by Fr. David May.
The beginning of Lent is like the beginning of a new year: it often starts off with the best of intentions. We go to Mass, get our ashes, plan our fasts, firm up the old prayer commitment, rededicate ourselves to loving our neighbor. But somewhat like the infamous New Year’s resolutions, Lent can soon become frayed around the edges.
First, we notice that the black cross on our forehead is somewhat smudged and not as crisp and aesthetic in appearance as we might wish. Then the first opportunity to fast finds us famished beyond all imagining and unable to fathom how we could possibly have planned to spend an entire 40-day stint in such misery.
That being the case, since we will only make others miserable by our bad mood, why bother to continue?
Prayer seems fervent enough at first, but soon loses that early luster and resumes the habitual sense of formality and boredom.
And my neighbor—he or she is as difficult as ever, and my heart is just as intractable, so what is the sense of all the extra effort?
That description may be something of a caricature, but there is often enough truth in it to have quite a bit of relevance. My point here is that Lent is not, will not be, and is not meant to be neat and tidy. It’s much more likely to be frayed around the edges.
Speaking of edges, it’s meant to make us edgy. It’s designed by the Spirit to push us to some kind of edge in our soul, and then nudge or shove us over that edge to… the spiritual life.
Isn’t it true that for most of us, our idea of the "spiritual life" means that at last we have gotten together our spiritual "act"?
Our prayer is recollected. Our fasting becomes peaceful and sure, perhaps even effortless, as detachment from this world grows. Our love of neighbor is filled with patience, forgiveness and a remarkable tolerance. Yet how often this dream remains just that—a dream.
And even if we approximate this ideal, isn’t it because we have really succeeded in limiting the scope of our lives, having chosen to live in the "safe," enclosed, well-defined boundaries of our own little "spiritual" world?
Let’s look for a moment at how Catherine Doherty describes the spiritual life and more specifically, life in the Spirit:
"Nothing, absolutely nothing is not subject to the Gospel, the immense Gospel of the love of God, who became a [human] person… And who showed us that out of Palestine… out of this strange piece of land in this world, came light, and a solution to every problem from now till the Parousia. But we close our ears to it."
Why is it that we close our ears to the Gospel? Because there has to take place within us a terrible and awesome transformation to live it. Catherine describes what must happen:
"Because that indeed is to empty ourselves until there is nothing left of ourselves. And for us to walk around in the world for a while feeling empty is devastating emotionally. It’s only after a little while that we know that Christ is filling us.
"It’s a sort of a death, and those of us who have experienced that sort of death, that God in his grace has sent us for a moment, know that the price of preaching the Gospel is terribly high, intensely high."
That "for a while" which Catherine talks about here, that "after a little while," that "for a moment" can last for days, weeks, even months. But however long it lasts, it seems like an eternity!
It seems like we can’t stand another second of whatever it is that is troubling us but also emptying us until we feel that there is just nothing left inside—no desire to serve God, no wish to love our neighbor or family members, no hope of ever praying again a fervent prayer, and so forth.
This is all part of being broken down spiritually to make room for Christ to do his work, pray his prayer to the Father, love this man or woman in my life with his love. This "for a little while" has the feeling of eternity, and the great challenge that Lent especially offers us is to trust that this "eternity" will indeed be only "for a time."
Then, something unexpected happens, something not foreseen even if we have already lived through it a thousand times before:
"And here is the answer that comes like a joy into this hardness, into these difficulties, into all these things… They seem hard, and they are, and it would be foolish to say that our life is not hard. The cross was hard, and so is our life.
"But suddenly, through the goodness of the Father, we’re given the Spirit, and he enters in… with a song, with words, the words of the Father that came through the Son. He has the capacity to crack those words and to make what is intolerable pleasurable."
Here described is the moment of grace, the Lenten breakthrough, where suddenly the heaviness of the spiritual life lifts in an instant, and we are allowed to see something of the truth of surrender, self-giving, trust, forgiveness of enemies.
What was at one time an onerous burden, unbearable, "intolerable" as Catherine says, becomes a joy, "pleasurable" because of the merciful action of the Consoler Spirit who is given to us.
"Because suddenly, the painful process of growing in faith… of emptying oneself… of carrying each other’s crosses, of identification, of all the things we have discussed, this painful process is suddenly lifted up like a song.
"For into the ears of our soul the words of the Holy Spirit come, the words of a Fire that illuminates, that warms; the words of the Wind that pick us up… right on the top [of the mountain] without us touching [it], lest we hurt our feet or fall down. Instead of angels, he carries us high."
What Catherine speaks of here is the experience of hearing ‘in the Spirit’ the words of the Gospel. And even though these certainly mean a death to self, an interior emptying so as to make room for their vast scope, they always lead us, in Christ, to resurrection from the dead.
Every gospel word is really a gift of power to raise us from spiritual death and torpor into the living reality of the God of infinite love. It is impossible to know this, to experience this without the gift of the Spirit which Catherine describes here so beautifully and with such confidence.
This being raised in the Spirit is the goal of all our Lenten efforts, because to be so raised is to become, with Christ, love poured out for the life of my neighbor, and ultimately, of the world itself.
"If we listen, then indeed all the things we have discussed up to this moment shall become an adventure, shall be full of light; and strength will be given to us beyond our imagination, provided we are open to the Wind and the Fire."
These quotes from a talk given by Catherine Doherty to the local directors of Madonna House, September 1969.
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