Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us and opposes our way of life, reproaches us for our breaches of the law and accuses us of playing false to our upbringing. . . . In his opinion we are counterfeit; he holds aloof from our doings as though from filth; he proclaims the final end of the virtuous as happy and boasts of having God for his father.
After this Jesus went about in Galilee; he would not go about in Judea because the Jews sought to kill him.
Those of us formed in the Christian and especially the Catholic traditions learned at a very young age of the meaning of Lent as a “time of conversion.” We were taught practices of “giving something up” for Lent for the sake of strengthening our willpower, or of increasing our capacity to say “No!” to ourselves and to create some small experience of want or need that might remind us of our need for God and the call for God to be first in our lives. We understood it to be a time of confession and repentance for all the ways that we fall prey to sin in our lives.
The words pronounced as we receive the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, however, speak to something much more radical. They admonish us to “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” Lent begins with a pointed and somewhat fearsome reminder. We are living in sin, and we must make a turn in life if we are to become faithful to the gospel. Were Jesus with us today, he would without doubt weep as he once did over Jerusalem.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling. (Luke 13:34)
It is impossible to read the words from Wisdom today without recognizing their truth in ourselves. The truly virtuous ones among us will always be a problem for us because they remind us of how “counterfeit” is so much of our lives. Our violence is almost always in the service of defending and protecting our own and our societies’ illusions. The truly virtuous are not those who in the name of religion call us to greater conformity with the illusions and delusions of the religious and social majority. They are rather those who summon us to receive as gift the life we have been given and to offer it as a call for others.
“A time of conversion” has no meaning or significance unless we realize from the core of our being that we are in need of conversion, that is that we are sinful. Jesus cries over a Jerusalem that is unable to recognize the moment of its visitation from the One whom the people claim to be the God of their lives. He weeps over how lost God’s people have become. He also weeps, however, for each individual person who fails to be responsible for the gift of her or his own life and call. Today he does the same over our city. He weeps for the disregard we have for the most vulnerable among us. He weeps for our children’s future as we destroy in our greed and selfishness the very creation that has been bestowed on us. He weeps for the ways that in our pride our own power and point of view have become more important to us than the common good. He weeps over our narcissism that makes our own tribe or country exceptional above all others. He weeps over the way that we continue to structure our societies in such a way that we relegate certain races and groups to perpetual servitude. He weeps over church leaders and pastors who are more concerned with maintaining their own status and control over people than of lifting the burdens from their shoulders. He weeps over our electoral preferences for the fabulists and the manipulators over the honest and the challenging. And, he weeps over ourselves when we fail to accept our personal responsibility for our sinful state and to offer our lives, at the cost of rejection and even death, in service of conversion and the truth.
In human consciousness, it is inevitably the case that “the spirit of our age”, that which most pervades our life and world, is precisely that of which we are least conscious. When we think of the call of Lent to conversion and repentance, we think of what it is we should do, not of who we are. In our religious and political discourse, we tinker around the edges of what the level of our responsibility to others should be, yet, we seem never to hold ourselves to the truth that to put ourselves first is sin. We speak of the measures that we can economically afford to reduce our “carbon footprint,” yet we don’t want to realize that our destruction of “our common home” is sin, for which we are responsible and for which we shall be held to account. We congratulate ourselves on the “progress” we have made in racial relations, while we sinfully perpetuate the structures of slavery in our mass incarceration and ghettoization. Finally, perhaps overwhelmed by it all, we repress and deny our personal awareness of and responsibility for our sin.
In the early years of the Church’s history, as the Roman Empire was co-opting the radical demands of the gospel into its own sinful structures, men and women fled to the desert in order to attempt to preserve the truth of the gospel and to stand against the overwhelming power of the collective sin. Were Jesus here today, he would no doubt weep at how far we have strayed, for all our religious talk, from God’s will for us. Weeping and mourning is the truly and distinctively human response to where we find ourselves. Is it perhaps our call at this moment to go beneath our anger and to touch our sadness and grief? The truth is we are so stuck in our sin that we continue, whatever our current stance of opinion, to keep operating out of it. We meet power and violence with our own violence. In a mixture of indolence and despair, we tend to give up our own responsibility and “authority” to the political and economic elites. How can we, in our personal and our social and political lives, be “living reminders” of God’s will for the world?
Theodore James Ryken’s vision for his community was that its members would harmoniously live the balance between the contemplation of Mary and the service of Martha. Contemplative action requires first of all that it be grounded in the truth, a truth that can be known only in the darkness of contemplation. As Isaiah reminds us: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is 55:8). We are sinful, and so God’s thoughts and God’s ways can only come to us to the degree that we silence and even die to all in us that would prefer our own way. In our age of mass media and constant “news,” it often seems as if the best thing would be if we all would for a moment just shut up and to go to our rooms, close the door, and pray to our Father in secret (Mt. 6:6). Then, we might re-enter the world with a discerned sense of God’s will for us.
Life seems and becomes very complicated for us because it is so difficult for us simply to live with integrity and purity of heart. The call of the gospel is really quite direct and simple. It is to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. It is human sin and obfuscation to increase our systems of weaponry and to threaten the families of immigrants while legislating with moral fervor religious privilege disguised as freedom and bathroom use. In a diverse culture, the art of politics will always be necessary and difficult. Through its fog, however, there must be beacons of the truth. To be responsible in the truest sense, we must recognize and weep over our sin. We must realize when we have traveled so far from God’s will and our own humanity. We must ask ourselves, individually and together, how do we “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” In our attempts to be more than we are, human beings have the freedom to become less than human. It is only through conversion that we keep ourselves and our societies from becoming truly inhumane.
The sense of sin is therefore something far deeper and more urgent than the prurient feeling of naughtiness which most pious people have trained themselves to experience when they violate the taboos of their sect. There is something scandalous about the religiosity of popular piety. All the empty gestures of people who do not do good and avoid evil, but make signs of the good, go through gesticulations which symbolize good intentions, and allay their guilt feelings with appropriate grimaces of piety. All these gestures are performed with scrupulous fidelity and accompanied with the right degree of optimism about God and humanity, but at the same time the most terrible of crimes are accepted without a tremor because they are, after all, collective. Take, for instance, the willingness of the majority of “believers” to accept the hydrogen bomb, with all that it implies, with no more than a shadow of theoretical protest. This is almost unbelievable, and yet it has become so commonplace that no one wonders at it anymore. The state of the world at the present day is the clearest possible indication that the whole human race is full of sin—for which responsibility becomes more and more collective and therefore more and more nebulous.
It has been remarked that the more totalitarian a society is, for example that of Russia or of Hitler’s Germany, the less its members feel any sense of sin. They can commit any evil without remorse as long as they feel they are acting as members of their collectivity. The only evil they fear is to be cut off from the community that takes their sins upon itself and “destroys” them. This is the worst of disasters, and the slightest indication of disunion with the group is the cause of anxiety and guilt.
This is the way our world is going, and in such a world the spirit and the spiritual have no more meaning because the person has no meaning. But it is the vocation and mission of the contemplative to keep alive the spirit of humanity, and to nurture, at least in oneself, personal responsibility before God and personal independence from collective irresponsibility.
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 120