Lent Reminds Us to Do the Best We Can
by Stephen Lynch, OFM
T.S. Eliot’s long poem, “The Four Quartets,” offers a penetrating observation: ”The moments of happiness — not the sense of well-being, fruition, fulfillment, security or affection, or even a good dinner, but the sudden illumination — We had the experience, but missed the meaning.”
Lent challenges us to be sure we have not missed the meaning of our Christian commitment. One of the primary themes of the Lenten season is the reminder of the ongoing dialectic between good and evil. Satan personifies evil; Jesus Christ personifies goodness.
The Didache, the teaching of the 12 apostles, stands as perhaps the oldest document in Christianity. In her book, Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, suggests that this document was written in Greek sometime between 65 and 90 A.D. Discovered in Syria, the Didache sets forth what the Christian “way of life” demands. The author, like Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, urges his readers to be perfect. But unlike Matthew, the author adds, more practically, “If you cannot be perfect, do the best you can.”
We cannot grasp the God of mystery with our minds. We can only connect to God with our hearts through faith, trust and love. Lent reminds us to do the best we can to love God and neighbor as we want to be loved ourselves. Most religions teach some form of the Golden Rule, and also, some form of karma. St. Paul describes the idea of karma this way: “As you sow, so shall you reap.” Jesus says, “The measure with which you measure, will be used to measure you.” Matthew 7:2
Lent is a time for prayer, penance and a deeper appreciation for God’s blessings. Self-giving for the sake of God and neighbor underpins all Christian discipleship. When we reach out in love, compassion and service on behalf of our neighbors, we honor the Divine Presence dwelling within us all. St. Francis intuitively sensed this indwelling of God in all things, and God’s providential love for all creation. For Francis, each creature in its own way reflected the image of God. All creatures were worthy of reverence, and became the object of Francis’ special courtesy and respect. Francis’ message was always the same: The task of creation is to respond to God’s love with praise, joy and gratitude.
Shortly before he died, St. Francis blessed the world with this beautiful Old Testament prayer:
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord show His face to you and have mercy on you.
The Lord turn His countenance to you and give you peace.
The Lord bless you.
Lent is a time to count our own blessings and be grateful, especially for the significant people whom God has given us to bless our lives. Too often we take those we love for granted. It is a good practice to leave loved ones with loving words, because some day it will be the last time you see them. All of us are responsible for what we do, no matter how we feel. The right to be angry is not the right to be cruel.
One can get by on charm for about 15 minutes. After that, you’d better know something. The inhumanity of person-to-person all too frequently nails people to the cross of suffering and fear. Each of us must struggle to keep our world from slipping into the paralysis and decay that T. S. Eliot describes in his poem, “The Hollow Men:” “We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men, leaning together headpiece filled with straw, alas!”
In another poem, Eliot reflects on the feeling of futility and emptiness that comes with wasted time and a wasted life: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” As some inspired person put it: When you were born, you were crying and everyone around you was smiling. Live your life so at the end, you’re the one who is smiling and everyone around you is crying.
Lent is a good time to take a few quiet moments to reflect on the prayer of King Solomon: “Give me a listening heart, that I may know the difference between good and evil, and that I may live the way you want me to live.” 1 Kings 3
My mother loved to sing a melody called “Just a Son at Twilight.” For me, the last verse of that song sums up what Christian love is all about. The final verse goes like this: “And in the end, when evening shadows fall, love will be found as the sweetest song of all.”
— Fr. Stephen, a resident of St. Francis Friary in Providence, R.I., contributes frequently to this and other publications.