipping. Keeping that sharp focus is aided by the traditional penitential practices of the Church: heightened awareness of the presence of God through deeper and more fervent prayer; fasting from food and drink, to be sure, but also fasting from negative thoughts and an unbridled tongue; almsgiving, which is truly sacrificial, coming from a contrite heart which knows how much money is wasted on luxuries while others lack necessities. Discipline also involves total honesty with oneself and holding oneself up to the highest standard. When the lurid Bill Clinton debacle was front and center on the national scene, not a few men took consolation in his perversity, leading them to proclaim, “Well, I’m nowhere near as bad as he is!” The Christian’s standard is not Bill Clinton, but the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
“Prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action” were the elements highlighted by T.S. Eliot; treat them as benchmarks. Will maintenance of the program be difficult? If serious about it, most certainly. However, does anything that truly matters ever come easily? Further, for a Christian, there is joy in the struggle – if it is united to the Cross of our Redeemer. Eliot is correct in asserting that “the ordinary person will not experience the full grace within which the saint lives,” but we “ordinary persons” can gain glimpses of that grace, which carry us on to its fullness in God’s good time and in His good pleasure.
Early on, I underscored the need for balance. That comes to the fore when we consider the two-fold need for reliance on God and putting forth good personal effort. An adage of Ignatian spirituality teaches us: “Pray so hard as to suggest that all depends on God; work so hard as to suggest that all depends on you.”
Finally, can we benefit from the wisdom of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in our Lenten journey? You knew he had to form part of this reflection, didn’t you? Yes, I would recommend frequent meditation on what is probably his most famous poem and prayer, “Lead, Kindly Light.”
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.
For a salutary Lent: One step enough for me. Remember not past years! Lead me home in childlike faith.
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