It’s that time of the year again! the great time of sighs and shed tears. That is of course a joke… Unfortunately this is often exactly the attitude we bring to this very important season of fasting, prayer and reconciliation. In fact, when I think of prayer, fasting and reconciliation, the first impressions that come to mind are negativity, difficulty, dryness or even emptiness. But oh how differently we should see these three essential aspects of our spiritual lives.
In a recent retreat, I experienced a series of very strong spiritual struggles, which surfaced that same impression of dryness and dissatisfaction. Earlier in the year, I had experienced a period of joy and closeness to God and my spiritual life had, well, sprung to life. Through the inspiration of new friends, the intersession of charismatic prayer and the beauty of adoration, I suddenly began to live my faith as more than a series of moral and cultural values but rather a joy-filling (and of course still maturing) relationship with the Lord. The motives behind my participation in the sacraments had switched from adhering to external rules, to a strong inner attraction to God’s goodness. However this period was then put to test during my trip in China, where I was cut off from my Christian community and was faced with an incredibly challenging environment (both practically and spiritually). As a result, certain bad habits reappeared, slaying my new-found confidence and increased self esteem. I continued to participate in sacraments and Christian activities, but with returning hints of dry self-righteousness. This led up to the retreat, which involved hours of teachings, prayer, adoration and daily masses. Despite the memory of that joy in the present of God, my mind was overcast with self-doubt, judgement, distraction and general restlessness. All of the world’s stereotypes towards “religiousness” (especially Catholicism). I was angry with myself for feeling these things despite the joyful memories of prayer, but I persisted, telling the lord that I couldn’t help it and was leaving it in his care. And of course our God has a heart of mercy and delights in giving his children all the graces they ask for. Through the excellent teachings of our chaperone priest and fruitful discussions with other genuine men, I received the answers to these turmoil.
Three images remain with me from that retreat. The first, taken from an author who I profoundly admire (C.S. Lewis) is the image of the Wardrobe to Narnia. Father described how religion was like that wardrobe: It had legitimate practical uses in everyday life, it was valuable and all around a nice thing. However, a wardrobe can be replaced by another. Nothing suggests that one could not replace catholic customs with other customs, when seen from the outside (which is a huge temptation thrown at us by society). The real value of religion (and the Wardrobe) is the rich and beautiful world which it contains, which goes far beyond the already roomy confines of our traditions, art and rituals. This world, like in the story, is the one in which we are called to royalty, maturity and life. I was struck – and I admit a little jealous – that I had not seen this amazing symbolism in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe(another book to add to the list, please don’t hurt me for not reading it!). The second image taken from scriptures that weekend is that of the disciples waking Jesus during the storm. The disciples ask him if he does not care that they are about to capsize (so far as they can see), so Jesus immediately calms the storm, challenging them for being so faithless and afraid. At the time, the story represented exactly how I felt inside. I felt an uncontrollable emotional storm; winds of uncertainty in the future, waves of anger towards my sinfulness, mists of complacency and thundering temptation and doubt. At the time the scripture made me feel even more discontent but over the following weeks I have begun to realize the significance of Jesus’ actions. the Lord is more powerful than any storm we will sail through, be it in our families, our practical lives or our interior world. He challenges us to trust him even more in these storms, when our trust is truly put to the test. As father mentioned, when were the disciples safer? Before Jesus calmed the storm or after? In truth they were allays safe with the Lord on board as He would not have allowed the storm to overcome them.
The last image was that of our restlessness throughout our life. As father helped us to understand, through several humorous stories, it is natural and in our nature to be restless. We are made in God’s image, with his breath of life and destined to be in relationship with him. Our original and personal sin has distanced us from him and led us to death, meaning that we live our whole lives dissatisfied by being distant from God. The impressions of negativity, difficulty, dryness or even emptiness (and here I promise to return to the topic!) are not what the faith life causes but rather what we feel when we start to open up to the deepest desires of our heart. One way I found to describe it is the feeling of disgust when one has not eaten for a very long time and is both craving food and feeling sick at the same time. When we have not eaten of the bread of life through the sacraments and personal prayer, we can at first feel this “disgust”, which is really a sign of how desperately starved we are for the Lord. Our desires both healthy and sinful often eclipse our deeper desire to restore our relationship with God. Unfortunately, many of us are introduced to the spiritual life as the outside of the Wardrobe rather than as the rich world that is Narnia. OK, I promise I’ll stop with the metaphors
To wrap things up, I would like to challenge you (yes you on the other side of the screen, don’t think you can hide!) to fully participate in Lent. Find something to fast with- it could be either giving something pleasant up or doing something difficult -and use the hunger it causes to remind you of how much more hungry you are for God. Brendan Malone posted a very useful video on his excellent channel “The Daily”, with advice for Lent. The Catholic Gentleman also has a great article to help you. Don’t be discouraged if all you feel is dryness or dissatisfaction – if you do, turn immediately back to the Lord in prayer and ask Him for his help. Lastly, don’t approach Lent from the outside of the Wardrobe, fasting for the dietary benefits, but remember the rich world that awaits you in prayer. Sorry, couldn’t help that last metaphor.
For the record, what I have chosen to fast for Lent are:
- Not listening to music at home, in the car or at university, other than for praise and worship (to help clean up my choice of music)
- Not enjoying any electronic entertainment such as games, videos or unnecessary social media (to help overcome bad habits)
- and Being more patient with family and friends than I already ought to (to begin to heal my relationships with different people)
For those of you that know me in person, please pray for me and keep me accountable by putting me on the spot with how I’m doing!
Until next time,
The Alpine Wanderer
- Matthew 8:26
- Brendan Malone’s “The Daily”, episode on Lent: