Before Holy Week Passes Us By: The Lesson of Lent
When I was young, in college and the first few years afterward, I was fairly certain I had discovered the key that so many others had lost. Surely my special Catholic fervor and brilliance would dramatically alter the world. Alas, this was a very primitive Christianity, but I suppose I accomplished a few good things by the mercy of God, Who would occasionally let a little grace seep through despite my infrequent requests for it.
A little later, in my late twenties and early thirties, I was still certain that I could do some things for God and the Church better than anyone else could, and that I could also work harder than anybody else, ensuring excellent results. But I did more clearly recognize the external obstacles that needed to be overcome. Here again I like to think that a few good things were set in motion through the goodness of God, Who was capable of squeezing a little nectar out of my constant prayers for the success of all my plans. But the grace-to-action ratio could not have been particularly high!
Somewhere in my mid-thirties I became far more conscious of interior obstacles, and there also began a long and arduous process of figuring out the difference between my plans and God’s. I still remember vividly the period of time in my early forties when the first effort to run Trinity Communications as a print publisher failed utterly. I was forced to find another job that did not involve full-time apostolic work. The feeling of being rejected by God was almost overpowering.
It was, I guess, all about me.
Now I am in my sixties, and I have to acknowledge I have not attained self-forgetfulness. I am still occupied primarily with my own family, my own plans, the success of my own work, and even the enjoyment of my own leisure. Indeed, I don’t think that we can ever actually lose our acute consciousness of self. It is, after all, what distinguishes us from every lesser creature. The human person can never fail to see reality in relationship to himself. This is how we are made.
But I know now that the whole point of being gifted with a sense of self is this: I have the option of giving myself back to the One who not only gave me myself but also gave Himself to me.
All perfection is found in God. Even our greatest natural gifts are marked by weakness, failure, frustration and distortion unless they are enriched by grace. Only by abandoning them to the good pleasure of their Creator do they achieve the ends for which they were given in the first place. Only by turning ourselves over to God do we bear fruit.
And, yes, I know the difficulties. It would, for example, make so much more sense if God would give the occasional clue as to what He intends to do with us. I like to joke that the great proof that God is outside time is that He manages it so poorly. Always we struggle forward blindly, trying to foresee outcomes, only to be baffled again and again by a plan on which we were not consulted.
Or again, surely the way would be smoother if we could have access to a little more information. After all, we cannot escape making decisions and putting plans in motion. We do not have the luxury of waiting to be absolutely certain before we act. At some point, we must decide whether to marry or not, and whom to marry; what job to take or task to perform; how much money to save and how much to spend; which works of charity to perform; where to educate our children; whether to buy or rent, and where; how best to lead and serve a family or a company or a school or a parish or a religious community. But it seems that much of this information is on a need-to-know basis with an extraordinarily high security level. It is eerily like being involved in black ops: To find out too much is to give up one’s life. “I could tell you,” God seems to say, “but then I would have to call you home.”
There is so very much that we will know only after we die, when we can see God face to face. But why should this be so? Why doesn’t God give us more information? Why doesn’t He let us in on the Plan? A little more help, it often seems, would go a long way.
The answer I’ve come to after years of struggling with precisely these questions is that our astonishing capacity for self-love causes God to keep us in the dark for our own good. If we were given the blueprint, how much would we glory in our superior knowledge! And how tempting to turn this knowledge to our own advantage! Even if we were simply given discernible consolations every time we were on the right track, how quickly would they be spoiled by our self-love! We would almost immediately begin to delight in the consolations, to savor the sensation of our own holiness. As Fr. de Caussade says, self-love spoils all. Sweet things that are supposed to lead us to God instead stimulate our own pride.
Ah, but darkness and suffering seldom have those drawbacks, especially since the greater part of the suffering is simply the writhing agony of self-love as it slowly starves to death. That is why, in the Catholic spiritual tradition, this process is called dying to self—but it is dying that we might live; it is really the long process of giving ourselves back to God so that we may be brought to perfection in Him. By whatever name—sacrifice, resignation, abandonment—it is the one thing needful for all of us, an unreserved exchange of gifts between lovers.
This is the great lesson of life, and it is also the specific lesson of Lent, the lesson which the horror of the Crucifixion shocks us into learning. We are not our own; we have been purchased at a great price (1 Cor 6:19-20). And our response takes us always along the way of the cross: “Grant that I may love Thee always, and then do with me what Thou wilt.”
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Posted by: koinonia -
Apr. 04, 2012 9:59 PM ET USA
While those gifted intellectually might succumb more easily to "glory in our superior knowledge", the principle problem for most might be more primal. Along the same way of thinking is survival- our concern for our welfare and for that of our loved ones. In a word, worry. Our Lord talks of the lilies of the field and of children in giving us perspective. "And (he) said: Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
Posted by: EiLL -
Apr. 04, 2012 4:39 AM ET USA
Spot on! The older I get, the more I see that I really don't "understand" God. I begin to appreciate the treasures of sacrifice and small sufferings. God knows best. Thank you for Catholic Culture.