If you asked ten people what contact with God is supposed to bring I suspect at least seven would list things like peace, joy, calm, well-being, reassurance. But there’s a theme running through Lent which moves in another direction — and that is toward disruption: interaction with God not calming but upsetting, life in Christ not settling but unsettling, the season marked not by serenity but by a certain kind of disturbance.
Early in his gospel Mark slips in this theme to characterize God’s dealing with God’s person in the world, Jesus. “The Spirit of God drove Jesus out into the desert.” “Drove,” not a word suggesting quiet and comfort, as if Jesus had made a calm and collected decision to pick up and head out to that desert. You can imagine him at peace with the world there in Nazareth and happy enough with the way things were. But then comes God’s shove! Jesus is evicted, pushed off the dime by the Spirit and out into this fearsome place with its wild animals, evil spirits, barren landscapes and all the temptations of aloneness. Mark is sparse in detail, but the other gospels fill in about Jesus’ feeling
- hungry and so tempted to use his powers to feed himself,
- unimportant and so tempted to shine a spotlight on himself for the wrong reasons,
- unappreciated and so tempted to be spiteful to his Father in heaven.
His very closeness to his Abba brings distress and the threatening prospect of having to recalibrate his life.
Admitting that getting upset is not good per se, what is there about it which offers spiritual and religious possibilities? The simple answer is that sometimes there’s no other way to get directed onto a new path or be opened out onto to a wider horizon. God’s Spirit is disclosing, no other way, in Jesus’ words, for the disciple to “repent and believe.” Disruption can be saving.
That truth underlines some of the richness of the three practices classically recommended for spending a fruitful Lenten season, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Each in its own way is a formula for upsetting everyday rhythms in life which left to themselves tend to insulate. Each is a recipe for disrupting long-standing routines which have a way of sealing one off from The Spirit’s promptings.
The one that most clearly shows this dynamic is fasting. For it touches desire, the experience of not gratifying some yearning. Fasting heightens awareness of what we’re longing for, be it dessert or a drink or the satisfaction of being listened to because I drop some tidbit of gossip in a crowd. It’s an experience which can sensitize me to the deprivations others go through and so pull me back to my own neediness before God — I’m the creature not the creator. As Pope Francis points out, “Fasting wakes us up. It makes us more attentive to God and our neighbor. It revives our desire to obey God, who alone is capable of satisfying our hunger.”
Then there’s almsgiving – letting go of something for the benefit of someone else. There’s a sting in that letting go. Loosening my grasp on my hard-earned money can hurt, especially when giving to people whose faces I can’t see and toward causes that seem vague. But again, the very discomfort in it can be a kind of stripping away of self-concerned attitudes which blind me to the sufferings of others. The bite of my going without prods me to greater awareness of those who have no choice but to go without. And still more, this sacrificing for the good of others can well be part of God’s loving the world. Again, Pope Francis, “I would also hope that, even in our daily encounters with those who beg for our assistance, we would see such requests as coming from God himself. When we give alms, we share in God’s providential care for each of his children.”
And then prayer — or better, improved prayer. How might the act of coming before The Lord Jesus be disruptive? Well, just like it can be disruptive to open myself to somebody else and so make myself vulnerable. A very arresting call to prayer is this one, “Come honest with God!” And so someone might pray, “Lord, let me see myself as You see me. In Your sight, help me to pull back the shades on who I really am, not just on my failings but just as much on my loveableness and worth in Your sight.” That kind of openhearted approach to God’s Spirit almost guarantees this kind of disruption.
I end with a story of a woman battling a fatal illness who at the end of her Lent got down on herself because she didn’t “do” any of these Lenten practices. A friend stepped in to point out the very Lenten action she did do; i.e., come to deeper and deeper acceptance of her sickness and to fuller and fuller trust that God was right there with her hovering over her sickbed. Rather than shutting down in bitterness, she allowed the bedrock disruption of those final days to open her up to a love she hadn’t known so deeply before, not just God’s love but the love of the people around her.
Her story is an especially touching instance of this same principle: disruption of the old transformed into openness to the new.
May our Lenten sacrifices, but more so our Lenten repentance, break open the confines of our hearts as the Spirit drives us too out into our deserts where God waits to show God’s Self in the struggles and temptations – and consolations — of our lives.