Raise your hand if you’ve heard the ‘spring cleaning homily’ before. Yup… I thought so. You know the one: Lent is a season of spiritual Spring-cleaning, a time to sort out and dispose of the clutter, the unnecessary or burdensome things we have hoarded away in our hearts… yadda yadda… *yawn*. It’s about at that point that I usually start wondering: “Do we get donuts after Mass even though it’s Lent?” (I know what you’re thinking, and, yes, I’m always that profound a thinker.)
Donut distractions and well-worn cliches aside, though, we’re still buried in the messiness of life. Somehow, despite all the repetitions, it’s still true and somehow we still need to hear it said: Lent is a good time for purification.
I think the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner diagnosed our spiritual predicament correctly when he described our hearts as rubbled-over, literally buried in the mess of our personal and social lives. Prayer, in Rahner’s estimation, is simply the work of clearing away some space around our buried hearts so they can beat again in freedom. Prayer is the process of un-rubbling our rubbled-over hearts.
The sacrifices and penitential prayers of Lent remind us that it’s not only the world around that buries and burdens our hearts, but that we too participate in the cluttering. We bring into ourselves a lot of stuff; a lot of dirt; a lot of crud. And – to stretch the botanical metaphor a little further – if we don’t return the crud to the earth, as any good gardener ought to do, we risk finding ourselves buried up to our necks in… ahem… a lot of crap.
And not just the crap other people give us. Our own. Sometimes we bury ourselves.
Instead of seeking freedom in the sacramental acts of surrender, in giving up, we literally construct in our private selves a crude shelter, a collection of thoughts and habits and concerns that we hope will help us to get through the long winter of our discontent. It’s the strange hope of resentment, of a grudge. But it’s a false hope – the hope that we can hold it all, the hope that we can bear it alone. It’s the false hope that we won’t have to give it up, turn it over, let it go. It’s a false hope; and isolating.
The crud of life is a terrible building material and our crud shelter inevitably fails us. We should give it up, stop burying ourselves in it, return it to the ground.
The true hope? It’s that we need each other. We need God.
You may know that we Jesuits – all Catholic religious in fact – live vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. And although we take these vows permanently, sometimes – as in my own Jesuit community this week – we find good reason to speak these vows again. For me, it was a clarifying moment. It was a reminder of the one thing wanted, of the singular clarity with which we hope to live our complicated lives. As we prayed it together it dawned on me that, in our vow formula (which you can read, and pray, here), we were really praying just for one thing – the love of God.
This is the kind of foundational truth I have to constantly remember. It’s the ground on which I stand, the soil that receives the crud of my life – our lives – and renews them. On Ash Wednesday we heard that we came from dust and to dust we shall return.
What is the one thing standing between our dusty origin and our dusty destiny? The Love of God. Only this.
What is our mission? What is our purpose? Only this: To know and to share the love of God, a divine love, in this rubbled-over world of ours.
What was true on the day I professed my own vows is true every other day of my life. And when I restate my vows I remind myself of the singular grace that I prayed for on that day nearly three years ago: the grace to give my whole self for the Love of God. What a gift it is to recall that great desire… the one thing wanted… the only thing needed… the singular and unifying purpose of our lives.
We should all pray for such singular vision.
For myself, in chaos and clutter, in the noise of stormy seas, all that can be done is to remember that I know who I am by looking at him. It’s keeping our eyes singularly focused on Christ – who is nothing more or less than the ground that makes compost of our crud – that brings clarity to our clutter.
O God, give us only the grace to love You. Only this… and it is enough.