Lent in Progress

As of this writing, it is the 4th week of Lent.

Last Sunday, Laetare Sunday, marked the halfway point of Lent. There is something about Lent that brings up the many lessons I have learned and reveals the many ways I have to learn them again.

Many will adopt a spiritual program for the season, often using devotional books, personal sacrifices, or additional prayers. My Lent began, unintentionally, with reading “Work in Progress”, a new book by Julia Marie Hogan Werner.

We are Works in Progress

As the title suggests, we are Works in Progress, a concept so simple and so helpful it’s unbelievable. The ideas, Werner presents are meaty, long-accepted and understood concepts in cognitive behavioral therapy. Werner opens with the question “Who Are You?” to introduce the issues often faced in the United States in reaching that elusive stage of adulthood, and having the life we desire, filled with authenticity and purpose. Most of us do not know who we are. We might have a sense of what we value, but all too often the circumstances of life overwhelm us. What we prioritize with our time gets determined either by a disordered sense of who we are or what is happening right now, rather than our values.

But, when our priorities are determined by our values and not just what’s happening right now, and we have a sense of who we are grounded in the truth rather than by the narratives we learned as children, false beliefs or expectations about ourselves, or trauma. Then we can begin to order our lives according to our true dignity and the values we hold. When we do this, our lives begin to take the shape of the life we envision for ourselves, the ones filled with meaning and purpose. And this is the key to happiness.

Stopping, looking and listening

The book has me examining and considering my approach to things of late, which is quite the goal of Lent, as well, to examine one’s conscience, place and progress in the spiritual journey.

According to Werner, there are two paths our thinking can take when we get together with some of the “false friends” Werner identifies: going with the flow and never really feeling in control or trying to control everything (the perfectionist falls into the latter).

And so the usual pattern for many a practitioner of Lenten disciplines is to see, first, the perfectionist in those first two weeks of Lent. Dedicated, focused, zealous in his commitments, he dives wholeheartedly into the process. But then the bite comes on after that time, the pleasure of change diminishes and the work becomes difficult.

Stages of Lent

Photo by Thays Orrico on Unsplash

In the third week, many a devotee begins to lag. This starts the opportunity to see one’s weaknesses and be reminded, “It is okay to be weak,” and see that suffering, weakness, and that lack of the strong-man within oneself, as a wake-up in humility, an opportunity to draw on the spiritual resources available during this time, to pray for grace, if you will.

And on comes Laetare Sunday, with the liturgical mandate “Rejoice!” Rejoice at what? There is so much darkness in the world, so many daily struggles, so many personal crises. Yet, the word, “Rejoice!” still sounds.

It means to spur us on. I am reminded of Werner’s book again. The author points out that disordered ways of thinking often stem from beliefs we hold, like lenses through which we perceive and understand our actions and the actions of others. Perfectionism stems from the belief that “I am not enough,” or “Failure is unacceptable.”

Werner offers the response.

There is nothing we can do to add to or diminish our dignity or worth as persons. We cannot earn it because it is inherent in our being. Perfectionism promotes the personal lie that worth must be earned. If we fail, if we are weak, we are not enough.

So Lent continues to work the heart through the stages of change. From the contemplation stage of realizing the things one must work on, we move to the preparation stage of committing oneself to the discipline of change. Then on to the action stage of carrying out one’s commitment, and finally, to the maintenance stage of keeping the work going. The stages are cyclical. We will fall back and need to realize these lessons once again.

Thus the strength of these six weeks, these forty days, to remind us and aid us in our understanding that, as Werner says, we are Works in Progress.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy is the fourth book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did Ivan Illyich encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?
Cover of The Death of Ivan Illyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia and his sufferings and death from a terminal illness. It was published in 1886 by Leo Tolstoy, written shortly after his religious conversion in the late 1870s.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy

There is no question what this story is about. Tolstoy gives us the full portrait of the life Ivan Illych led and the world he left behind, connecting the dots of how he arrived at that point. 

Those he left behind feel entirely superficial feelings about the thing. 

Tolstoy shows us the trajectory of his life, spelling out the increasing superficiality in Ivan Illych’s relations with those around him, the superficial nature of all that he takes pleasure in. In fact, Ivan Illych’s goal in life before this point was a pleasant life, free from disruption or disquietude.

Literary commentary links his illness to this lifestyle and a symbolic demise. It is a reality he sees himself in his final weeks. “It’s as though I had been going steadily downhill while I imagined I was going up,” he thinks.

Three Revelations Before Death

The first revelation

The first revelation is the realization that he is mortal and will die. This illness, though linked in Ivan Illyich’s mind to his fall, was most likely pancreatic cancer, and at the time, incurable and most often uncommunicated to patients by their doctors.

The second revelation

The second is that human connection alone brings some relief. Those in his life will not look at his suffering in the face. They look away. Gerasim, the butler’s assistant, “was the only one who understood and pitied him. And for that reason, Ivan Illyich felt comfortable only with Gerasim.”

The third revelation

The third revelation is about his life, whether or not he lived well. “Perhaps I did not live as I should have, it suddenly occurred to him. But how could that be when I did everything one is supposed to do? He replied and immediately dismissed the one solution to the whole enigma of life and death, considering it utterly impossible.”

This question continues to present itself to him. Ivan Illyich defends himself against the accusation. “And there was nothing left to defend. But if that is the case, he asked himself, and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters, what then?”

It acts as revelation, it comes to him as he wrestles with it. He approaches but does not grasp it.

He receives the Sacrament. 

Ivan Illyich pities those he leaves behind, finding peace and a willingness to accept death in the love of his son and sympathy for his family.

And he dies.

Much of the reflection on death itself, the superficiality of a life spent doing what one thought was expected of him socially, Tolstoy lays out for the reader. 

It’s clear that Ivan Illyich encounters something transcendent because he is facing the end of life as he has lived it. 

But does it change him? 

Does he respond to it? I do not know. I find the ending unsatisfying, but probably quite realistic.

Ivan Illyich can never answer this question, “what then?” 

The issue is one of facing reality. He could never go back to being the person he was, never enjoy the things he enjoyed as freely as he enjoyed them. He is now too aware of what is real. 

But alas, as Ivan Illyich discovers the truth he does not discover Him who is Truth. He does not begin to think about God. The Sacrament is just what one does. Rather than encounter the one presenting in the Sacrament, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he hopes again for physical recovery and falls back into the same despair.

The only plane then that God can reach him is through the natural, paternal love of the child who loves him, too, whose childlike honesty does not hide from suffering but instead would examine it dwell over it and remain so entirely present to it. Ivan Illyich’s last act is to feel a little love and a little pity for perhaps the first time since he was the age of the son before him. 

In this brief glimpse, he sees that he squandered what he had, including those chances at love, so he desires to say “forgive.”

Perhaps this is the moment of power, to look at another’s suffering and not look away. To experience one’s gaze, when one is suffering, and to feel seen.

The novella remains a personal and social commentary. Instead of “forgive,” Ivan Illyich says “forget.” Inwardly, he knows, and he knows that God knows. This is is what matters most now. In this he can rest.

Head of an Angel, after Rembrandt
Vincent van Gogh
Date: 1889; Saint-rémy-de-provence, France

Someone knows him and sees him. Someone understands.

Ivan Illyich dies with little more understanding of that Someone then he set out with, but he knows something, and with this knowledge, he can stop fighting.

Outwardly, his wife will forget, his children will forget. They may not dwell long enough on his life or actions to even consider the need to forgive. 

It was just what’s done.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Check back next week for our discussion on the poem, “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.

To explore reflections from the first and second week, click the links below: 

Perspective is Everything During Lent

The high this week is forecast to be 78. What would be cool in the summer, this will be a record high for February in the Central Valley. It will feel warm, but what would a Minnesotan say, especially this month?

Perspective.

As I write this, Ash Wednesday begins the liturgical season of Lent, a time of fasting, repentance and almsgiving. The quiet and sobriety of Lent were once challenging, but now I rather like the memento mori, the time to remember that the days of our lives are passing. I believe there is something good on the other side of a life well-lived.

Perspective.

When my husband tilled the weed-filled zone that could be lawn, the absence of vegetation looked like potential, not barrenness.

With a six-week-old snuggled against me in a Moby Wrap, my nine-year-old daughter and I planted clover seeds in that zone. It felt like hard work with the sun beating down on us, sweat coming from our foreheads and my sides because Moby Wraps lack breathability. We were tired and thirsting after following directions to lightly rake the seeds into the soil. Sitting on the desk, enjoying grapefruit-flavored sparkling water, we talked about Little House on the Prairie and, to me, the work did not seem so bad. Feeling my daughter lean against me as she held a piece of ice in her mouth, savoring the flavor of a drink she rarely gets, it felt like no hard work at all.

Perspective.

Good times or hard times, they come; it is our perspective that dictates the lens through which interpret this story. “Begin with the end in mind” the saying goes.

If each experience is an opportunity for growth, that changes the tone of life’s challenges no matter how easy-going or painful they may be.

There are those times that are so overwhelming when so much of our bodies are demanded that our ability to process cognitively languishes, that we can lose perspective. The suffering, the sleep deprivation, the physical toll seems endless. What happens then?

Our mind continues to interpret through a lens, but we may not realize it. We do not hear it, because we do not stop to listen. There is too much noise, whether from too much crying, too many children’s voices, too many interruptions or too much social media. We try hard to dampen the silence with more noise because once we are unaccustomed to sitting, musing, being with our thoughts, letting them evolve, it is hard to know where to begin. The silence feels like an absence because it comes to us so rarely.

But silence is rich, like that field empty of plants. It is full of potential. There are seeds under the surface. There are the stubborn weeds determined to grow back. And there is space.

There is space for clover seeds.

There is space in silence for our next step, our understanding, our reflection.

That is the silence of Lent. That is the power of intermittent fasting. That is the breath of air that comes from a social media break.

How badly we need these experiences and how rarely they come in a country full of opportunities without making a deliberate choice.

The temperatures may be record-breaking and the ongoing need for rain is cause for concern, but I suspect the boom of heat will help those clover seeds grow. Very little in the natural world is black and white. Some good can come out of very bad things.

I sit here

beside my open window, listening to the cars swooshing by, feel the warmth pouring through my bedroom window and smell the scent of cedar and soil and springtime sun. Further in the house, a boy cries because he does not want to do his math. A baby cries to be held. A husband holds it all together so I can sit here and have this moment.

Were it not for the silence of this room, the view of the backyard, the time to pause and reflect, I might see things differently. In the middle if the night, feeding a newborn, I usually do. Perspective will not come by itself. And in the case of my lawn, neither will the clover.

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

Cultural Touchstones in Lent

Previously Published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

 

I hear in the niche world of young, homeschooling, Catholic families, a new buzzword: liturgical living. Liturgical living is a way of bringing traditions of the liturgy into the home with the goal of furthering ones cultural and religious heritage.

Societies were once overflowing with cultural touchstones, those sensory or narrative moments handed down and continued generation after generation. It is formed by history, climate, agriculture, immigration, and religion.

The almost ancient film “Queen Christina” (1933) explains, “It’s all a question of climate. You can’t serenade a woman in a snowstorm…Love, as we understand it, is a technique that must be developed in hot countries.”

Some touchstones have the power to travel, uniting a common people in the midst of diaspora. The people recognize each other as they identify evidence of those touchstones. Admit one’s culture and the interlocutors feel invited to speak in the hidden language using the terms and references of their shared heritage. These touchstones become a sort of code, informing those who might otherwise feel alone, to know they are not.

Ash Wednesday, the opening to the liturgical season of Lent, is one such day. In school, in business, at the store, Catholics can be identified by the strange black smudge on their forehead (if they went to mass that morning).

In America, the degree of assimilation varies. Give it the right elements, like the chill of a northern climate, and cultures begin to change. Touchstones fade as new ones take their place. Unfortunately, the popular virtues of our culture tend towards individualism, rather than a shared heritage or experience. In generations past, many made great efforts to hide their heritage, trying to Americanize and assimilate. A piece was lost. Now, some cultures fear the repercussions of fully expressing the depth and breadth of their cultural and religious practices.

Having worked in the world, I am accustomed to adapting my language to fit the setting. But today is a day I cannot conform. We are Catholic; the sign on my forehead tells me so.

 

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Thus begins the Lent for “high church” Christians. There was a time in America when the Friday meal special included fish and the soup du jour was meatless. Now Meatless Mondays are an internet trend. Fasting occurred on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for Catholics. Muslims and Jews observe other days and seasons for fasting. Now, Intermittent Fasting (IF) trends the blogosphere.

Health, gluten-gree, organic, vegan, fair trade movements become new cultural touchstones. They are the way many modern-day Americans relate to each other. They recognize the bag from Everlane, the shoes from Tom’s, the reusable grocery bag made in Ecuador. A left-over Obama sticker, a red Trump hat signals other cultures. Even if religion has largely exited the public square, cultural touchstones remain, but perhaps of a different culture than the ones our parents intended to raise us in.

How do these cultures develop? They must be handed down. They are handed down by Babushkas, by internet gurus, by religious hierarchy.

Ash Wednesday takes place forty days (not counting Sundays) before Easter. The liturgical season changes on Holy Thursday, a day drawn from the traditions of the Jewish Passover. Passover is celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox, the 15th day of Nissan, based on a lunar calendar. Easter, a moveable feast in our Gregorian calendar, falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

If we are willing to see it, even disparate cultures may share touchstones. Christ’s Last Supper was a seder. To enter into that tradition, Christians can learn from Jews what the seder is, what it means, and why it matters. It has endured over three thousand years, a trifle longer than Meatless Mondays.

At the seder, the question is asked four times: What makes this night different from all nights?

The traditions are treasures of our heritage. Some will be abandoned, some will evolve, some ought to continue. But without asking the question, we let them fall aside, we change the culture, without ever meaning to do so.

Stations for Kids – Free ebook

New season, new strengths.

 

Every year, our family improves a little in our Lenten devotions. It’s been ages since I could pray the Stations of the Cross in the church. Between mealtimes, bedtimes, meltdown times, it just didn’t work.

Dissatisfied with the offerings of geometic art, self-centered meditations, and dumbed down language, I began creating station booklets for my children and me to use as we prayed around the living room.

I’m offering it to you today…no charge…lots of change.

 

You can download it here 

(after a few clicks…we’re GDPR compliant here…)

 

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Photos of the week (v)

It’s all personal today!

Recently, we drove the 2.5 hours to Monterrey to visit the Aquarium. I love Pacheco Pass. I find the hills breathtaking.

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Preparations began for Miriam’s First Holy Communion. I decided to take out my wedding dress, which I love but had not laid eyes on since my wedding. In true KonMari fashion, I removed the fabric from the skirt (some tears were involved). Once the act was done, the decision sat fine with me. We will use the fabric from my dress to make her First Communion dress.

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Antiquing with my mother I found these beauties! Dessert and serving plates by Currier and Ives, Royal China. They bring me joy. The KonMari method is not about minimalism, so much as it is about surrounding yourself with things that you love. All the discussions about how many books to own are unnecessary for the book lover and, in this case, dishes for the dish collector.

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Valentine’s Day (sorry for the quality), we set out Valentine’s for a morning surprise. Everyone picks one Valentine to cut down on craft-stress out time. We observed the day on Tuesday in order to give Ash Wednesday its due. In the morning we took Celeste the bunnies and hearts.

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I am thinking about writing and photographing my own Stations of the Cross for kids. I took a quick snapshot of one station at St. Dominic’s when I was there prior to Peter’s surgery last week. To stand inside that church, as the procession moves forward and the organ swells, is like being enveloped in beauty. This is called “contemplative architecture” and it lifts our hearts to God. For parents whom little children are constantly distracting, this beauty helps one maintain or regain focus throughout the mass, entering into the kairos of God.

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And here is the little hero, waiting to go in. Everything went well, though recovery has been stressful. It was his 8th surgery in life, and his first outpatient surgery. As such, a triumph!

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Lent: what is it good for?

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

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It begins with that day of the year when Catholics walk around with soot on their foreheads. The ashes are burned, blessed and distributed with the reminder, “you are dust and unto dust, you shall return.” I can think of more romantic ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year.

And yet…

What does “carpe diem” and living the moment intentionally mean apart from the understanding that we must live today, cherish every moment because our tomorrows are not guaranteed? It is the grip of that reflective reaction which occurs when someone dies. When we think of what he or she accomplished or perhaps how little time there was; we review our own regrets and gratitude.

Lent is meant for that. Although instead of doing it after a death, it does it leading up to a death, the day Christians recall the Crucifixion, a Friday called Good.

I reflect for myself: am I living a life consistent with my convictions? What can I improve?

Along with reflection, it encourages fasting. Catholics and other traditions “give up” something for Lent. Removing the excesses brings into focus what really matters to me and the things that may have become unintentionally central in my life. Chocolate? Perhaps. Snacking? Perhaps. Gossip? Perhaps. Whatever it is, when I make a focused effort to abstain from it, I do not only become free to evaluate what role it played in my life, but like the Whole 30 diet, this intensive approach seeks to break the bad habits in order to make room for the new, the things I want to be central in my life.

Prayer becomes the sustenance to help me endure and inspire me to continue. It facilitates the initial inquiry of what I want to achieve and keeps the goal in mind. Like using a charitable project to inspire marathon training. What do I want my life to look like? Not just what I want but what am I called to? How can I adjust my expectations and beliefs to fit the bigger picture, love of God and love of neighbor? Am I fully embracing the path I walk on? The formation of that vision inspires the sacrifices.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the ingredients to the season of Lent. Because much of human error can be located in the area of what we do for others and financial practices, Christians are invited to give more at this time. Like “Giving Tuesday” after the trio of shopping days: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. When there is a concerted effort in a short span of time, the effort tends to be more effective.

Equivalents exist in small examples throughout our culture. I welcome the quiet of Lent as I welcome the storage containers that come to Target’s shop floor the first of January. It is good to have seasons of focus. It is a bit too much to live life and keep everything in mind. We need seasons.

My plan is to continue with the disciplines (new habits) I have been working on this spring, to give up bread (to encourage healthier options), to do some spiritual reading, to become more consistent in charitable giving, to take more time for silence and remember to keep work days as their own thing rather than let them spill all over my home days. It is not a radical shift, though it could be if that were necessary. Lent provides the opportunity.

I am not sure our culture has an equivalent to this practice as a whole. Advertisers would have us focus on the here-and-now. At Thanksgiving, we practice gratitude. During Christmastime, we oscillate between the desire to acquire and the desire to “count our blessings.” I think we need it. Our tomorrows are not guaranteed, so when the priest will say, “you are dust and unto dust, you shall return,” I will think in my heart, “I know” and I will try to live like it.

Reflections from Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life

It isn’t often an introduction keeps you thinking. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, written by Elizabeth Scalia, is a wake-up call to our way of life. She wastes no time. The introduction sets the stage and opens up the reader’s understanding that those passions and pursuits of our life, on dangerous ground, dancing a dangerous line which can tip the scale into idolatry.

She sets the stage then spends the book helping us to unmask those idols.

First, ease us into understanding:

“Idols are not like opinions or even convictions. They don’t ask for consensus or even strong advocacy—they demand worshippers.”

“If God created humankind in his image, we humans tend to create gods in our own image—or perhaps more correctly, we humans create gods so reflective and shiny, they keep us looking at ourselves.”

I have read about this before. The sin of Adam and Eve was not that they ate an apple, but rather that, having heard the commandment of God, they decided for themselves what would be good. This is how they would be like gods. Scalia rightly points out that when the modern Christian-mind thinks of idolatry, we think of golden calves and silly looking orgies from Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments. It is a concept so far removed that it becomes easy to gloss over the commandment. Of course we would not worship another god. That commandment must reference some other culture where that might be more likely to happen.

Recognizing where we’re at, Scalia leads us another step in understanding:

“We stop and think of what it means to have something “before God”? It means to put something “first,” yes, but more fundamentally, it means to put something “in front” of God, as one might put a screen in front of a fireplace and therefore place it “before” the fire…it stands before God and us; it separates us from him.”

What is an idol in every day life?

St. Gregory of Nyssa said “ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” “I’ve come to believe that an idol is an idea, fleshed out or formed by craftiness and a certain needy self-centeredness.”

An idol is an idea, fleshed out. It takes on a life of its own. Her definition will help us identify them in our own lives. They will be creative, deep, well-formed and multi-faceted. They will reflect a need we have, a need projected outward but points inward to ourselves.

A pretty weighty introduction indeed.

To carry her introduction, Scalia related the story of an incident she witnessed in an online forum where Scalia saw unfold a love of security that seemed somewhat deeper and close-minded than it ought to be. She looked deeper into the words of those on the forum. Could this be a form of idolatry?

“Rather, I decided, it was the anxiety beneath it—lying coiled like a snake under the mist—that the America they had known might be over. It was in service to this strange god of anxiety—which hissed of threats to everything familiar, sure, and safe, and played to naturally protective instincts—that our rural friend was chased away.”

A god of anxiety? My reflection becomes personal.

Coming from one direction to my thoughts: I have struggled with anxiety. The struggle continues. It is an ongoing effort to maintain a calm so I will not get too near the edge.

Coming from another direction: I am alarmed by the atrocities committed by ISIS. I’ve written on that only once, in “The Christian Mission“, but it stays in my thoughts and prayers. My husband and I watched the The Pianist. The parallels of what I imagine the innocent suffering at the hand of ISIS and what the Nazi’s did in Poland and other counties were undeniable. ISIS is moving and their goal is to destroy Christendom. They have stated goals to attack the US, the President, destroy Rome and Pope Francis. Is the world as I know it being destroyed? Do my children face a radically different future in the US, in the Catholic Church, without the security I have known all my life?

The feelings Scalia describes following 9/11 reflect my current fears. Fifteen years ago, I was a teenager when the towers were struck. I mourned the loss of countrymen, but living in California, was so distant that my world was not shaken, only my heart. I am older now and better see the bigger picture, and with that comes questions.

Coming from, yet another direction: the four-year old son of a family we hold dear to our hearts died last week. His funeral was yesterday. As I reflect on the pain of my friend, I think to myself how we never have the hold on our children we imagine we have. She may have understood it better than I, as he was born with a heart condition. Perhaps she daily made the prayer to God offering her son to his protection and love. I am the one under an illusion that these children are mine. In trust, they can be snatched away in an instant. I had to learn this when I miscarried, but in the economic, environmental and philosophy stability I wonder if I have grown complacent.

I am pondering all these things. Scalia’s words act as a scale by which I can weigh them. Do I put my fears before God? Have I offered them to God, essentially putting them behind him so I see only him? Can I come to place of trust, a willingness to endure the storm should the storm arise, from whatever direction? Or do I make a god of my fear, willing to sacrifice to its appetite, willing to organize my life around its worship?

I will trust. As Lent evolves, my health improves and I can think productively again. I have begun praying through the meditations and art provided in Mark Haydu‘s beautiful work, Meditations on Vatican Art. Day 1’s meditation on St. Helena, dressed in fine robes, pondering a vision of the Cross, reminds me that holiness is possible in stability, I can trust God even though we do not suffer as we did when we were un- or under-employed. What are my treasures?

Thirty minutes into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the man says he lost everything. He has a son with him. It does not seem to me that he lost everything if his son is still with him.

Let me always remember where my treasure is. Let me find my security in God.

And all this from only the introduction.

Death on a Friday Afternoon, 1: Coming to our Senses

For Lent, we are reading Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus. In Chapter 1, Coming to our Senses, Neuhaus reflects on the first word from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The reflection is vast and deep as it sweeps across reality, the problem of evil, the madness of the Cross. It seems impossible to summarize or hit highlights, as any real reflection takes one step at a time, a scavenger hunt for truth. What are the questions Richard John Neuhaus asks?

Why is Good Friday called good?

For whom does he pray forgiveness?

Who is at fault? Who is guilty?

I will share two concepts, but I highly recommend you read it yourself. Neuhaus’ prose is pure poetry.

The truths at the heart of atonement

These are truths we know instinctively, reflexively.

“First, something has gone terribly wrong. We find ourselves in a distant country far from home.

“Second, whatever the measure of our guilt, we are responsible.

“Then, third, something must be done about it.

“[Fourth], whatever it is that needs to be done, we cannot do it. Each of us, individually, the entirety of the human race collectively—what can we do to make up for one innocent child tortured and killed?

“Somebody else will have to do it.

“It must be someone who is in no way responsible for what has gone wrong. It must be done by an act that is perfectly gratuitous, that is not driven by necessity, by an act that is perfectly free.”

Theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God

From this nuanced understanding of atonement, at-one-ment, Neuhaus’ thoughts brings us to the concept of theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God. I give you an excerpt.

All the Adams and all the Eves join with the brightest and the best of philosophers to declare that this is just the way the world is. And who is responsible for that?

…if God is good and God is almighty how did evil come about?

…In order to adjudicate these questions, we constituted ourselves the jury and the judge and we put God on the dock. And soon enough we would constitute ourselves as executioner as well

…The jury deliberated and reached its verdict. The decision was unanimous. With one voice, poor deluded humanity pointed to the prisoner in the dock and declared, “God is guilty!”

Why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good.

“Only by submitting to our folly could he save us from our folly.”

“God must become what we are in order that we might become what God is.”

Personal Reflections

When I began to see the world imbued with God’s life and guidance, I saw every facet of the world being touched by him. That was before I knew suffering. As I shared in a previous post, The Madness of Miscarriage, when I encountered suffering for the first time, I struggled deeply not to see God as the arbitrator of this suffering. Consolations such as “it just wasn’t time” or “God wanted this little one in Heaven” deepened my suffering, because it is good that a child should be with his mother. No child should have a life without having been held and no mother should suffer to not be able hold her child. It just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

Neuhaus hits this point head on. From the suffering inflicted by one on another to the maddening suffering of the innocent to natural disasters or disease, we know something has gone wrong. “Spare me that sentimental love that says what I do or what I am does not matter.”

And so, as I engage with that first sin, the line which Neuhaus draws from the temptation to determine for myself what is good and what is evil, to the judgment of God, theodicy, I suffer with anger at my heart that God is guilty, the he caused the suffering. I experienced this anger at that dark time of grief in our lives, at the times of economic insecurity as I watched my husband suffer to provide for us, at times of illness and colds that seem not to let up. Why doesn’t God make it better? Implicit in that question is the judgement of God, trying to square God with the way I see the world and how I think it ought to be and how I think God ought to act.

But God is not guilty and how desperately we must realize that. As my husband or I remind the other at times of conflict, “we are on the same side,” God is that lover that longs to reconcile, who holds it out to us.

TRIDUUM (THREE): HE DRAWS ALL MEN TO HIMSELF

The girl felt far away, as though she could not reach him. She could not look. The girl did not dare look. If she looked she would see her beloved hung on the cross. She heard descriptions descriptions, but she could not picture it. This was pain incarnate. The king was there now. Her head was not turned away from him. She could hear his pain in her heart but the girl tried to absent her heart. His mother…where did his mother stand? She stood at the foot. The girl’s head stood only a little taller than where his feet were nailed.

She had to look. This was her king. The past two years she had had so much to do on this day. The girl had walked all day; she did not have time to look. But here she was. The girl’s heart cried out, aching for her for her to only turn her eyes! He was right behind her, closer to the right side than to the left. The girl began to turn in that direction, slowly. Her shoulder first, her head last. She turned. Her head came slowly. Oh God!

Her head hung to the left and her eyes were closed. They opened a little, but squinted at the ground. She fixed her eyes on the foot of the cross. It was covered in his blood. Her eyes raised and she saw his feet with nails going through them. Looking up she saw him in the same agony. She forced herself to keep looking. She wanted to turn away. She wanted to close her eyes. She looked on his body, wracked with pain. The girl’s body shook. Her eyes rested on his arms, his hands, his chest, and finally…and finally, his face. Oh her king! She did not even recognize him!

And, as in that battle, the whole world stood still. He stood tall, bound against the wood, and he looked at her with love, not with a love of consolations but with a love of the cross. Her king was broken in body and in agony. His love was full of pain, but so much the fuller for it. Her king! He was still a king. He would always be, even though she could not recognize him. He would always be: yesterday, today, and forever. He was her king.

When it was finished, the girl was a better servant than before. She saw his great love, his service, his sacrifice, and she understood more than before. And she longed to be his, to love him, and be purified and live on. She was his beloved, his daughter, his sister, and his bride. She belonged to him. And in his love, he belonged to her.