Christians understand the season of Lent as a special “healing time” of the Church’s year - a time for us to look carefully at our lives and work out where we really are in our relationship with God. It is a time for admitting that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt . . .” (Jeremiah 17:9) - that our capacity for self-deception, even in (perhaps especially in) the spiritual life, is limitless. That’s why holy mother Church in her loving wisdom brings us into this period of facing up to reality. She knows that reflection and diagnosis are the necessary prelude to a new healing encounter with Jesus.
I know, of course, that we can be psychologically, emotionally and spiritually worn out through the sheer pressure of the battle against evil (within us and within our communities, not to mention our warfare with the cosmic powers of wickedness) in which we were enlisted in our baptism. If that is you, then you should use this Lent largely as a time of spiritual refreshing. In the words of Jesus, you will “come apart and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31).
I am also aware of those mysterious stretches of spiritual dryness in the Christian life, seemingly unconnected to any particular fault or sin on our part, when memories of our springtime of faith torment us, and we bang on heaven’s door asking for the grace to re-live those “good old days.” God seems a million miles away. It is important to remind ourselves that all the saints down through the ages struggled during their times of spiritual dryness just to hang on to God in naked faith, trusting the promises he gives us in his Word. Some of the saints - like Mother Teresa of Calcutta - endured decades of this. If we are going through this kind of stage right now, we must do the same, supported by the love of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and strengthened by the grace of God in the sacraments. But we don’t give up. That’s the main thing. Remember the saying, “When the train goes into the tunnel, the safest thing is to stay on the train!” Maybe for you this Lent will be a time of receiving afresh the wonderful promises God gives us in the Scriptures.
But having recognised that it is possible for us just to be “worn out” or to be going through a patch of that spiritual dryness, we must be honest enough to admit that most of the time our spiritual, emotional and psychological problems are a direct result of our personal relationship with God becoming dysfunctional.
In our other relationships, the causes of dysfunctionality are complex, and, as a rule, both parties are at fault. Hence the need for clever counsellors and psychologists to help us work out why things are as they are. However, one thing we can be certain about when looking at dysfunctionality in our relationship with God is that God is never at fault. He has loved us with an everlasting love. He sacrificed everything to redeem us in Christ. He made us his people and gave the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. He speaks to us through the Scriptures, and he comes to us in the miracle of Holy Communion.
He has given himself so completely to us. WE must accept the responsibility for any dysfunctionality in our relationship with him.
There are at least two ways in which our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional:
The first is when we deliberately ignore what God says in the Scriptures and try to run our own lives. Now, each one of us - without exception! - has a huge struggle to bring the various aspects of our lives into conformity with the will of God, even with the blessing of the Holy Spirit within. The point is, though, that we cannot deliberately shut God out of this or that area of our life and expect our overall relationship with him to survive - any more than we could do that in our relationships with other people. And we do shut him out when we ignore his will as we find it in Scripture. The end result is that instead of the “life in all its fulness” he longs for us to have (John 10:10), we struggle to live in a loveless hell of our own making.
The second way our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional also reflects what can happen in ordinary relationships. It’s when we become so self-absorbed, so preoccupied with what we are doing, so busy fulfilling our ambitions and goals, that we just drift from God without meaning to. This seems fairly innocuous, but the end result is the same.
In the Eastern Churches, the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is the account of Jesus healing the paralysed man (Mark 2:1-12). In that story the paralysed man’s friends got him to Jesus by pulling the roof apart and lowering him, sleeping mat and all, into the house.
The man’s physical paralysis is used in the liturgy as a picture of our spiritual paralysis, the end result of allowing our relationship with God to remain dysfunctional. It is also used to convey two other truths: First, that the paralysis caused by sin can only be healed by Jesus. So, it is to him we return this Lent, in order to know his forgiveness, his love and his healing power. Second, that those wonderful friends who helped the paralysed man show us that we need to help each other as brothers and sisters in our local Church community get to Jesus in spite of the obstacles that might be in the way.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
LENT takes us right back to the basic question of our priorities in life. In Philippians 3:8-12 the apostle Paul tells us what mattered most of all to him in these words:
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
Notice here that while “faith” for the apostle Paul includes “assent” to articles of belief, it is far greater than that. It means to RELY ON or TRUST IN what God has done for us in Christ. It means our abandonment to God’s will and to the action of his love in our lives.
Let’s use this Lent as a time for drawing closer to Jesus. The self denial and penitence that the Church encourages us to practise are not ends in themselves. They are meant to help us see the areas in which we have gone astray and then to re-focus our lives. Let’s slow down a little, allow the suffering love of Jesus to impact upon our hearts and minds, and open ourselves afresh to the Holy Spirit. Only then will we experience the mending of our relationship with God, and our capacity to relate with each other - realities that we will celebrate with great joy in the Easter renewal of our Baptism.
The journey begins on Ash Wednesday. See you in church!