Last week, my wife and I went to see one of the movies that’s up for an Oscar this weekend: “The Artist.” It’s a terrific movie, and something altogether different: a silent black-and-white film about the end of the silent movie era. It focuses on a fabulously successful movie star of the 1920s named George Valentin – modeled, supposedly, on Douglas Fairbanks. When we meet him, George is one of the biggest stars of his day. But when talkies come along, he doesn’t take them seriously. He thinks they’re little more than a gimmick, and he refuses to make movies with sound.
It’s a decision that nearly destroys him. The movie is a kind of fable about change, about nostalgically clinging to the past. It’s also about a sin that afflicts all of us at one time or another: pride.
There’s one startling moment in the film that drives it all home. George is alone in his dressing room, thinking about this crossroads in his life. He gazes into the mirror at his dressing table and, in an unexpected moment, accidently knocks over a bottle. It comes as a shock. And for the first time in the movie, we hear a sound: the clink of the glass hitting the table. George looks at the bottle, stunned. Bit by bit, he becomes aware of other sounds around him – the hiss of the radiator, the footsteps outside, voices from the street, laughter, the barking of his dog, a knock on his door. He runs outside and a feather falls from the sky and lands on the sidewalk with an explosive thud, like a bomb going off.
George becomes overwhelmed at what he is suddenly hearing. It dawns on him that he lives in a world saturated with noise.
Oscar Hammerstein once wrote a famous lyric: “All the sounds of the earth are like music.” For George Valentin, at that moment all the sounds of the earth are a nightmare.
Thinking about that scene from the movie, I found myself wondering: how much am I like George Valentin? What have I been missing?
What have I been too proud to accept?
Or, more pointedly: what have I been too proud to change about myself?
That, in a nutshell, is Lent.
Part of what we do during Lent is we do without: we fast, we give up meat on Fridays, we offer up something as a sacrifice. In our way, in doing that we venture into the desert, like Jesus did in the gospel. We strip ourselves of what we like, what we find enjoyable or comfortable. We don’t do it really to build character. We do it to discover our character – to see anew – or HEAR as if for the first time – just who we really are.
Stripping away some of the distractions of life, we are forced to confront ourselves.
Thomas Merton once wrote about this season: “Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts, but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” And he added: “The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.”
We don’t often think of Lent as a time of light. But you’ll notice it, as we get closer to Easter: the nights grow shorter, the days do get longer, the light gets brighter.
So in these days and weeks to come, we may see things differently – more clearly. Our world becomes illuminated. So ask yourself: what am I seeing in that additional light? What have I not seen before – about myself, about my sins, about the way that I live my life?
Or, recalling George Valentin: what am I realizing, what am I hearing, that I haven’t realized before?
And how can I do better?
This is most assuredly a time for taking stock – and starting over.
The scripture readings today offer us a powerful juxtaposition – and, I think, a dramatic lesson for the weeks to come.
The first reading reminds us of how God destroyed the world with a flood.
But the gospel reminds us how Christ began to remake the world, and redeem it, in a desert.
Well, here we are, in Lent, in our own kind of desert. How will we join with Christ in remaking our world, remaking ourselves?
In “The Artist,” George Valentin learned reluctantly that he had to change, and grow. Through pain and struggle, he learned he couldn’t cling to what was comfortable.
Neither can we.
I think it is the first of many lessons of Lent. There will be more to come. But his much is certain:
Lent pushes all of us out of our “comfort zones” into a desert of discovery… from a period of darkness into a season of light.
There, we are better able to see who we are – and who we want to become.