Sunday, February 17, 2013

All Things Must Become Bitter: Some Thoughts For Lent

I always laugh a little to myself about the whole giving up chocolate and gummies for Lent.  Maybe in some cases, it comes from a good place of pure self-denial - of this I am no judge.  And frankly, when I did my first Lent, I gave up all the sweets and such too - and it was hell. 

But I have learned that Lent is much more than simply giving up a few things in one's life.  No, it is a period of intense spiritual purification.  We are called to walk with Christ into the desert, to fast with Him, to pray with Him, to console Him, to simply be with Him there.

Paradoxically, however, we are also asked to come out of this desert too, to reach out to others in need, to be with Christ not only in the desert, but in the streets.

My motto when it comes to Lent is that whatever I give up, however I choose to engage in this season, it must hurt.  As the Dominican mystic Johannes Tauler says, "All things must become bitter to you to the degree that you found pleasure in them"1.  This, to me, is the simple turning back to God.  It is the act of refining oneself, of stripping away all that is not of God, and starving the passions out of their fortified positions that have taken root in one's heart. 

Whatever vices and sins we struggle with, I have learned that Lent is the perfect time to train oneself in the art of combat against them.  St. Macarius says that the "most important work that a spiritual wrestler can do, is to enter within the heart, there to fight Satan; to hate and repel the thoughts that he inspires and to wage war upon him"2, for, as Origen wrote before him, "Within you is the battle you are to fight; the evil structure which must be torn down is within; your enemy comes from your own heart"3.

Christ did not simply sit in the desert and suffer - he waged war with the adversary of our souls.  He did not "escape" from temptation, but met it head on in battle, in the very person of the devil himself.  Let us take heart in this.  "Do not despair, thinking that you cannot change yourself after so many years.  Simply enter into the presence of Jesus as you are and ask Him to give you a fearless heart where He can be with you"4.

In this way, we can endure the bitterness that we must cultivate for the things of the world that once were our idols, our pleasures, and our luxuries.  For me, I have always taken heart in what St. Augustine writes in his Confessions:

"If the crime of theft which I committed that night as a boy of sixteen were a living thing, I could speak to it and ask what it was that, to my shame, I loved in it.  I had no beauty because it was a robbery.  It is true that the pears which we stole had beauty, because they were created by you, the good God, who are the most beautiful of all beings and the Creator of all things, the supreme Good and my own true Good.  But it was not the pears that my unhappy soul desired.  I had plenty of my own, better than those, and I only picked them so that I might steal.  For no sooner had I picked them than I threw them away, and tasted nothing in them but my own sin, which I relished and enjoyed.  If any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavour."5

There is much wisdom in this, as it allows us to consider why sinful things are perhaps a pleasure for us, why we struggle with vice at all.  St. Augustine simply admits the truth - because he enjoyed the sin, the rebellion of it.  To me, he illustrates what perhaps many of us struggle with in our own lives when it comes to our own failings - that we are the ones responsible for them.  Too many times, I think, we attribute our failings to an outside force, to the realm of the demonic, to the temptations that we are put through by the devil.  But I remember reading somewhere that the will is the only gate by which the devil may enter and take captive our hearts.  Temptation and allures of all kinds to sin can crash into me as much as they want to no avail, unless my own human will opens the gate for them to come in to my heart, wherein only Christ is to dwell. 

So - all things must become bitter, from the tiniest things to the biggest things that caused me to sin, that caused me to turn from God to created things for comfort and satisfaction.  This involves a complete re-wiring of the mind and heart - not an easy task. 

Let us pray for each other that we might find all things bitter that are not of God. 

1 - "Sermon 3"
2 - The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, pg. 201
3 - Homilies on Joshua, V:2
4 - Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love, pg. 40
5 - II:6

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