Sixth in a series
EXPERIENCING THE season of Lent this year has convinced me that for several years I have been living in the midst of a religious revolution. What I am emphasizing in my life during this Lenten season is radically different from my experience of Lent prior to Vatican II. My guess is that many readers of this column may be having an experience similar to mine.
Thinking back to previous Lenten seasons, I have become aware of how the season emphasized and stressed some aspects of Catholic faith, but neglected others. In my mind, Lent had a kind of more intense – and somewhat negative – outlook that was common in the Catholic Church when I grew up. There was an emphasis, perhaps even an overemphasis, on our sinfulness. The view of the human body seemed negative. Rather than stressing that our bodies are a marvelous gift from God, the body was looked upon by many as a source of sin. And during my teenage years, the resurrection of Jesus was not nearly emphasized as much as the crucifixion of Jesus.
I attended Catholic grammar school and Xavier H.S., a Jesuit high school in Manhattan. The sisters who taught me in grammar school were a magnificent group of women, enormously dedicated and unselfish. Their spirituality, I think, stressed escape from the world. I have heard that the Jesuits at Xavier, a truly inspiring group of men who were a very strong influence in my life, occasionally wore hair shirts under their cassocks. A hair shirt is something like Brillo, not very comfortable to say the least. I believe that occasionally, perhaps once a month, they engaged in some kind of self-flagellation. My impression was that this was to build up self-control over the body. I think that the spirituality of both Catholic sisters and Jesuit priests has changed dramatically.
During Lent some Catholics were obliged to fast and abstain from meat at many meals, and were encouraged to give up some food or activity that was good and offer the sacrifice to God. I recall regularly giving up movies during Lent. Now when I hear of an old film that I don’t recall seeing, I figure it must have come out during Lent!
During six years as a student in the major seminary, I recall many homilies about our unworthiness and sinfulness, but I don’t recall ever being told that we should love ourselves. In fact, I don’t recall any homily about love. The primary virtue that was stressed was obedience. I think that the textbook that we used in dogmatic theology had only two pages on the resurrection.
Memory can play tricks on us but I think that what I have mentioned in this column is fairly accurate. Of course, just about everything that I have mentioned has changed. What I suggest has to be avoided is the belief that the changes in our religion and in our experience of Lent have made our lives and experience of Lent easier. I hope an emphasis on love has not made our lives easier, but I do hope it has made our lives and experience of Lent more joyful.
Re-reading Ronald Rolheiser’s “Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist” has helped me to focus more on the Eucharist as Christ’s great act of love, rather than over emphasizing my own sinfulness and unworthiness. In writing about the Eucharist as sacrifice, I think Rolheiser puts everything in perspective. Rather than primarily focusing on ourselves, I think we should focus with awe on what Christ has done and is doing for us. Rolheiser offers a wonderful quote from Scripture scholar, C.H. Dodd:
“If at any point human history should become entirely nonresistant to God, perfectly transparent to his design – then from that point the creative purpose would work with unprecedented power. This is just what the perfect obedience of Jesus effected. Within human nature and human history he established a point of complete nonresistance to the will of God, and complete transparence to his design. … and we are laid open to the creative energy perpetually working to make man after the image of God. The obedience of Christ is the release of creative power for the perfecting of human life.” (p. 54)
In next Sunday’s homily, I hope that I can help people be receptive to Christ’s creative power.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).