According to the English Catholic priest-cardinal John Henry Newman, “Growth is the only evidence of life.” Life is then most apparent in the springtime with the bursting and budding of flowers, trees, and whistling of birds. Winter precedes this era of new life. Is it not interesting that within nature newness of life springs forth from the cold, dark, dreariness of the death of winter?
Currently, we live in a time of transition—March, the chimeric month whereby it begins calmly like a lamb and ends ferociously like a lion or vice versa!
A Transitional Season
The Holy Spirit guided the Early Church in placing Lent during the lowest point (CLIMATICALLY SPEAKING) of the calendar year.
Lent is a time of wandering in the hope it leads to the wonderment of Easter Sunday. Saint John Henry Newman began his Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent with this key reminder, “The season of humiliation, which precedes Easter, lasts forty days, in memory of our Lord’s long fast in the wilderness.” When you actually think about it, wintertime can be a source of humiliation as well.
Tired from the lack of sunlight and seemingly endless shoveling you may oversleep your alarm clock and rush out the door to work. In that panic of celerity, you may have slipped on a patch of ice and fell quickly on your butt— all the while your careful neighbors gaze at you! Well, this actually happened to me, except instead it happened in the busy parking lot of a grocery store! I felt quite foolish and embarrassed. Our 40-day sojourn in the “desert” is a call to unite ourselves in prayer and fasting to Christ’s ultimate humiliation—His violent death on the Cross.
Excerpt from Newman’s Lenten Homily:
For what we know, Christ’s temptation is but the fulness of that which, in its degree, and according to our infirmities and corruptions, takes place in all His servants who seek Him. And if so, this surely was a strong reason for the Church’s associating our season of humiliation with Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness, that we might not be left to our own thoughts, and, as it were, “with the wild beasts.”
Humble Yourself this Lent
Again, the holy priest guides us to focus on Lent as a time to link our personal embarrassment with Jesus’ humble time in the desert. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son Jesus. Jesus endured human things like hunger, thirst, and temptation. Fully human. But fully divine too. Christ never succumbed to the wiles of the Devil. Saint Newman reminds us to humble ourselves before the foot of the Cross.
May we endure the harsh realities of this wintery world through the refreshing oases of the sacraments this Lenten season. Read the Saint John Henry Newman’s entire sermon here: John Henry Newman’s Lenten Sermon.
The Catechism tells us, “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (CCC 540). This year I already experienced time in the wilderness not only in the spiritual sense, but in a tangible way as well. As a child, I used to think that the desert only referred to geographic areas with intense heat and little rainfall. However, reflecting on the information I learned from high school geography class and confirmed by Dictionary.com, a desert technically speaking is defined as: “any area in which few forms of life can exist because of lack of water, permanent frost, or absence of soil.” Winter 2018 certainly calls into question about whether the United Stated Midwest could be argued to be categorized as a deserted place!
Along with experiencing a physical harshness of climate and barrenness of life during the wintertime, I undergo periods, especially the last couple weeks, of dryness or barrenness in my spiritual life. Spiritual aridity is a topic that I related started to learn about. Saint including, but not limited to, Teresa of Calcutta, Sister Maria Faustina, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross guided me toward a more mature spirituality and to realize that dryness in prayer is not necessary an indictment on a person instead souls undergo periods of purgation to deepen one’s relationship with God. St. John of the Cross, (whose feast day is actually today!) most recently helped avoid me wandering and oriented me toward a mindset that marvels at the Providence of God despite sojourning in the desert of life. Below I wish to share three specific ways Christians will be able to avoid wandering and to start wondering in the desert of life.
Omnipotent Oases: The great founding father of America Benjamin Franklin once said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Traveling in the desert this insight goes without saying. Quenching of thirst quickly becomes of utmost importance. In a desert certain fertile areas exist that surround a water source—oases. Venturing to an oasis is akin to the 1849 gold rush as water is an invaluable resource in a barren land. I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He promises her the possibility of living water. While it is not speaking of physical water, because humanity still needs that to survive the Christ is referring to the sacraments as being sources of God’s graces.
These omnipotent oases never dry up. We need only be willing to travel to the wellsprings to receive God’s grace. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1210,
Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life:1 they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life.
I wish to share an example of a recent encounter at a well of God’s grace–the Sacrament of Confession. At the conclusion of a long and particular tough week, both physically and spiritually, I realized I needed to do something about my anger issues and lack of patience at home. Traveling to a nearby local Catholic Church I confessed my sins to the priest. Standing in Personi Christi [standing in the Person of Christ] the priest had the authority to forgive my sins through the sacrament of Holy Orders. In the New Testament, Jesus conferred this power to his Apostles–the first Catholic priest– in John 20:22-23. After receiving the healing graces from this sacrament, I returned home with a greater defense and ability to encounter the temptation of anger and impatience head-on.
2. Follow the Caravan: A second tip that I discovered that helped me withstand the sandstorms [no pun intended] and desolation of life is to unite myself with others in community to not only discuss my struggles but to celebrate the joys of life. Sojourning with others assists me in the journey of life. It is not a coincidence that the source and summit of the Christian life involves communal worship in the sacrament of the Eucharist within the Mass. The Church reminds us in CCC number 1369, “The whole Church is united with the offering and intercession of Christ.”
Along with weekly attendance of the Mass, smaller forms of community sustain me during periods of desert-like desolation in my spiritual life. A friend of mine actually reached out to me unsolicited to see if I needed assistance. “I know that you are going through a tough time now Matt, I was wondering if you wanted to get together for dinner or a drink sometime. Know that I am hear for you if you need to talk about things.” This was a text message that I received a few days ago. Truly, the Holy Spirit worked in my friend’s heart to reach out to me to seek an opportunity to console me.
3. Marian Moonlight in the Dark Night: The third means I learned that helped me learn to marvel at God’s majesty instead of aimlessly wander in the desert of life is turn more to the Mother of God for support and comfort. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, the moon has be a symbol associated with Mary. Oftentimes she is a guide to pilgrims in this earthly existence during a dark night of the soul. Venerable Fulton Sheen spoke this once, “God who made the sun, also made the moon. The moon does not take away from the brilliance of the sun. All its light is reflected from the sun. The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son; without Him, she is nothing. With Him, she is the Mother of men.”
Mary reflects or shines the light of Christ during the darkest of nights. During particularly frustrating nights when my children struggle with going to sleep–I ask the Blessed Virgin for assistance in my time of need. Recently, I started to pray a decade of the rosary when rocking my youngest child to bed. Looking to Mary for help is in no way a circumvention around God. I still worship Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, however, the humanity of Mary appeals to me and her maternal mediation always works on our behalf to bring our prayers to God.
I will close with a quote from the J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: During a particularly desolate part of the journey to destroy the ring [which represents sin and corruption] the hobbit-companion to Frodo [the ring-bearer] is Samwise ‘Sam’ Gamgee. He confidently told Frod, “I made a promise, Mr Frodo. A promise. ‘Don’t you leave him Samwise Gamgee.’ And I don’t mean to. I don’t mean to.” Do we possess similar resolve when times get tough? If we are married, do we remember our marital commitment to fidelity in the good times and bad? Do we have the courage and empathy to reach out to friends in need? Let us reflect on the promise of Jesus in Matthew 28:20, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”