I bring with me some convictions or prejudices that shape my approach to Lent.
First of all, as someone once observed: “If something is bad psychology, it’s also bad spirituality.” For example, it’s often said about parents but I believe it’s true for us all: “if you continually criticize a person, reminding him how bad a person he is, how many mistakes he’s made, he doesn’t stop loving you, he stops loving himself.” Lent is not a time for victimizing anyone, least of all ourselves. While it’s true that we sometimes don’t behave well, it’s not true that we are bad people. We must fiercely cling to our conviction that we are made in God’s image and likeness. Not even sin can change that. Also, the salvation won for us by Christ is also not fickle…as if one moment you are saved, and the next moment you’re not. Salvation is neither a revolving door nor is it like a coin that can easily be lost. Our penitential practices are not meant to be expressions of sado-masochistic hatred, punishment, or infliction of pain or discomfort. They are not a test to see how much we are able to suffer. They serve a very different purpose.
Sometimes I get the impression that we Catholics don’t feel at home in our Father’s house. If we really felt at home, we wouldn’t keep repeating, like the Prodigal Son, the litany of our failures and how undeserving we are, and instead we would gratefully soak in the love God showers on us, undeserving as we may be.
Another prejudice I have about how we sometimes approach Lent rests on two striking statements: “Insanity is when you continue to do the same things expecting different results.” Said in a different way: “If you carry the bricks from your past, you will end up building the same house.” This, it seems to me, is one of the reasons why many people experience Lent as a temporary, minimally effective inconvenience. We sometimes approach Lent with our pre-formulated plans, goals, and a list of things to do, expecting to follow pretty much the same patterns we did in past Lents. It becomes something primarily done by ourselves. But Lent cannot be pre-packaged, and there is no one-size-fits-all.
If your experience is like mine, the typical sermon for the First Sunday of Lent goes something like this: Jesus went to the desert to be tempted. The three temptations were the temptation to satisfy his senses, the temptation to pride, and the temptation to power. These are the same temptations we face, so recognizing our failures, let us resolve to change our behavior. Three ways to help us change our bad behavior include fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
I believe that there is an alternate way of understanding today’s gospel and the Lenten Season. As we all know, temptations come to us wherever we are. You don’t need to go to a special place. Temptation knows where you live; it’ll find you.
At the urging of the Spirit, Jesus did not respond with memories from the past: “I was already presented in the Temple,” “I was baptized by John,” “15 years ago I had a great experience of your mighty power.” The urging of the Spirit is an impulse to reactivate here and now the grace we once received. We cannot claim to be Christians based on a fond memory of “once upon a time.” We are asked to take some risks.
Jesus did not go into the wilderness for the purpose of being tempted, at least not in the same sense that we think of temptation… temptation to sin. The sin of Adam and Eve was disobedience…which means not seriously listening to…their sin was not in eating the forbidden fruit, but in not seriously listening to, not being rooted sufficiently in the word of God... they left room in their hearts for other voices. By way of contrast, when Jesus is tempted, he confronts the words of the tempter, with the word of God.
Jesus goes out into the wilderness…the scary unknown…at the prodding of the Spirit. The Spirit is at the core of this itinerary. This urging is not for the repetition of the past, but to discover something new. That’s what we celebrate at Easter..newness of life.
When temptation or sin is the focus of our Lenten journey, we tend to a spirituality that accents crying over our sins; when the Spirit is at the core of our journey, the eyes of our soul are opened to the marvels of God’s love. Some people look at the crucifix and only see the pain, and, moved, they then go away crying over their sins; others look at the crucifix and see the depth of his love, and come away determined to be more loving toward others. In the end, it’s not our tears, but only love that saves us.
So why might have Jesus gone out into the wilderness? There is a religious tradition common to many cultures, including Christianity, whereby the person withdraws to a secluded place on a quest, and, like Jesus, not so much to change their behavior, but in search of a revelation, a deeper contact with the Spirit. In some cultures it’s called a Vision Quest, a sacred journey, an expedition of grace, a movement into discovery. They set out into a deserted place alone, taking only the bare essentials and minimal supplies, with a heightened sensitivity to signs from the Spirit. The effect on Jesus is not a change in his behavior, but a deepening of his identity, of his rootedness in God.
Solitude has always been a prerequisite for this type of journey. The person builds a tent in a deserted place where he spends the dark, scary nights. In other words, leaving behind his usual crutches, the person has to face his own fears, his true self, and face his own demons and temptations, not someone else’s.
Solitude has the power to put us in contact with ourselves, letting down our masks and our false self. It opens us to a ri
ch interior world and allows us to reclaim who, as God knows, we always were. The experience is intended to be uplifting, not depressing. It marks an opening to rejuvenation and newness of life.
The rituals employed include fasting, praying from the heart, staying awake, concentrating intensely on the quest, to bring us to a deeper level of openness. They are meant to enhance our sensitivity. The quest helps us to discover or re-discover our purpose in life, our life’s direction, our role in a community, and how we may best serve others. Lent is not about discovering how rotten we are, how sinful and ungrateful and worthy of damnation. It is about discovering our rootedness in God, our likeness to him, and embracing the salvation Christ has gained for us, once and for all, accepting how deeply God loves us just as we are, uncovering our God-given potential and our role in God’s plan of salvation.
Dear brothers, deserts and journeys have great transformative potential. Let us support each other in this sacred journey.
By Fra. Pat McSherry, OFM Cap, Curia Generale, Roma, Italy