A woman, not very young, stared at me on my way home after Mass, Wednesday morning. The look on her face was what I might have expected a generation ago, were I wearing a tinfoil hat. I had forgotten that there were ashes on my forehead, and thus had momentarily forgotten, too – in that odd state of mind one carries out of Mass – that the world would be celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Or, that part of the world would, that was not distracted, in the anticipation of doom. For the latest U.S. inflation figures were due, and who knew what that might do to their investment portfolios?
Not many used to wear the ashes, where I came from. But one knew what they were, if a Catholic walked by. Now, I am seriously of the opinion that most (“nominal”) Catholics wouldn’t know. This was something I learned a few years ago, when another lady, self-declared Catholic but “never goes to church,” told me in all innocence that something was smudged, and attacked me with a Kleenex.
I’m sure many of my readers have stories like this; it is among the joys of Ash Wednesday.
But within hours, if we are attentive to liturgical text, there is nothing more to worry. We are instructed to carry the burden of our fasting lightly; not to make long faces like the hypocrites. “Extra points,” I would say, if no one ever notices what you have given up. Then if you are asked, perhaps a bonus point for giving a facetious answer.
For abstinence and fasting is a pact with God. That is what makes it interesting. It is not a pact with one’s neighbor. It is a family secret, at its most voluble, and perhaps the secret is shared in the extended family of one’s close Christian friends. (We are among friends at this website, no?) But the world, at large, doesn’t need to know. . . .
“That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.”
Through the year of Fridays, and through Fridays in Lent, we are returned again and again to the promise of a treasure, where moth and rust do not consume, nor thieves break through.
I love the original texts of this saying – the earthy Greek and Latin – which assumes mud walls. That is how thieves used to break in, busting right through them. Easy enough to repair, and no broken glass, just shutters, so the windows were more secure than the walls. Today we have electronic shutters – high-tech defenses – but it seems the thieves can go around them just as easily.
There are no “safe spaces” – not on this planet, now or in the future. As we are reminded in the daily news, there are no more secrets. Anything one writes in email may be thrown before the world, and for the famous, as for the infamous, there is no hiding from the paparazzi. And this is before we consider the powers of the Internal Revenue Service.
We now live lives totally exposed, or in the prospect of total exposure, in a society whose intensely judgmental moral code fluctuates week to week, with fashion.
Even the faithful are distracted, from the alternative practice and presence of God, by the constant external buzzing of “breaking news.” One might almost say that our mud walls today have constricted to the dimensions of our skulls, and yet the thieves are still punching through.
Against this, the Church still offers the Friday fasts and the Sunday feasts, and the life of joyful abstinences. There is, in the hermitage of the human soul, still some place to hide, and in one’s “personal” life of prayer, still an escape from the rage of the external; still a place for the still, quiet voice to be heard in all the clatter. By steely discipline.
Our Fridays, especially through Lent, are the best place to know that everything we have in this world is illusion; that everything will be taken away; that even from those we have most loved, we will be parted. Add to this, every “innocent” sentimental attachment. Everything.
I mention this last because it seems the last line of defense, against God. At funerals – “modern funerals,” dripping with eulogy – we comfort ourselves. We apply the little faith we have to the Valentine propositions. We must not be too distressed by our loss, for we’ll see Auntie Bess once again in Heaven.
How do you know?
Granting, for the sake of argument, that sweet Auntie Bess will go straight to Heaven, what makes you think that you are going there?
This is an aspect of Lent, and its acute Fridays, that has slipped the modern mind, perhaps even of some church-going Christians. We are weighted by a “consumer society” that also supplies our sentiments; and those at a terrible cost alike to our faith, and to our reason. True love has been replaced with Valentine greetings – by which I mean especially to frame the “Hallmark cards of the soul.”
Of course, we are taught (or were traditionally taught) to maintain that Hope which should shine in our cheerful Lenten faces; that Hope, in the promises of Christ, that is conjoined with Faith and Charity, at the center of all meaning.
But it is Christ’s Hope that needs embedding in us, not our own little hopes in malformed intentions.
This, I think, is the beauty of these Fridays, in which we turn from our hopes to His, and in so doing shed (if only for a moment) what binds us away from Him.
“Give up all you have and follow me.”
It was a tough Gospel instruction. Its recipient turns his head in sadness, for he has so much to lose. We must turn our heads instead, in gladness.
*Image: The Temptation in the Wilderness by Briton Rivière, 1898 [Guildhall Art Gallery, London]