Three ways to get into spiritual shape this Lent

WHEN YOU LISTEN TO SOME OLDER CATHOLICS TALK about the spirituality that formed them, you hear a lot about a harsh, demanding, and rather unforgiving God, a moral taskmaster brooding over the slightest offense, a Father wearing a perpetual frown.

And when you press the issue, you discover that Lent was the season when this God was particularly present to them. During the 40 days of austerity and self-denial, they were compelled to meditate upon the innumerable ways that they had offended, disappointed, or otherwise let down the Judge. The purple cloths covering the statues in church were evocative of their own mood of moral unworthiness, and the Lenten confessional was the place where the drama of self-reproach was played out.

When you listen to many Catholics of my generation (I went to first grade in 1965, the year Vatican II came to a close), you hear something very different. For us God was presented as one-sidedly positive, an affirming and upbeat friend, someone who would be there for us no matter what. We almost never heard the language of divine judgment or anger or demand.

And here is an interesting paradox: For us too, Lent was a season when this God was especially on display. During the 40 days, we were encouraged to think about how good we were and how much we were loved. Instead of giving things up, we were told to do something positive, to express our creativity and generosity. And the confessional was not the place of accusation and low self-esteem; rather it was a forum of celebration. Once we were told (and I'm not making this up) to go into Confession and tell the priest, "I am a really good person!"

Would you permit me a cry from the heart: A plague on both your houses!

For the past 30 years, these one-sided and simplistic theologies have bedeviled and divided us, preventing us from embracing Catholic faith and practice in all of their complexity, surprise, and delight.

Let me try to state this as clearly as I can.

If God is a cruel taskmaster whose purpose is to inculcate in me self-hatred, then I'm against and will fight this God like some combination of Frodo, Gandalf the Gray, Legolas the elf, and General Patton!

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, in the second century, summed up the Christian faith with these simple and wonderful words: "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." Unlike the gods of the ancient world, the true God is not a rival to us, is not competing with us. On the contrary, God wants nothing more than that we be alive.

Jesus said it as unambiguously as you could possibly want: "I have come that you might have life and have it to the full" (see John 10:10). And to make this flourishing possible, God tore open his heart in love and pursued us even to the limits of godforsakenness, loving us to God's own death.

Though he has lived in the neurotic imaginations of some Catholics, the cruel God is alien to the Bible, to the liturgy, and to the greatest of our spiritual teachers.

Yet at the same time, if God is, in theologian Paul Tillich's phrase, "a sugar daddy," someone who smiles benignly and blandly on all that we do, someone who would never dare utter a discouraging word or summon us to dangerous spiritual adventure, then I'm against him too, and I will not so much fight this God as turn away in boredom.

Both testaments of the Bible practically brim over with the language of judgment and demand. God hates sin, injustice, stupidity, and self-destructiveness, and God burns in anger against them, passionate to set things right.

When Moses, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, and Paul come into the holy presence of God, they become more, not less aware of their sinfulness and unworthiness. Just about the last thing we would expect any of them to say is, "Lord, I'm a really good person."

There has been no greater celebrator of the divine exuberance than the English writer G.K. Chesterton, who summed up the human condition this way: "We're all in the same boat, and we're all seasick." Though he has lived in the bland imaginations of some Catholics, the sugar daddy God is equally alien to the Bible, to the liturgy, and to the great spiritual masters.

The tension becomes a delightful paradox, of course, the moment we realize that God's holiest and highest name is love. Love is never cruel, but it is ever demanding. Love never desires to hurt, but it is often painful. Love is never demeaning, but, as Dorothy Day—quoting Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky—reminded us, it is in its truest form "harsh and dreadful."

So let us rid ourselves of the silly idols that have been the focus of so much of our squabbling, and let us come into the presence of the love that God is.

When we do this, I am convinced, we will be able to enter into the practice of Lent the right way. Lent is a time neither of neurotic self-loathing nor of equally neurotic self-congratulation but rather a time of deep, honest attentiveness and hard, joyful discipline.

I've been spending this past year as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame, and I've been living at the seminary on the banks of St. Joseph Lake, just across from the Golden Dome. As I gaze out my window, I can see below me a part of the jogging-path that circles the lake. From the lushness of late summer through the glories of fall and now into the gray of winter, one thing has remained constant: the steady stream of runners—men and women, young and old, professors and students, the sleek and the dumpy—all huffing and puffing their way to some ideal of health or beauty. Because they believe in the goal, they are willing to impose on themselves a very demanding discipline.

And in between the now barren branches of a great tree just outside my window, I can make out the contours of the 13-story Hesburgh Library. Students move in and out of that building from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. every day, studying, researching, fretting over their notes, looking for books, reading until their eyes burn—all because they passionately believe in the goal of attaining a Notre Dame degree.

Now I suppose there are a few neurotic joggers and unbalanced students who are doing all of this for unhealthy reasons, but the vast majority, I trust, accept these rigors with resolution and even joy.

They are doing it, furthermore, because at some point they woke up. One afternoon, a man looked in the mirror or saw an unflattering photo of himself and said, "Oh my God, I'm fat!" And one fine day, a Notre Dame freshman received a D on her philosophy paper and cried, "High school is over!" In each case, the sufferer, in the light of this awakening, resolved to act.

Lent is the season when we wake up not to something as relatively ephemeral as a grade point average but to our spiritual situation. It is the time when we act not to improve the looks of the body, which will inevitably go into decline, but to improve the quality of our friendship with eternal Love. This awakening will be disquieting, and this action will be painful, but the goal is so sweet that we happily take on the discomfort.

A traditional and very helpful way of understanding Lent is to see it as an apprenticeship to Jesus in the desert. We go with the Lord into the wilderness, and we watch him at close quarters, imitating him, seeing what he saw, enduring what he endured.

Holy people in the biblical tradition—Moses, Elijah, John the Baptizer, Jesus himself spent time in the harshness of the desert before they embarked upon their missions because it is a place of clarification. Stripped down, undistracted, simplified, they are able to ask the hard and simple questions: Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? What does God want of me?

The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal said that most of us spend our lives seeking diversions (divertissements) in a desperate attempt to avoid precisely those questions. So we eat and drink, gamble, gossip, seek out the most banal entertainments, surrender to the pointless stimulation of music videos, attend party after party—all in order to avoid the questioner.

To apprentice to Jesus in the desert is to divest yourself of diversions. It is to sacrifice the superficial so that the depth may rise. It is to still the chatter so that God's voice might be heard. And that voice, whether we like it or not, is one that awakens us to action.

So may I suggest three desert practices for this Lent?

1. Focus
Identify the diversion that most distracts you and take some practical steps to rid yourself of it or at least reduce it.

Are you preoccupied with eating and drinking? Then fast. Do you watch too much television? Then limit it to an hour a day. Do you indulge in idle chatter? Then resolve not to say anything mean about anybody, and you'll find that your conversations are a lot shorter! Do you socialize too much? Then refrain from parties for the 40 days.

Clear the ground. Clean out the system.

2. Pray
What I mean is this: In a very conscious way ask God every day during Lent to tell you what he wants you to do, who he wants you to be.

Stir up your desire with an insistent and repetitive prayer like the rosary or the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"). And then ask and ask again and again, "Lord, what is the path that you want me to walk?"

Perhaps you could increase your Mass attendance from once in a while to every Sunday, or from every Sunday to every day—and use the liturgy as a setting for the asking of your question.

You could also seek out a partner for spiritual conversation. I would be willing to bet that everyone knows someone—a friend, a coworker, a priest, a sister—who is on fire with the gospel. Seek him out, find her, and make your exchange an occasion for the posing of your question.

You could sit in pregnant silence before the Blessed Sacrament, keeping the holy hour that Peter, James, and John were unable to keep.

Mind you, when you ask, expect an answer. The other side of prayer is the careful listening for the Voice.

3. Practice charity
Engage in a concrete practice of charity.

The Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross said that in the evening of life we shall be judged according to our love. In the 25th chapter of Matthew, the nature of love is specified. It is not primarily a feeling, an attitude, or a conviction but rather a concrete act on behalf of those in need—the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the imprisoned, the forgotten. It is the bearing of another's burden.

So resolve during the 40 days to perform a particular and sustained act of love.

Make several visits to your relative in the nursing home. Converse regularly with a lonely person on your block. Tutor and befriend a kid who might be in danger of losing his way. Repair a broken friendship. Bring together bickering factions at your place of work. Make a number of financial contributions to a worthy organization that needs help.

Numerous spiritual masters have witnessed to something odd: Belief in God is confirmed and strengthened not so much from intellectual effort as from moral action.

When a man asked the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins what he must do in order to believe, Hopkins replied, "Give alms."

You might find that as you love, you will come to believe more deeply and to enter more fully into friendship with God.

And so enter into the discipline of Lent the way a marathoner enters into her training or a professor into his research or a businessperson into a challenging project: with a joyful and excited resolve.

God is neither a tyrant nor a sugar daddy (thank God!). Rather, he is love right through. Let us spend these 40 holy days responding to the delights and demands of that love. 

Father Robert Barron is assistant professor of systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois as well as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He is the author of The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis). This article appeared in the March 2003 (Volume 68, Number 3) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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