A Lenten Triptych
Rev. Vincent J. De Rosa
In the world of medieval art a triptych is usually an altar piece. It has three panels telling a story… the central panel supported by the details the two side pieces. Triptychs were useful for their symmetry, but also because they could be closed: the two side panels, swung on hinges to cover the middle forming a safe portable piece of art.
Yesterday I presented something of a narrative triptych to the brothers of the Little Oratory of St. Philip Neri at St. Thomas Apostle Parish. The brothers are a neat bunch. About forty men, young adults to seniors, who draw their spiritual life from the teachings of St. Philip, and then take those graces into the world for evangelization. The mainstay of this weekly meeting is preaching offered gently and in a style accessible to all. A brief homily given by a priest is then followed by prayers and a more lengthy witness offered by one of the members, usually over drinks and snacks. Here are the thoughts I offered
Central Panel: Tensions of Lent – How am I supposed to feel?
In many ways, I grew up with everything. I was raised by a loving family in a nice neighborhood. I received an excellent education. …which is not to say life was perfect. I was bullied… a lot, I now realize, by classmates. It set up something of a spiritual tension for me. How can someone who has everything, feel like a nobody? Objectively, of course, there was no need for this stress, but subjectively, what can one say but, “kids don’t care about objective reality.” We’ll come back to that. There was also a tension of faith. We were Catholic, but rarely went to church. I certainly didn’t know my prayers. All that said, as an Italian-American family we would never be anything other than Catholic. Again… tension. Lent often makes me think of tension. It’s a season of mortification… ordered toward resurrection. A season of death, and yet just yesterday I saw the first flowering trees of the spring beginning to bloom in Dupont. What am I supposed to feel? As I said… tension.
Tensions, and their accompanying anxieties, come when we perceive a deficit that we can’t seem to fill. The normal course of human life is to pile up distractions. Sometimes these distractions are for ourselves: various forms of self-medication. Other times, we don’t try to distract ourselves so much as we do the world. Again, at the root of it all is a perceived deficit on our part. In my case, I piled up accolades to my credit, in order to distract the world from what I thought was lacking in myself. I excelled at school, followed every rule to perfection, learned lessons of culture well beyond most of my cohort. It was all good, but in many ways it was all a shiny shield to distract the world around me from what I was convinced were my own deficits.
One problem with such typical tactics is that they never address the underlying source of our personal tensions. And in the case of children/adolescents, though adults are very impressed, classmates don’t particularly care. They continue to reinforce one’s deficit-perceptions despite the most spirited defense. A second problem is that our deficits… the holes in our lives… do have some root in reality. Indeed, as we grow, we discover that we can’t do everything. Yearn as much as you want, you probably won’t become President of the United States. The line between our real limits and the false sense of lack -whether imposed on us by the world or by our own imaginations – becomes blurred.
It was over the course of several Lenten seasons, in seminary and then as a priest… several seasons of spiritual tension… that Christ began providing me with the tools… two tools in particular… to become free in all the other parts of my life.
First Side Panel: Poverty of Spirit – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” (Mt 5:3)
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Meet any mendicant (Franciscan, Dominican, Missionary of Charity, etc.) and you will realize that despite the best efforts of popular culture to convince us otherwise, spiritual poverty is not about self-punishment or self-hate. Indeed every mendicant I’ve ever met has been a cheerful, loving person. In Rome, I met St. Philip Neri who on the one hand is famed as the saint of JOY. On the other hand, he frequently prayed, “Father do not trust Philip, for I will surely betray you.” What Philip, Francis, Dominic, Teresa and all the others have discovered is that truly, God loves us no matter what. “He made us, we belong to him. We are his people, the sheep of his flock.” (Ps. 100:3). He knows that I am a sinner, that I am weak, that I am small, that I am mortal. Like St. Philip, given the slightest chance I will betray him… and yet, He loves me. It hit me one night in confession to an old mentor, Msgr. Lyons. Dutifully, he sat, gentle and ancient, waiting in the confessional each day before Evening Prayer. Like many, I found myself confessing sins of habit… and while they were in one sense common by their frequency, I was so ashamed of them… as if somehow God was shocked by them each time I confessed. Msgr. Lyons sat their quiet behind the screen listening to me that night. With quirky gentility he simply replied, “Well, don’t do that again.” and absolved me. The same response, the same absolution as every week… but on this night, this particular night I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by a realization. God’s love for me in my poverty is absolute. To be ashamed before him is useless. I needed to love my sinful self as much as he does or I’d never make any real progress. For the first time, I left confession with a real sense of the mercy that had always been there.
God had given me the riches of the Church: her music, culture, literature, and above all the sacraments not to defend myself, keeping the world at bay… but to fill in my deficits… to say, “Be not afraid, whatever is lacking in you, be it real or imagined, my LOVE can fill in the holes.” But none of it ever really hit me until I acknowledged and embraced my identity as poor. More than that, when I began to embrace my poverty and let God fill me, his gifts in me became more desirable to others. After all, when you use a gift as a defense mechanism, who wants it? But when the gift loses its martial orientation, then “we console others with the consolation we ourselves have received.” (II Cor 1:4)
“Be not afraid little flock, your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom.” (Lk 12:32) Today I read this verse everyday on the base of my priestly chalice.
Second side panel: Desirous Love – It’s real and it’s wonderful
Another Lenten lesson of several years has been the power of desirous love. In seminary and afterward it’s been so easy to fall into the trap of comparisons. Imagine two hundred fifty future Pastors -future leaders- gathered in chapel. Two hundred fifty alphas. You could almost hear the silent comparisons emanating, “Lord he looks more prayerful than me.” “Lord why can’t I give myself as well as him.” The supreme love, agape, is a love of total self-donation that happens when the Lord is truly with us. And so each time we feel challenged by this love… feel that we haven’t quite satisfied the demands of such love, there is an implicit question, “Has the Lord abandoned me? Have I become distant from him?”
Father Buonsignore Cacciaguerra, a renaissance spiritual master in Rome and friend of St. Philip Neri offered this image as part of a reflection on Divine Love:
The soul can find no rest because of the absence of her spouse, and desires him the more; then as it were, mad with love, she seeks him day and night, and finds him not, though oft-times he is hidden within her, though she knows it not, to increase within her a yet greater love of him and infinite desire.
Whether our lack of agape is real or perceived, the desirous love for God on which we fall back is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, as Fr. Cacciaguerra instructs, it is sometimes a tool of the Lord precisely to fan the flames of love in our souls… to grow those souls for ever greater self-gift in the future.
Further… as St. Thomas points out, the existence of an innate desire (e.g. for food, or for air… or for love) confirms the existence of the object of that desire… in this case God, the lover of our souls… even when the object cannot be seen at the moment.
I cannot tell you how often I feel like a terrible priest… nay a terrible person… not because I’m horrible to others, but just because I keep thinking, “I should give more.” Is that a real aspiration or a temptation to despair… probably a little of both… but I take both comfort and motivation from this truth: that a desirous love for God is always real… that the presence of that desire means God is out there waiting for me to run to him… and that (as Thomas Merton put it so well), my desire to please him does please him. More often than not, I find that focusing on fanning my desire for God usually leads to somebody from outside affirming that indeed, I have been a good giver. Don’t knock desirous love. It’s real and it’s wonderful.