Okay, we've just celebrated the Fourth Sunday of Lent. We've rounded the Lenten corner and are heading full speed towards the Triduum. This year I’m trying to take seriously the concepts of mourning my sins and mortification of the flesh. I got out of practice during the decades that these concepts fell out of favor -- the swinging sixties and seventies, the fractious eighties and nineties. The younger generation of Catholics, who never experienced the chaos of those times, are doing an excellent job reclaiming both forms of Catholic T/tradition, with and without the capital "T". New editions of classic works of spirituality are out, with commentary that explains and integrates the best insights of modern psychology and psychiatry with the wisdom of the saints.
I've been defending sin, repentance, and reparation in argument for decades. But applying the concepts to my own life and psyche, not so much. Every Lent I start out with good intentions to really observe the season well, but I pretty much give up after a few days. I wind up fulfilling my surface commitments -- praying a little more, staying away from the things I've given up -- but my head starts hurting when I try to reconcile Catholic teaching on sin, repentance, penance, etc. with the black mess of gunk in my mind and heart, those poles of the psyche around which my various passions gather and cling like metal to magnets.
This Lent coincides with the spring 40 Days for Life campaign. Every morning, I go into Planned Parenthood to pray, hand out literature, and keep vigil next to a place of violence. This has had a jolting effect on my observance of Lent. Each day, I interact with women and men who choose to participate in one of the great evils of our time, procured abortion. Each morning I feel like I am going to a war zone. I know what is taking place behind closed doors.
Because we are fortunate enough not to have open warfare in our country, we in the U.S. send our soldiers far away from us to kill in war. This allows us to debate the ethics of war at leisure, because of the geographical distance between us and the killing. If we lived in an actual war zone, or if we had a non-volunteer army so that each mother and father was vulnerable to seeing their sons and daughters drafted to go to war, perhaps we would think more about what we are engaged in. We would get involved more with our legislators, educate ourselves on the issues, and be more interested in finding non-violent solutions to the problems that lead to war.
The violence of abortion is very real to me when I spend day after day interacting with those who choose this violent solution to problems. I hear stories, see tears, absorb anger. The vulnerability and fragility of people who are living on the edges of society is very real to me also. I meet the homeless of Wilmington, and the folks in court-ordered rehab, and men and women without jobs who stop to talk as they go in and out of nearby resource centers.
As Thou with Satan didst contend, And didst the victory win, O give us strength in Thee to fight, In Thee to conquer sin.
Contending with Satan – is that something a 21st century American like myself can be said to do? Did Christ do it? What was the nature of his temptation, and how is he capable of giving us strength to fight and conquer sin? How crazy does all this sound to a modern secular sensibility? The original word “satan” – in the Hebrew, הַשָׂטָן or ha-Satan – means “the accuser”, and in the Old Testament is a figure who tests the faith of God’s chosen ones. Later in Christian times, “Satan” began to be personified and identified with Lucifer, the “light-bearer”, the original fallen angel, our devil.
My faith is tested every day. I feel “accused” by common sense, and I think any disciple of Christ has to feel that accusation. Because let’s face it, the tenets of our faith fly in the face of common sense, which is all about the world of the senses. Yet we Christians hold the invisible world as important (if not more important) as the visible. It’s right there in the Nicean Creed, which every Catholic recites at Sunday Mass – “we believe in all things visible and invisible.”
And through these days of penitence, And through Thy passiontide, Yea, evermore in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.
I cannot over-emphasize how important the juxtaposition of “life and death” has become to me this Lent. Because of the deaths I am near to every day at the abortion clinic, this Lent has taken me back in time to the Lent of 1982, which began with the sudden death of my two year old son Simon. That Lent, every Lenten liturgy, every Lenten prayer and practice, made excellent sense to me. Simon's death had ripped open the veil between the visible and the invisible, and all of the ugly blackness of death -- that ultimate affront to life -- spilled out. The liturgies of loss, mourning, and a world deformed by sin made sense to me in 1982. It makes sense to me again in 2011. But I am much older, and the grief is not as personal, nor does it consume me. It simply exists, a profound grief for the sad, sad plight of sinful humankind.
And then, I remember that starkly beautiful choice God gave to Israel long ago in the desert:
I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Choose therefore life, that both you and your offspring may live.
And again, the starkly beautiful choice Christ gave to "those who had ears to hear" (then and now) when he began his public ministry:
The time (καιροσ or kairos) is fulfilled (πεπληρωται or peplērōtai), and the kingdom of God (βασλεια του Θεου, or basileia tou Theou) has come near (ηγγικεν or ēngiken), repent (μετανοιετε or metanoiete) and believe (πιστευετε or pisteuete) the good news (ευαγγελιω or evangellion). *
Life and death are set before us every day. This Lent, I see a very close connection to the words of the Creed -- – “we believe in all things visible and invisible” and God’s admonition in Deuteronomy – “I have set before you life and death… Choose therefore life.”
If the only world we believe in is the world of the senses, the visible world, the world of emotions and temporal events, then we will be predisposed to choose death. The physical universe heads towards entropy, even as our physical lives head towards dissolution in death.
But in the fullness of time, the promised Christ appeared in history, lived out his life, preached, taught, healed, wept, suffered, died, and then gloriously ripped open the veil between the visible and the invisible, and came back alive and active in the visible world long enough to finalize the formation of his provision for us through the rest of time -- his Church.
I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.
How do we choose life? Repent, and believe the ευαγγελιω . This Lent, I am feeling both closer to my sins than ever, and more grateful than ever that I have been set free from them. So do I mourn them like lost children? They are my own, so perhaps I do.
* TOTH to Fr. David Moore; see his excellent homily, Repentance and Time.