Lenten Testing Leads to the Table of the Lord
Friday, Mar. 09, 2018
Lent is a time when we Catholics ponder how we have “struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator,” as the Epiphanius Physiologus phrases our sinfulness.
The creature comes in many forms: our bellies, our acedia, our desires, not to mention the Father of Lies, who can deceive us not only with offerings of bread and power and adulation, but also more subtly, by revealing pleasures and convincing us that the consequences of partaking sinfully are negligible because our merciful God will of course forgive us. The Prince of Darkness also is a master at distracting us from the greater good by proposing we accept a more immediately pleasing but ultimately lesser good.
During Lent, as we confront the myriad facets of evil in our lives, we are challenged to pray more, to fast, to give alms so that we recognize ourselves in those who are poor and suffering, who are in fact our brothers and sisters reflecting the face of God.
Pope Francis discusses the purpose of this liturgical season in the first paragraph of his Lenten message this year: “Lent summons us, and enables us, to come back to the Lord wholeheartedly and in every aspect of our life.” He cautions against having a cold heart, and suggests that more time in prayer will allow us to root out the secret lies and forms of self-deception in our hearts. That accomplished, prayer will lead us to God’s consolation, the Holy Father says.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops advises that we pray the seven penitential psalms during Lent because they “help us to recognize our sinfulness, express our sorrow and ask for God’s forgiveness.”
In reading the penitential psalms I recall my brother, who died in January after a year-long battle with cancer. The last time I saw him, on the day before he died, he had, in the words of the psalms, wasted away and, at the age of 57, God had shattered his strength in mid-course and cut short his days.
As a teenager my brother left the Catholic Church and religion of any kind, but seven weeks before his death he asked for a priest and received the sacraments. For my grieving family Psalm 32 offers some consolation in this regard: “Blessed is the one whose fault is removed, whose sin is forgiven.”
Myself, I am not convinced that it was necessary for God to allow cancer to destroy my brother’s body in order to save his soul. He is the Almighty, for whom nothing is impossible. Could he not have found another way other than imminent death to melt my brother’s heart of stone?
Certainly he could have, but in the course of our creation God granted us free will, and I suspect that if God were to answer my accusations he would point out that neither heart surgery nor a near-fatal motorcycle accident had turned my brother back to the faith. It seems that only death’s leering face was sufficient to direct his attention to the state of his soul.
Last night I listened to a lecture by Peter Kreeft in which he said love cannot exist without free will.
“In order for there to be love there has to be freedom, and if there is freedom to love there can also be the refusal of love,” Kreeft said.
For many years my brother apparently refused God’s love, but if our faith is to be believed, by accepting it at the end of his life he was welcomed like the prodigal son into the Father’s waiting embrace. Although he didn’t mention it, this image fits into Kreeft’s message because, he says, God is telling a story that, if we could see it in its entirety, we would agree is perfect. However, to arrive at that perfection we must like Job undergo tribulations. After suffering the trials inflicted by the devil, Job is more perfect at the end of his story than he is at the beginning, Kreeft points out, and so it is with God’s plan for humankind.
“Any kind of suffering, any kind of evil, has to be part of that plan,” he said.
Here, too, we can find agreement in the penitential psalms: “We went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance” (Psalm 66).
And so it is with us during Lent: We restrain our appetites, do works of justice pleasing to God, and en-counter Christ through prayer so that we might return to the Lord wholeheartedly and through his grace gain a seat at his table in the sight of our foes.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.