As Lent begins, I am off on my travels again, this time to the United States. I think perhaps the experience of flying is more significant than I tend to give it credit for because it has become routine.
I was praying Vespers on the plane and the psalmist asks: “Lord, what is man that you care for him, mortal man that you keep him in mind, man who is merely a breath, whose life fades like a shadow.”
Paradoxically, the technology which allows me to travel at 600 miles per hour, 37,000 feet up in the air always makes me feel very small and insignificant by making me more vividly aware of the vastness of the world and the sky.
As with God, the nearer you get to the heavens, the more their immensity becomes apparent. No wonder that the psalmist’s reaction to this sense of his smallness is to implore: “Lower your heavens and come down; touch the mountains, wreath them in smoke.”
High above the clouds then, two related things happen. The first is that I have a deep desire to pray (aided in part by the fact that for a few hours no one can get me by phone or email; no one can make any demands on me at all). The second is that my heart reaches out towards the people of significance in my life whose love actually stops the vastness of the world being overwhelmingly frightening.
The two movements are both related to this recognition of one’s littleness and insignificance cosmologically. The only thing which makes the vastness of the heaven’s bearable is love; to be loved by the God who created them and to know that they overarch those I love and who love me.
I thought of Benedict XVI’s beautiful reflection that God is willing to expend a created universe and then his only Son to redeem man, a creature he made from the dust of earth.
Against the background of the vast universe, love itself becomes more mysterious for it seems both to root me in the created world but also make me vividly aware that spiritually I can traverse it and even look beyond it. It is the self which is dwarfed by the enormity of the heavens, and yet, as the psalmist realises, this is only in a world without God.
To acknowledge the Creator of the heavens is to change the perspective and see not man set against the backdrop of an infinite, impersonal heaven, but man’s heart as the repository for the love which made the heavens and where that love can be contained, thereby giving the heart of man the only true understanding of its place in the finite universe.
And I realise that Lent is actually for rediscovering this sense of the true scale of our humanity. As Benedict XVI put it: “The Lenten journey reveals our condition as human beings here on earth. The victorious battle against temptation, the starting point of Jesus’s mission, is an invitation to become aware of our own fragility in order to accept the Grace that frees from sin and infuses new strength in Christ.”
Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness not to face his demons, but to face ours; to redeem the reactions by which we seek to avoid the challenge of our own littleness and contingency; the turning inwards to deny that it is not of our nature nor conducive to our well-being ever to endure material want, lack total autonomy of action or ever experience the need to worship a will alien to our own.
“Following the example of Jesus and in union with him,” says Benedict, we must engage in a battle “against the ruling forces who are masters of the darkness in this world”. This is why the ancient discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are perennially valid, because they are scaling us down from hubristic ideas about our place in the universe.
Lent is to show us not so much our mastery over temptation as temptation’s hold over us, unless, like Jesus, we are prepared to enter into an environment we do not control, where faced with our littleness we must depend on what can only be gifted, not controlled or coerced, so as to receive everything from the Father, moment by moment.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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