Staying in Love:
Last week, we reflected on the invitation that comes to us at the start of Lent from the heart of the Bridegroom – I invite you to trust me and disrobe your heart – to take off the costume of the “self-perfected disciple”, and to stand before me in vulnerability so that you may experience the profound tsunami of my love, that it may wash over and into you, and that you might know that You. Are. Loved. And not just for the wheat growing in the field of your heart. But even with the weeds.
But we struggle mightily to take off the masks we’ve glued onto our faces. The interior and immediate knowledge we all have of ourselves as profoundly fallen sinners traps us with the lie: If others knew me like I know me, then they’d hate me like I hate me.
As a result, we polish our self-projected veneer for all the world to see. Because the fear of rejection has conditioned us so deeply, Lent proposes a three-fold training regime that is designed to recondition our spiritual muscle memory and spiritual instincts. Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we are invited to live in reality, making it possible to walk up the desert aisle to embrace and be embraced by the Bridegroom at Easter.
Let us start with almsgiving. We increase and intensify our almsgiving during Lent in order to enter into the rhythm of God’s own Trinitarian charity, which is essentially donative and generous.
We need to detox from our addiction to things; we horde material possessions like shipwrecked survivors on a deserted island, convinced that the acquisition of more (fill in the blank) is essential to our survival and happiness. The Church invites us to become givers, instead of takers, because the ultimate flourishing and destiny of the human person is to make of oneself a gift.
And this truth is written into our bodies as male and female – what John Paul II called the spousal meaning of the body – in the call of the two to become one flesh. This spousal-donative dimension to the body isn’t exclusive to marriage, but informs the basic governing dynamics of human life. Sure, giving money to places like Catholic Charities is good; assisting at food or clothing distribution centers and shelters is good; but do not forget that the greatest gift you could give someone is you. You are alms that are worth giving, and not because of your virtues, skills, talents, gifts, or impressive attributes. Your whole heart, your whole self, in its poverty, is a GIFT that is meant to bless others. Give from the place, because He loves you in that place.
Let us say a word about fasting and prayer, which are closely related. We deliberately fast during Lent, choosing to feel the hunger pangs of our body. But it’s not about punishing our flesh because it’s bad. Fasting is aimed at getting us in touch with that deep ache in our souls, that deep, shapeless void that doesn’t seem to correspond to any thing on the world’s shelves. The narcotic buzz of materialism offered in Western societies has almost but entirely put Augustine’s restless heart into a drug-induced coma.
That ache is a smoldering wick in many hearts, and it’s precious because it calls out to the one who alone can fill it. The ache created by fasting points to the deeper ache because stomachs are like hearts and wombs—they aren’t just dumb empty spaces; they’re spaces that call out to be filled, to be fulfilled by the presence of another. The ache we feel—for joy, for peace, for fullness of life, for meaning, for love, for communion and friendship, for deep relationship—is ultimately not an ache for something, but for someone, who has a name and face and a particular voice.
Jesus promises that he is the ultimate satisfaction for our deepest hunger and thirst. But, why do we have this ache in the first place? Because Jesus thirsts for you and for me. But why don’t we let him quench our thirst? We are afraid of encountering Him…like the Prodigal Son, we’re afraid of the consequences of coming home, of stepping into the light of his gaze! We’re afraid of standing there naked before Him, without our costumes or masks on—so we plan our apology speeches. We are afraid of being alone in the silence of prayer because what if what I am is not enough for him? What if I don’t impress him? Worse still, what if I can’t impress him? What if what I am is utterly deficient?
The great news about Jesus is that He’s not impressionable; he’s already made up his mind about us, and this is what he thinks we’re worth: “This is my body, given up for you!”
Father Patrick Schultz is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland and he currently serves as the Parochial Vicar of Communion of Saints Parish in Cleveland Heights, OH. He attended Theology of the Body I course in the fall of 2017, and hopes to attend other courses in the future.