Madonna House

When Life—or Lent—Goes Off the Scale

by Fr. David May

Lately, life’s been right off the scale. I rarely use a musical term and even more rarely know what it means, but this one has a common meaning that goes beyond music.

In the world of music, a scale is “a graduated series of musical tones ascending or descending in order of pitch according to a specified scheme of their intervals” (definition found in the dictionary).

Thus, when life is “off the scale” it goes something like this: one thing happens after another in such a way that there is no discernable pattern, no simple resolution, no way of measuring its duration, and all your plans that day come to nothing as you just strive to keep up with the flow of events (definition not found in the dictionary).

Not being musically gifted, I actually don’t mind life going a bit chaotic now and again. Kind of makes things more interesting up to a point, but only up to a point … and then, we are, you guessed it, right off the scale!

Consider last week, for example. I gave some of our staff a retreat of one day or so on Catherine Doherty’s book, Molchanie: The Silence of God.

That went reasonably well, but during the retreat the father of one of our staff passed away, and I found myself volunteering to go to the funeral liturgy four hours away from here, and then a bit later, agreeing to preach the homily.

That was fine, of course, but it would be following a retreat which, in turn, followed a morning as a driver for someone having a medical appointment, except that one appointment became three appointments in the same morning, meaning my desk’s load of unanswered mail of one kind and another would remain unanswered for a while yet, “awhile” being a week or more.

But what was that I saw? A pile of envelopes containing various categories of Christmas cards sent each year by the directors’ general needing urgent attentionnow, due to their faraway destination.

As usual, my fellow directors, Mark and Susanne, were light years ahead of me and had already signed every card. So, dutifully, I squeezed that in, but what about an article on Lent for Restoration, due last week (before Advent even began!)? I figured I’d do it after the funeral, unless life continued soaring off the scale.

In Madonna House, we have a lot of beautiful Lenten music—hymns and tones of a more somber variety, but replete also with the luminous, brighter side of a liturgical season that is called in some traditions the “luminous night” and the “bright sadness.”

Yes, Lent is or soon will be upon us, and we will be heading once again in a more conscious way toward Easter. Now that is a feast right off any imaginable scale: the conquest of death by God made man, the Resurrection from the dead of the Lord Jesus Christ!

Lent is part of getting there, the means to an end, the end being the proper celebration of Easter by renewal of heart and mind.

One thing you can bet on: if the Resurrection is right off the scale, Lent, too, will be proportionate to it. How else could it be a real preparation?

Whereas Advent is relentlessly busy, with a zillion homey things to do to get ready for Christmas and the celebration of God in the flesh, Lent is invariably mysterious, for only God sees clearly what is dead in us and in need of the grace of regeneration.

We may be given some idea of this by the Holy Spirit, but it’s rare that someone is given to see clearly what all is dead about oneself. After all, dead is dead, and therefore a little short of insight about life.

But the Lord sees clearly and acts accordingly.

Our community or family history is replete with examples of what the Lord can reveal about us as unexpected revelation, often very early in Lent. For example:

—The “humble” writer who received a withering criticism of his work on Ash Wednesday and was both devastated and furious.

—All day spent working for the Lord, only to find at the end of it that you are right back where you started from, with no progress made except from a measure of peace in the morning to a measureless agitation by evening.

—A sudden onslaught of doubts about one’s vocation, for no good reason, but all the stronger because of that, since there seems to be “no good reason” to stay put either.

—The complete failure at one’s proposed, prayed about, and blessed Lenten program of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, often very early in the game.

—The death of a beloved brother or sister, so that everything else must come to a halt.

—An unanticipated sickness or family problem that saps one’s energy, including all interest and time for reflection about Lent!

—A sudden revulsion at the very concept of Lent and such words as penance, fasting, sorrow, contrition, and self-denial, combined with absolute self-assurance that a little treat won’t hurt anything anyway.

Basically what starts to happen is that you lose control over Lent. Lent takes you over with its searing probing light of truth showing you up in true fashion as you really are, but for the grace of God.

Lent scales the heights of our poverty and explores the depths of our iniquity, going off the scale at either end and sometimes both ends at once. What is one left with? A new tone that cries out from a new depth: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

This “Lord, have mercy” is the great gift of Lent. When the Lord burns this prayer into us anew, he opens our eyes to the depths of his goodness, the sheer gift of it lavished upon us again and again.

He lets us catch a glimpse of a brother or sister as he sees that person, which can at times be revolutionary as to our current outlook and behavior.

Who else but God can safely dismantle us in the vortex of regeneration (an image from Molchanie!) and then recreate us in the fiery passion of his tender embrace, even as the father in the parable welcomes home his recalcitrant son?

Before long there is dancing, feasting, music! It all may be off the scale of our smallness, but not of his generosity. That said, let the season of repentance, ashes, and change of heart begin!