In 2014, I’m reading and blogging through Pope Francis/Cardinal Bergoglio’s Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus. Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the next meditation in the book, so you’re welcome to peruse them all and/or read along.
In this week’s chapter of Pope Francis’s book, he quotes a letter by St. Ignatius of Loyola that seemed particularly appropriate for Lent:
Experiencing difficulty is nothing exceptional; rather it is what ordinarily happens in matters of much importance for the divine service and glory… The contradictions we saw before and those we see now are nothing new for us; in view of our experience in other places, the hope we have that Christ our Lord will be well served in this city are all the greater because of the obstacles put in our way by those who are always attempting to obstruct the service of God. For the enemy moves people who have good intentions but bad information to reject that which they do not understand.
Whether your self-imposed penance turns out to be harder than you thought, or the people around you all seem to have the intention of helping you have a very, shall we say, fruitful season of purification, Ignatius and Pope Francis remind us not to be too shocked when this comes to pass.
It can make a big difference expecting a pain instead of being blindsided by it. The warning that Ignatius gives helps us experience the strain of Lent and repentance in something of the spirit that a runner experiences sore muscles. The pain isn’t a sign of danger, but of growth. When the little dashboard light of “pain/fear/exhaustion” goes off, it helps to be able to say, “Oh yeah, I expected that, and it’s ok.”
But, in this passage, St. Ignatius doesn’t desire strain for its own sake. It’s good to be purified by struggle, but we shouldn’t have a lust to encounter resistance, whether in ourselves or in others, so we can have the pleasure of overcoming it. I’ve fallen into this trap before, where my honest, first reaction to someone’s brusqueness or cruelty is delight that I get to be nice in a challenging situation. In those cases, the resistance I should be worried about addressing isn’t the other person’s behavior but my own triumphalism, and the way it’s blinding me to desiring the good of my interlocutor.
For the Orthodox, Lent began this Monday, and I enjoyed Rod Dreher’s reflections on the beginning of the season and its similarity toward what the Sufis call “inner jihad:”
Lent is not a payback for our sins, or an attempt to win merit. That would be futile. Rather, Lent is a time of mourning, of repentance, of disciplining our tendencies toward sin… Lent is a long trek across the desert of the self, fighting with every step. If done right, though, the victories bring cleansing joy, as Forese said.
And from one other post, kicking off his Lenten Purgatorio book club:
But then, they were in Hell in this mortal life, because they chose to dwell in their sin so fully that they didn’t even recognize it as sin. This is us. The Pilgrim doesn’t walk through Hell gawking at other sinners, and thanking God that he is not like them. He walks through Hell and comes to understand that he is, in fact, like them. He knows many of these damned souls personally. They aren’t strangers to him. Neither is sin.
The walk through the Inferno is meant to compel the reader to recognize his sins, and to turn from them. Purgatorio is for those who have repented from their sins, and who will be granted Paradise by the grace of God, but who need to be purified of their sinful inclinations before being strong enough to bear the intensity of God’s purity. This is important to keep in mind as we prepare for the journey up the seven-storey mountain. Purgatory is not a punishment for sins, any more than Lent is a punishment for sins. Rather, it is a time to perfect our repentance by subjecting all our passions to the will of God, and having them burned away.
These meditations, coupled with the excerpt from St. Ignatius, help me get a handle on what Pope Francis might intend us to pray for when he advises us: “Let us ask the Lord on this day for the grace to appreciate fully the militant aspect of our apostolic loves.”
Being happy warrior against inward or outward resistance doesn’t necessitate being hateful or scornful to what or whom obstructs us. In fact, it’s easier to fight with joy instead of need or fear if we’re fighting to heal the wounds in the world, and conquer resistance by bringing all things to unity in Christ. Whatever we encounter (and especially whomever) is still made by and beloved of God, so we hope for it to be baptized and reconciled, not destroyed.
DarwinCatholic is praying a novena for Ordering Lives Wisely by St. Thomas Aquinas, that ends today on Ash Wednesday. If you’d like to join her and me, you can find the prayers here.