How to cross Lent’s pain barrier
An early Lent coinciding with a mild winter means that already the signs of spring are evident. Blossom and bulbs are flowering in February. They might yet be covered by snow, but it undoubtedly lifts the heart to see them.Gardeners know that, paradoxically, this growth means it is time to prune things, that for growth to be healthy, it needs to be cut back. The rush of energy is automatic and not automatically optimal; after all, weeds are the things nature grows best. Cultivation, rather than just any growth, is the task of the gardener or farmer, and for something to grow healthily it has to be trained; you have to prune it in order that the shoots and branches will grow where they will not be choked by others, where they will get maximum benefit from the sun and the rain, so that the plant will be fruitful and not exhaust itself by stretching out shoots too far from the sources of growth.
Cutting all that is dead, but also some of what is basically healthy, from plants is how they achieve optimal health. And in Lent (a word which uniquely in English designates these 40 days by the Anglo-Saxon word for springtime) we seek to do the same spiritually. We do a bit of pruning. We want to cut out all that is dead – that is, sin – and we need also to cut out what is healthy, in order to take us closer to the source of all true nourishment. What truly nourishes my wellbeing is not getting whatever I want; it is getting God, by stretching out towards his will for my life. The law that optimal growth comes through sacrifice is patterned into the biosphere itself. I prune a plant to make it grow more strongly. Even the destructive bush fires of Australia are nature’s way of renewing the growth of gum trees. And for humans, too, it’s a law: I must give up certain other things if I want to become expert at something; I make a choice and restrain my natural impulse to think that I can have everything or that I only need to maximise pleasure and avoid pain to thrive.
The athlete, the musician, the scholar, all know this: that there is a pain barrier which I accept and conquer because of a greater good that it will bring. I only become more human by identifying something as a preferred good, and then being prepared to sacrifice things to get it, and to think the sacrifice worth it, even if it’s a struggle. Indeed, it is this ability to discipline appetite, to choose the good, and to tolerate pain to achieve it, rather than simply to pursue every pleasure for its own sake, that is the mark of a mature person.
In Lent, I choose, with God’s grace, to do a little less of what pleases me, so that I may be open a little more to doing what pleases him whom I claim to love, the Lord Jesus, who gave so much and suffered so much for love of me.
The suffering of Lent is not motivated by the same end as that of the athlete. It is not to improve my performance. It is to share more fully in the sufferings of another. It is an act of solidarity with Jesus Christ and, by extension, with those whom he loves, especially the poor. It is a penance born of love, born of a desire to be more loving, to show the Lord that I am growing in appreciation not just of the cost of his passion and death, but their innermost meaning, which is that I die to self-will.
In Lent, I seek the pruning of extra prayer, fasting and almsgiving so that the heart may stretch out tendrils towards the Paschal life of Easter. Through baptism I am dead to this world, in the sense that there is not enough in it to quench the need my heart has for the light and nourishment of love; its resources are unequal to my needs, which is why I need to train my heart to know this.
To help, the Church addressed those solemn words to me, “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” They are not to scare or depress. They are the reminder of the radical nature of Christian conversion, a life which transforms only by cutting me right back to the wood, the wood of the Cross.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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