The night can be a scary time. As kids we might have been afraid of monsters under our bed or of sleeping in our own room. Even now as adults the “dark night”—whether it slips into our life as depression, breaks our heart with unexpected ruptures of relationships and futures, or quietly takes from us what we had most cherished—still holds hands with its sister anxiety. Just as individuals live through darkness, cultures and periods of history also can be overshadowed by fear and chaos and death. Now is one of those times.
Darkness has this interesting characteristic that it can become unexplainedly “fascinating” the more we hear about it, the more we see it played out on television and computer screens, or talk with others about what might happen. As we focus our attention on thinking and talking about it, keeping up with the latest facts, the more darkness achieves its goal, sweeping us off our feet with its nameless and hopeless possibilities of an unknown future. The psychologically and emotionally vulnerable have even less resilience.
The saints lived through times such as these. Our own founder, Blessed James Alberione, as a good friend reminded me recently, began the Pauline Family in 1914, barely a month after the start of World War I. The first years of his fledgling religious communities, the Society of St. Paul and the Daughters of St. Paul, were an act of absolute trust on the part of the young Founder. Alberione was well informed of what was happening in the world, his own seminarians were sent off to the front lines. He knew, however, that he and his sons and daughters were called to bring the light of the Gospel into the world, and that was where he focused his attention. And the Light grew as he accomplished what God asked of him.
During the 80 years that Padre Pio lived, much of the world was enveloped in darkness. Born May 25, 1887, he witnessed two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust. By contrast, Padre Pio showed the world a radiance that brought peace to many. His goodness automatically drew people to him.
Edith Stein upon receiving the Carmelite religious habit in April 1934, took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her name means “Teresa blessed by the Cross.” Moved by the tragedies of World War I she had trained as a nursing assistant and worked in a hospital for the prevention of disease outbreaks. Later, as World War II raged, it was because she was a Jewish convert, as was her sister, that both of them were eventually arrested in a Carmelite Monastery in Holland by the Nazis in 1943 and died in the gas chamber. Her witness remains a light that does not waver: “After the dark night,” she wrote, “there springs up the living flame of love.”
The courage of the saints might seem “out of reach” to us,
but the Church as a good Mother gives us stepping stones each Lent
so we can regain our balance and our strength,
knowing truly that this world—even as it is—is still in Christ,
and without Christ the world has no meaning.
Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving: By this point of Lent we probably have lost interest in our jokes about what we’re giving up for Lent. The Church’s three invitations for Lenten Practices are really more about reorienting our hearts and reconnecting our desires to the one thing that is meaningful—total surrender to the God who loves us and who will use us in mysterious ways to be light and give light to the world.
Renewal of Baptismal Vows: Lent, beyond individual practice, is marked by the catechumenate and preparation for Baptism. At Easter the Church has each of us renew our baptismal vows, and thus, in reality, Lent is a baptismal preparation for each of us. It allows us to step back and check: Has our love for Jesus produced something new in us, something extraordinary. Recently I watched an interview by Canon Andrew White, the “vicar of Baghdad,” who recounted the story of when four young teens were approached by the militants who had taken over the city and told to say the words that they follow Mohammed, they said, “No. We love Jesus. We have always loved Jesus. We have always followed Jesus. Jesus has always been with us. We can’t say the words.” They followed that act of faith with the gift of their life. Nicholas Cabasilas, an Orthodox theologian and saint from the 14th century, wrote that we want our faith and our love of Jesus to be more than hearsay:
“Nothing like him [Christ] may be found, nothing which he has in common with others, nor is there anything with which he may be compared, nor anything which is comparable to him. How could one then comprehend his beauty or love him in a way that is worthy of it? When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desire and are able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes” (The Life in Christ, Nicholas Cabasila, page 90).
Easter Candle: If you have never participated in an Easter Vigil Liturgy, you should give yourself this year that special gift. As the newly blessed Easter Candle is carried into the darkened Church, the priest holds up the Candle with its tiny flame spreading the only light in the midst of darkness. “Christ our Light!” he sings three times. Christ is proclaimed as the Light of the real world we live in today with all its evil and tragedy and pain. We need to acknowledge the power of darkness and death, as well as proclaim the power of God who in his death and resurrection has become victorious in his battle with evil in this world. “Thanks be to God!” the assembly sings in response. We unite ourselves to Christ, to walk into the world just as vulnerable as he, confident in the Father at whose feet the whole cosmos will one day worship.