A Lenten reflection from Sr. Anne Marie Walsh, SOLT
In the depths of our being, we all crave intimacy, connection. We enter the world connected and remarkably well-equipped, even as babies, to draw others into relationship with us. The very first moments of a baby's life have to do with bonding, with cementing fundamental relationships with mother, father, siblings, grandparents, extended family. It happens in a rather mysterious way, before a baby has developed verbal language or conscious powers of reasoning. Nonetheless, by his very existence he draws people to himself by something that goes beyond a mere sense of obligation or duty on the part of the adults around him.
Agape, or the unconditional love of God for humankind, is sometimes described as being like the innocent love of an adult for a baby. This is how God loves us!
From the beginning, this being in relationships is so much a part of us, so deep a need, that, by our nature, we are always seeking real relationships, and suffer deeply when we are deprived of them. This is very much in keeping with our being made in the image and likeness of God Who lives in a communion of Persons and Who desires to share this happiness of a relational life with us.
It is equally true that almost from the beginning, the evil one sets out to disrupt and destroy not just particular relationships but all relationships. He knows that if he succeeds in dividing us from God, we will become divided from others, and divided within ourselves as well. Once God is removed, everything fragments. Relationships fall apart. This was the strategy of the evil one in the Garden of Eden. This is still his objective in every temptation he sends our way. When one considers the incredible breakdown of marriages and family relationships, it is obvious he excels at this. Yet, it is interesting to note that among couples who regularly pray together, the divorce rate is 1%, a striking contrast to the 50% rate found in society at large. God keeps us together. The evil one tears us apart.
True relationships are always a threat to the evil one. They have a power in them that defeats him. It is no surprise that they are his central target. He severed himself from his relationship with God and all that is good. He now seeks to pull everyone else out of that same relationship. And so, there is always hidden, within any temptation, a challenge to our relationship with God and the way we live it, which invariably affects the relationship we have with ourselves and with others. What is presented to us is presented in the guise of a good, but the thrust of it always seeks to disturb or break our relationship with God.
Today, a successful strategy used by the evil one is the lure of "alternative" relationships, perhaps with other people, with nature, with technology, or even with himself, (though it is misleading to speak of the possibility of having a real relationship with the devil since he seeks ultimately, not our good but rather our destruction, and has lies and deceptions without number to accomplish it.) He draws us in countless ways, sometimes through vain curiosities that waste time, through pursuit of base appetites, through legitimate goods such as digital gadgets that end up replacing personal relationships in many people's lives. He falsely suggests that the intimacy and inspiration we crave is more effectively met in these ways, than in fidelity to God and our loved ones.
Jesus went into the desert to show us the necessity of immersing ourselves in our relationship with our Father. When we are in deep communion with Him we easily recognize temptation and its core object.
It is intriguing to watch what Jesus does as He is tempted by the devil. He does not debate the truth or lie of Satan's statements for there is always some truth in temptation. He knows clearly Satan's aim. Jesus hears the suggestion to abuse grace by turning stones into bread, to presume on or test God's love by throwing Himself down from a height (and every fall from grace is exactly that) and to replace worship of God with the worship of Satan in the interests of exalting Himself as ruler of the kingdoms of the world. Jesus responds by defending the Father's ways and holding fast to Him. Real love always recognizes a threat to it's treasure and is not moved by self-interest but rather willing to sacrifice self to preserve that treasure.
Jesus shows us that in the desert, in a poverty where we strip ourselves of excess and superfluous things, we much more easily attend to and are able to enter into this living relationship with God. This is what our life is truly about. In the desert, less is more. In the desert we are actually strengthened, not weakened. In the desert, God can speak to our hearts, as the prophet says (Hosea: 2:14). In the desert, we conquer, with Christ, the evil one who is always looking for ways to take us out.
The traditional practices of Lent: prayer, fasting and alms-giving have this aim. They are not mere disciplines or exercises of will, (which we often quickly abandon when the 40 days are over.) They are instruments of healing, meant to strengthen our relationships, especially in areas where we have either been negligent or where the evil one has caused damage. Prayer helps heal and strengthen our relationship with God. Fasting heals the brokenness we have within ourselves, addressing especially our tendencies to selfishness. Giving alms helps to heal the brokenness we have in relationship to others.
Holiness is really nothing more than this: being in right relationship with God, with each other, and with ourselves. Lent is a time in which particular grace is given to correct our relationships and bring us to the intimacy with God we are created for. When we come to this kind of holiness then we will have power and protection against evil, joy even in the midst of suffering, and grace-filled effectiveness in whatever God asks us to do in mission and ministry. May this Lent bring us, through the Holy Spirit, to become one with Jesus in His love for the Father, His love for us, and His love for all our brothers and sisters. May Our Lady enflame our desire for this life of love, and especially accompany us and protect us in our efforts.