When the Bridegroom Is Taken Away, They Will Fast

The seasons of the Church reflect the emotional seasons of ordinary human life.

William Dyce, “Man of Sorrows”, 1860
William Dyce, “Man of Sorrows”, 1860 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

It is a feature of every organized religion to have seasons of fasting and feasting, mourning and rejoicing; and yet there can scarcely be a religious person, however faithful, who has not from time to time felt the whole cycle a bit odd. Christians rejoice at Christmas, naturally — but what about the Christian who has just lost a job or a loved one? Does not Christmas, that season of joy, become the most wretched of seasons for some, in part precisely due to the contrast between what one actually feels, and what one is supposed to feel?

Something like this occurs to me most Lents. Spring is a lovely time of year — a time of blooming trees, planting gardens, increased light. A time when things start over — and thank goodness for that! Yet in the middle of this delightful physical season bursts the liturgical season of Lent, a time when Catholics put on sackcloth and ashes (literally, at least the ashes part), when statues are draped in dark cloth, when we fast and abstain, and when we meditate on the sorrows of Our Lord and his Passion. It can feel psychologically artificial.

There is, however, an analogue to this sort of thing in ordinary life. Even outside of the context of religion, human beings rejoice and mourn on schedule. It may be arbitrary, but it is also natural, when the earth completes another revolution around the sun, to celebrate the day one was born. I defy sociologists to find a single society with a calendar that does not celebrate this event one way or another. And likewise — though it is in the modern world sadly a more private affair — there are few people who do not annually remember the day, indeed the month when someone close to them died — a parent, a child or a spouse. It takes a close relationship to produce the kind of melancholy memories that are retained for years and spread themselves into a season.

But if human beings feel naturally these seasonal depressions and elevations of spirit — if the memory of a death can shadow an otherwise joyous time, and the celebration of a life cast a light in a dark one — then one would expect this to hold for human relationships with the divine.

Considered from this angle, it seems only natural that at this time of year the presence of a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ should make a Christian melancholy — aside from whatever is liturgically appropriate. It would seem to be a deeply human thing to mourn during Lent, and especially during Holy Week. And if it comes unnaturally to some of us at times, it is perhaps a cause for a reexamination of deep our love and how sincere our conversations with Our Lord actually are. The more time we spend with him in prayer, the more we listen, the more we read about him or watch just depictions of his life, the deeper the relationship grows, and the more our mourning during Lent — and the corresponding rejoicing at Eastertide — comes naturally.

It would be wrong, however, to place all the emphasis on working to produce appropriate feelings in ourselves, as if the production of the right feelings were the goal. The emotion or lack thereof which a Catholic feels during Lent is only a symptom. Of emotion in general one might say what Aristotle said of pleasure: that it is a bloom on goodness, like the bloom of youth. To attempt this or that religious exercise so that we might feel the way religious people ought to feel is, like attempting this or that method for preserving our youthful bloom, or our youthful experiences of pleasure, likely foredoomed to failure and, in any case, ethically suspect.

A better way to look at the matter might be this. It is a teaching of the Church that the Holy Spirit dwells in the soul that is in the state of grace. If indeed God is present within us already, with an intimacy so close that even the state of a mother bearing a child in her womb pales before it, then the necessary and near-sufficient ingredient for relationship with Jesus Christ is already present: Christ himself is already present. All that is required is that we assent to the relationship — that we become ever more aware of it, ever more attentive to it, and live ever more with it as the constant breath informing all our words and the energy informing all our actions. We have only to lift a finger to realize what is already there, and lacks only the slightest affirmation of our wills.

None of that is to say contemplating divine indwelling now will necessarily salvage an otherwise unprepared Holy Week this year. Most of us do not fall in love with God, for the first time or all over again, at first sight. But it is possible that by beginning now to be aware of his wooing, we may find ourselves, by next Lent at least, so in love as to appreciate naturally what might otherwise leave us cold.