The image of the Christian life as a struggle or combat is long established. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was a motif for confirmandi long before it became a Protestant hymn in mid-19th century England. Christianity’s martial spirit made it a “Salvation Army” millennia before William Booth came along: it was St. Paul who warned followers of Christ that theirs was “not a struggle against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Pentecost will remind us of that need to struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
But Lent invites us to begin that struggle with ourselves.
We often think about the necessity of carrying into the public square the struggle for faith (and morals — because what we believe shapes what we do and, as St. John Paul II, back as a cardinal preaching the 1976 Lenten retreat to Pope Paul VI reminded us, “we are in the midst of a lively struggle for the dignity of man). We should stake out the public square, because there are many who regard Catholicism as a greater contagion than coronavirus and are firmly resolved to fumigate public life from it. But today, I want to talk about a different kind of struggle: the one in us.
Yes, there is often a line between good and evil “out there.” But we would be blind guides (Matthew 23:24) were we to forget that the fault line also runs within ourselves.
St. Paul, who knew Christians were locked in combat with “the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” also admitted that “what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do. … I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil that I do not want to do” (Romans 7:15, 19). Paul admits he is at war with himself (v. 23) and needs God’s grace to prevail.
Yet we are so practiced at evasion.
Whether we want to explain it away, excuse it, hide it, ignore it, avoid it, deflect it, or employ a thousand and one other counterfeits, the truth is that we struggle with ourselves. St. Augustine’s prayer — “Lord, convert me! (Maybe tomorrow)” — is an experience not foreign to many of us.
Lent is a time of conversion … and reconversion. As St. Paul reminds us (when he tried to talk God — apparently unsuccessfully — into removing some temptation of his): gratia mea tibi sufficit … “My grace is enough for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God sustains us, as a father who teaches a child how to swim, but He also reminds us (in words the French poet Charles Péguy put into His Mouth): “[People] must work out their salvation for themselves. That is the rule. // It allows of no exception. Otherwise, it would not be interesting. They would not be men. // I want them to be manly, to be men, and to win by themselves the spurs of knighthood.”
But, as St. Paul also reminds us, we need to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) – not because God is unfaithful or inconstant, but because we are. God “wills all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The question is: do we want it?
Lent is a time for asking ourselves just that question.
In addition to Péguy’s poem, “Freedom,” referenced above, Lent is also an opportunity to reflect on another classic poem, Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” The poem details how “I fled Him down the nights and down the days//I fled Him down the arches of the years; //I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways// Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears// I hid from Him …..” But, as the Psalmist (139) reminds us, there is no place to hide from God, no mountains to conceal us, no seas to hide. “’All things betray thee; who betrayest me,’” as Thompson reminds us.
But God does not betray. Like the Prodigal Father, He is always making the first move, always in pursuit of us. Lent is, as the Preface puts it, “the season of grace and favor” of Him who hounds us for our own good.
In his new book, Contemplative Enigmas, Fr. Donald Haggerty quotes the question of the French philosopher Simone Weil, “Isn’t it the greatest tragedy, to battle against God and not be vanquished?” To escape the “Hound of Heaven?” After all, he said something about the only way to win is to lose (Matthew 10:39). To all spiritual rebels (i.e., to all of us), let our Lenten prayer be:
“Lord, in my fight with You – please let me lose!”