No Time Like Lent to Learn Love

Pope Benedict XVI’s choice to dwell on Christian love in his message for Lent sounded vaguely off key. Love is for the light heart of Easter, not for the long face of Lent.

Well, not quite. Lent should not just be about small, symbolic sufferings that we endure by “giving something up.” A more challenging way is to choose to take new and higher roads when confronted with the miseries of ordinary life, which almost always have to do with other people — those close and those we don’t even know.

I re-learned this recently when I went to a crowded Sunday Mass with my son Finn. I parked in the small lot of our parish, Our Lady of Victory. Following a chat with friends after Mass, we found our car boxed in by drivers who assumed that we were on their Mass schedule and that our time to leave would coincide with theirs.

Indignant, I stormed to the rectory door and spoke to Msgr. Charles Nosser, who has since retired as our pastor. With his famous smile and a wave of the hand, he invited us into the house. He had a tray of cookies in front of Finn before the door could close, put a football game on TV and started chatting us up. He made us feel at home.

Then he left. I assumed he was on his way into the church to make an announcement that would shame the culprits and free my car. I relished the thought of my impending confrontation with the mal-parkers.

Monsignor came back 15 minutes later. He said that Mass would soon let out but that we should be in no hurry. He offered more sweets to Finn.

Having already calmed down some since our arrival, I began to recognize what this wise pastor had been up do. He was buying time to avoid an altercation between members of his flock. I appreciated that he brought me around, reminded me — almost without words — why I had come to Our Lady of Victory that day.

It occurred to me later that, even on a purely natural level, we yearn to transcend ourselves and achieve a disinterested benevolence toward others. Evidence for this abounds. For example, critically acclaimed author David Foster Wallace, a non-believer, has taken out after the culture’s cynicism and coarseness.

He told the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College that a true education —  acquisition of the ability to think — is most clearly demonstrated by choosing ways of thinking about life and others that go beyond our usual assumption that those around us are “spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting.”

Echoing the life of grace, Wallace even connects this with “worship,” a term that the writer uses in a highly subjective way while also rejecting as “insidious” any cult centered on sex or wealth because they work against “attention, awareness, discipline and effort,” and “eat you alive” besides.

Yet, through “unsexy” but simple acts of kindness, “it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.”

Sounds like the redeeming chaos of the cross, a perfect Lenten abnegation of replacing ire with patient love. Through it, says Pope Benedict, we can “come out of ourselves in order to open ourselves,” to “‘re-give’ to our neighbor.” Just so.

Joe Cullen writes from

Floral Park, New York.