An icy wind threw hail against my kitchen window earlier this afternoon. A dusting of snow had settled on the top of Mt. Diablo and, as I peered out to the angry weather, a rainbow, barely visible, tried to emerge through mist over the mountain, soon to be gone.
A good first Sunday in Lent, I thought. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
We are frail creatures inhabited by the love of God, unfit for such glory, yet yearning for more. Our pilgrimage in time – to our deaths – is the essence of all creation. Made in God’s image, we incarnate him as well. We are like him, for we can reason, we can create, and we can love.
Our fragility bears such greatness, as it bares its carefully guarded conscience within. We must bare and confess our failings, our not loving enough. We must inform our conscience so that we can learn to love better. For as our conscience grows in strength, we become less fragile. It is all up to us, up to our willing God’s will. It is up to us to commit to loving, to giving away our precious time, to taking the hard road when the easy one is so tempting.
I have found Advent and Lent to be a good school of conscience training. The discipline of saying the Offices of Evening Prayer or Morning Prayer (or both) immerse the heart and mind in God’s will for us. The prayer offices – going back to the seventh century – include rich poetic prayers, Scripture inspired. They include Scripture readings, true lessons, appropriate for the season. They include lyric psalms that join our voices to those of thousands of years, B.C., before Christ walked among us.
Advent prepares us for the Feast of the Incarnation, Christmas, the birth of Christ. Lent prepares us for the Feast of the Resurrection, Easter, the great salvific atonement of Christ’s Passion.
As my bishop often reminded me, passion is the union of love and suffering. And so we make small suffering sacrifices of self during these forty days as we step through the wilderness of Lent. We give up minutes of our time in the morning or evening to reach for God, to stretch our heart to welcome him within us. We follow Our Lord to Jerusalem, the Way of the Cross, and his Passion.
How do we follow Our Lord to Jerusalem? We make a Lenten rule, to do something for someone else – for God – and to give something up – for God. Like an athlete in training, we tone our wills to run the race of time to the finish line of eternity. We sculpt our wills, through abstinence and fasting, to unite perfectly with God’s will. As Our Lord said to His Father, in the Garden on Maundy Thursday, in the dark of the night before Good Friday, let thy will be done.
The sun has come out, the storm has passed. The earth is watered and green. We too must be watered, sometimes by storms, sometimes in ways we do not desire. We suffer. Our loved ones suffer. And yet, there is a greening that comes through suffering love, there is a growth. But it must be within God’s will. That greening is called Grace, the Grace of God.
My bishop often said, “All is grace,” and it is true. God pulls good from evil. He turns humility into glory. He redeems suffering that is united to his own suffering on the cross. We sometimes call this “offering it up” to God, to the cross. And so it is. It is an offering, indeed – our own pain and confusion and heartbreak filling the holes in his hands and side, sharing with him.
I have come to believe that evil is real. It is planted in hearts by little sins, infinitesimal wrongs, hardly noticeable. It is fed by pride and then greater sins. Soon, it is cancerous, devouring. I have known those who succumbed to these hissing snakes, thinking they sang songs of adoration. They had grown blind to their sins, little and big, so that grace could not work upon them. Grace was refused.
Lent is a time to consider these things, to examine one’s heart and mind. Does the heart love enough? Does the mind train the heart in the will of God? It is a time to root out the rot, the multiplying mold. It is time to confess.
And when the heart is scoured clean, it can be filled with grace, with the love of God. It is then, after forty days in the wilderness, thirsty and tempted, that we can say, “Abba,” Papa, Father. It is then that we can fill the heart with holy desire, desires informed by Scripture and prayer. It is then that we have a conscience that will unite our will with God’s will.
It is then, and only then, that we can celebrate Easter, the resurrection of God-made-flesh, our own Incarnate One, for we are finally made fully at-one with him in the Atonement.
We must run the race to Easter, to eternity. In my end is my beginning; in my self-denial is my self-affirmation; in my death is my life. We must train, we must learn this discipline of love.
The novelist George Bernanos reflects St. Therese of Lisieux’s words when he writes, “Grace is everywhere,” or “All is grace.”
In Lent, we learn to welcome the Grace of God into our lives.