|01-03-2007 - Traces, n. 3
God Is Mercy
Notes from a talk by Luigi Giussani during the Memores Domini Lenten Retreat in Pianazze, Italy, on February 16, 1975
The prayer last night1 called us to the two results of conversion: the passion of the knowledge of Christ (“knowledge” in the full, biblical sense of the word), thus the passion for Christ, the love of Christ as the desire to cling to Him, and hence the second result, good works. Lent is the instrument–the sacramental instrument–for fostering this conversion. In other words, operating the Lenten sign, making ours the pedagogic indications that the Church uses for the Lenten call to conversion, something happens in us through the power of the Holy Spirit that is greater than what our usual efforts would yield. It is a sacramental time, a time destined by God to give us a greater impetus of transformation.
For this reason, the usual things or the usual practices, undertaken in obedience to the Church during Lent, have a greater meaning, a greater transformative power. Otherwise, everything is nominalistic; they’re all names for us, and there’s no difference, that is, there’s no history–we treat August and September like we treat Lent, with the same slothfulness and the same distraction. At most, Lenten preaching or meditation on the Liturgy readings has some themes–would that it were so!–that are different from those of August and September, but it’s all nominalism. It’s all nominalism, they’re mere names, the real history is lacking, a real history is missing, that is, the sense of the Mystery as Christ is lacking, because Christ is the Mystery, that is, God revealed in history; God who made Himself an experience in history is a history, as we will see shortly. In and of itself, each of His acts was an infinite reparation, each act of His was worthy of God, could reconcile the world, but just as in His life the cross was important, just as the Way of the Cross or His agony was important, just as the day He began His mission was important (because all the acts of Christ are not a senseless homogeneity, even though every act was the act of God, even when He ate and drank as a child), so in our year, in the life of our year, we must recover the value of history. For this reason, the Liturgy rightly says that Lent is a “sacramental sign,” that it has a sacramental value for conversion that isn’t there in other moments of the year, the other periods of the year. In this sense, it is truly a period of waiting that is not formal.
Last night, we mentioned that the third Sunday of Lent’s prayer over the people also indicates for us these practices, what we have called the material sign of this “sacrament” that is Lent. What is this material sign, as the bread and wine are for the Eucharist, as water is for Baptism? “Merciful God, source of all good things,” You have shown us that prayer, fasting, and works of brotherly love are remedies for sin. Look upon us who acknowledge our misery and, as we are oppressed by the weight of our offences, may Your unfailing mercy raise us up.2 We would, in fact, be overshadowed by restless irritation with ourselves, by uneasiness with ourselves, by dissatisfaction with ourselves–may Your mercy raise us up, may Your merciful presence, the fact that we look to You, give us comfort and relief. Therefore, we must call ourselves, call our life, to the truth of those three points, to the use of those three points. Lent must be an obedience to this invitation of the Church: prayer, fasting, and works of brotherly love.
First of all, in this period we must respond to the invitation to recover more deeply the sense of prayer. There is only one meaning of Christian prayer: waiting for Christ. As we said in School of Community,3 the Prophet made the people present to God. What did the Prophet ask God for the people? He asked for God. In the same way, for the portion of the people that we have closest to us, which we ourselves are, we can do nothing other than ask God for the manifestation of God, the expectation of the “blessed hope,” the return of Christ, or, the same thing, the fulfillment of His Resurrection, because the final manifestation has already begun with the Resurrection of Christ. Having been seized into the “new and eternal covenant” through Baptism means that this end is already present in us. This is the exalting thought, the thought of freedom; this is liberation. So then, the only true desire is that this manifestation be complete or, in other words, that what we already have upon us be completed: Christ Risen. And this, looking at time with man’s normal eyes, normal gaze, is the same as “the waiting for His return.”
Christian prayer is the waiting for His return, the entreaty for His return, the maranatha, “Come, Lord Jesus,” that concludes the Book of Revelation.4 Whatever prayer of ours, whatever entreaty, however we may gaze at God, whatever reflection of ours, if it is not based on this “Come, Lord Jesus!” then it is not prayer, or else it is still pagan prayer. This is the essence of Christian prayer. Take note, please, that all this can be said in another version that we’ve always used: prayer is the memory of Christ, the memory of the Resurrection. It is the memory of the Resurrection because our existential situation coincides with the entreaty that this Resurrection happen in us, that it be fulfilled in us and in the world. It’s the same. Therefore, it’s not memory of Christ if it’s not a waiting for His return. It’s identical. If a man were in love, the memory of his beloved would coincide with the desire to see her again.
Let us remember this essential aspect of prayer precisely in view of our Lenten conversion, of our going deeper as a way of Lenten conversion, particularly in two important implications.
a) The first implication is certainty, the certainty that, having called us to ask for Him, to make memory of Him and to ask for Him, He will fulfill His design in us. Therefore, it is the certainty of liberation. Precisely this waiting is the guarantee of the faith; it is the guarantee that the faith will see us through to the end; it is guarantee, certainty, or pledge. But the word “pledge” adds something, because the pledge is the guarantee, the certainty that is given by an already initial experience of the final status. Clearly, the pledge is of the Holy Spirit in us, the transforming power, the power that liberates, because it is the Spirit who liberates. “As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!”5 You can’t say “Father” to someone unless you are absolutely certain, as the Lord said in the eleventh chapter of Luke, verses 1-11, when He speaks of the father who, when his son asks for a piece of bread, wouldn’t give him a stone instead: “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”6 What does asking for the Holy Spirit mean? It means asking for Christ’s return, asking that the Resurrection happen, asking that your own liberation and that of the world happen, which is Christ–because liberation is Christ; it’s not another thing, asking that the Resurrection of Christ happen.
First of all, therefore, there is the aspect of certainty, of guaranteed heart, of a pledge already experienced. I underline these two implications (the second I’ll say now) because they are the most difficult–for our pride, our self-love, our rationalism; for naturalism, our carnality, our autonomy, our attachment to ourselves, they are the two most difficult aspects of prayer. “Difficult”–they are the two most forgotten aspects of prayer, those most left out. One could pray eluding these two aspects of the “sacrificium fidei vestrae,”7 of the sacrificial service of our faith.
b) And now, the second implication–and this is another thing totally forgotten in our prayer: if prayer is the waiting for His manifestation, then prayer is what gives us the true “how” of time, the “how” of time that passes. Prayer is the heart of time that passes–the heart! It gives us the attitude, the “how” of time that passes. Time that passes is getting up in the morning, drinking your coffee, taking the commuter train, going to work or tidying up the house, making the beds, sweeping, taking down the spiderwebs, eating, taking the commuter train again, going home, talking with people. This is time that passes. The “how” of time that passes, the heart of time that passes, and, therefore, the value, the meaning of time that passes, is given by prayer, because if prayer is the waiting for His return, and His return is the substance of everything, then it is precisely in prayer that the “how” of time that passes happens.
I don’t think it would be indiscreet of me to read you an excerpt from this letter I received: “Every time I say, during Mass, ‘Waiting for the blessed hope,’ I wonder about the reason for this waiting. [I’m reading you this letter to help you understand how these two aspects, these two implications of prayer underlined here are truly the most acute toil for man as the measure of all things, for our autonomy.] Every time I say, ‘Now, Master, You may let Your servant go in peace… for my eyes have seen Your salvation,’ I want this prayer to be answered right away, literally. In fact, what can time add to this ‘now’? [If we already have salvation, the question is, “Why is there time?”] This opens up even broader interrogatives, for example, the meaning of the history of the Church. [It’s true, it’s the same thing because, if He has already come, why is there the whole history of the Church?] Why should we await, if we know that ‘our heart is restless until it rests in Him?’ Why await, if we know that time, history, does not in itself have the possibility of salvation, but awaits it only from the manifestation of the judgment of God? Why await if we know we can never perform a perfect gesture on this earth, that our perfection cannot generate itself through the instrument of time? It’s a given–time, history–that I can’t manage to perceive as positive, but only in its characteristics of fragmentariness and incompleteness.”
Can you understand that only at this level can one truly act like Abraham and sacrifice his son Isaac? Truly, our usual way of conceiving of things is destroyed. In fact, the only meaning of history–the only one–the one meaning of time, is the mystery of the will of God, the absolute freedom of God. And it’s the same, even if this letter doesn’t allude to it, if we ask: Why did Christ come two thousand years ago, rather than thirty thousand, twenty thousand, or today? Why? These questions find no answer in our heads. The only answer is the will of God, God’s plan, the mysterious plan of the Father. But once we’ve accepted and acknowledged this, we have to abandon ourselves to it, because this is the truth (it’s not our image of the truth, never) and this is the goodness (goodness is not an image of ours of humanity) and this is justice, because justice is God, and that’s that. It’s like an abyss without shores: there’s no measure; we can’t measure or oppose it with a criterion and a measure. You understand that this is where losing yourself, total abandonment happens; you understand that you are nothing and everything is the plan and the will of the Other, the Absolute, without bond, without measure, and ineffable, that you can’t describe, speak of, or define. And prayer, if it’s not this–understand this–it’s nothing; it’s a capricious adolescent demand, the claim of a presumptuous, capricious teenager. But this abandonment avoids intellectualism or aestheticism (“and foundering is sweet to me in this sea”8) and truly becomes real, becomes existential, only in the Christian experience. Once you’ve accepted and acknowledged this, then you comprehend–literally, you comprehend–how it is that God fulfills His design through these ways that are not our ways: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord,”9 and, “For I know that everything is where it is supposed to be and goes where it is supposed to go: to the place assigned to it by a Wisdom that–heaven be praised–is not our own,”10 as Miguel Mañara said at the end of that short piece we read in School of Community. Once you’ve understood and accepted this, you comprehend how that plan is out of love of our freedom; it is out of mercy for our fragility. Time is given to us as love for our freedom and mercy upon our fragility.
Peter’s second letter, chapter three, starting with verse 8, says, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day [of twenty four hours]. The Lord does not delay His promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but He is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance [freedom and patience, freedom and mercy]. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. Since everything is to be dissolved in this way [in other words, your measure has to be transfigured, it will have to be contrite and overtaken from all sides], what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion [What is holiness of conduct? The “how” of time, that comes from prayer.], waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire? But [for this reason], according to His promise, we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”11 But piety is “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” What a fantastic expression! This should be the description of the phenomenon, the perfect psychological description of our daily state of soul: “Hastening the coming of the day of God.” This is prayer: asking for His return.
The letter I quoted above continued (the two points came to me from this letter: the first is that of certainty, which I will return to shortly, because it’s the most acute of all; but now I’m speaking of the second implication, the value of time): “And if I don’t know the reason for the waiting, it follows that I don’t even know how to live it. I’m surprised to find myself desiring to live, if it were possible, only in silence, in prayer, in contemplation, because it seems to me that all this anticipates most evidently the experience of definitiveness, even though in those times when prayer is freed from the heart’s heaviness and obtuseness, rather than making us perceive nearness, it makes us perceive the fathomless distance from God and thus increases the sense of disproportion and nostalgia. In contrast, I find myself looking to work and relationships to experience this distance less acutely. I find myself being less desirous of a true morality for my life, because it seems to me that none of my commitments will bring me any closer to the goal anyway. [It’s logical: time has no meaning, history has no meaning] So I end up, according to the situation, reproaching myself either for being impatient or for fleeing the toil of an ascesis and the mission that has been asked of me. But this reproach never reconciles me, because it never becomes true contrition.” Thus, on the one hand, you tend to flee from your commitment (because you ask yourself, “What’s the use?”–prayer and contemplation are better–ut prayer makes you see even further). Or, on the other hand, you throw yourself into things so you won’t feel that unease.
Now, if the reason for the waiting, if the value of the waiting lies in the fact that it’s the way God frees our life and has mercy on our fragility, then everything that’s in time–everything!–is this will of God… everything, everything! “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose,”12 those who acknowledge the covenant. The covenant is precisely God who has involved Himself with time and with history, who has become time with us. Therefore, getting up in the morning, getting dressed, drinking your coffee, catching the commuter train or tidying things up, going back and sleeping… the “how” of all these things–therefore, the “how” of living the waiting, that is, the “how” of living time–all this is clarified by prayer, because everything you do must become prayer. If prayer is the waiting for the return of Christ, this waiting is the time itself we are living, time itself with its contents, because getting up or eating or going to work are prayer; they must become prayer, must become entreaty. This is the meaning of the most fulfilled, true, and definitive word, the word “offering,” which we’ve said so many times, and which I never tire of repeating to you, and which is necessary for you to hear.
The letter said in the beginning, “Feeling that I’m not and never will be guaranteed in the perseverance of my faith [I could say vocation; it’s one and the same] worries me; knowing that my freedom is and always will be able to reject God worries me. At times I reproach myself for this as a residue of rationalism.” Exactly! This is precisely the reason. “Rationalism” means that man can claim to judge his own life and things from his own point of view, that is, man who claims to be the measure of all things. What determines our life is the event of Christ; the event of the covenant is what gives meaning to our life; what has happened to us determines the security, the certainty, of our life. “Yes, but I can always reject what happened.” Will you please understand the error of this objection? Because one must truly reject, and this is a possibility only if one fails to remember, if one does not make memory of the event!
So then, abstractly speaking, from our point of view, the truth of these sentences, these fears, these worries, depends on the fact that time and history, vocational existence and history, as Saint Peter said, are given to us to foster our freedom, to affirm our freedom, so that at the return of Christ our adherence to the mystery of Christ will be “ours.” Time is what makes it ours; in time it becomes ours, because this is the method that God has designated. It’s not mechanical. It’s not immediate. It’s not instinctive. It’s not magic. It’s in time. This is a given fact you can’t object to, no ifs, ands, or buts, because this is the way we are made; every if, and, or but is pure fantasy, a winged donkey flying in the sky from star to star. It’s pure fantasy; no other creature made by God exists except this one. It is in time, in vocational time, in existence, therefore, and in history, that the Resurrection of Christ becomes ours. It is in time and history that slowly and mercifully our disproportion, our distance is totally forgiven and conquered.
So then, since it is in time that our freedom and our fragility are respectively affirmed and saved–affirmed in the first and saved in the second–our concept, the way we experience freedom and the way we perceive our fragility is something perennially insecure in and of itself, and will remain so. But this is because we look at our freedom and fragility–we have before our eyes our freedom and fragility–as if they were something of ours, and we don’t look at our freedom and fragility from God’s point of view. The first object is God, the mystery of God, God who has given Himself to us, His mercy, the covenant. Outside this object, all the rest is bewildering; it’s no longer right.
Therefore, the certainty, and the elimination of this worry, the guarantee, as we said earlier, the certainty in the faith, the guaranteed heart, is the presence of the covenant. This is the first object, the object of our consciousness, in light of which everything is clear. So you understand very well that existence and history, no matter what vicissitude they happen in, are in certainty and peace. This is the gift of Christ, peace, if we look at all things in Christ. Therefore, the problem isn’t our freedom or our fragility–“Who knows if I will adhere or not?”–the problem is for our memory of Christ to grow, nothing else.
I’ve said these two things because–first observation–our prayer truly lacks this certainty, precisely because it’s not true entreaty, it’s not asking for God, it’s not affirming that God is everything; rather, it’s asking that God serve our own concerns for ourselves, and so that’s the end of that. Secondly, our prayer is detached from the work we do. This is an ugly symptom for both our prayer and our work. Our prayer is not an attitude that tends to invest the work we do. “Lord, I’m not worthy” should be the consciousness with which someone goes to work at the hospital or goes to work in a publishing house, or goes to work at home or at the university, etc. This is completely lacking from our prayer. At best, it’s added on from the outside. The concept of offering also remains at the threshold: “I offer you this action,” but then the action has nothing to do with that offering. So then, let’s begin to understand the value of time well: it’s time that slowly, as if by osmosis, lets this offering penetrate within the soul, as soul of the action, that slowly invests even the body of the action, becomes an attitude and a mindset within the action, by which slowly and truly the action is reshaped.
So we, too, are influenced by the “Christians for socialism” who separate prayer on the one hand and what we do on the other. Maybe we’re not this way in theory–I hope we’re not–but we are so in practice. This is a crime that takes from God what is His right. It’s what the prayer I just read speaks of: Look upon us who acknowledge our misery and, because we are oppressed by the weight of our offences, may Your mercy raise us up. What does it mean for His mercy to raise us up? It means that God, having mercy upon us (His mercy “is greater than life,”13 we said in the Psalm this morning), slowly matures our consciousness, matures all our actions as prayer. But this is time, existence, history, because the meaning of history and time is mercy, as Saint Peter said, the mercy that in our misery affirms the truth.
For that matter, Psalm 62, which we read this morning and need to reread personally, says all this, communicates this experience of total certainty that’s not at all presumptuous and that’s perfectly respectful of all the freedom of this world, but of a freedom seen in the reality of the covenant, not seen abstractly, philosophically, or naturalistically, because then we would not be able to relax even for one hour. It’s God who is faithful to Himself, not us who are faithful to God. This must become the starting point of our feeling and the starting point of our action–this is conversion. This is what Lent calls us to, like no other time; this is what Lent must operate in us (“sacramental sign of conversion”). “On my bed, I remember You. On You I muse through the night [this is the symbol of man’s restlessness, because he ate too much or has been disappointed in love, or is guilty of fraudulent bankruptcy], for You have been my help [memory]; in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.”14 When we read these things, they move us, but they don’t become the criterion for our praying, and therefore they don’t become the criterion for our living, and the “how” of the waiting ends up in confusion.
The second theme, the second indication given in the Liturgy prayer as a factor of the sign of Lent, or the physical and visible reality contained in the sacramental action, is the word “fasting.” They couldn’t use the word “sacrifice” because its connotations are too precisely religious and referential to cult. For us, “sacrifice” is more generic, so we can use it instead of “fasting” or “mortification” precisely in the narrow sense of the term. We’re talking about the narrow meaning of the word: making sacrifices or choosing gestures of mortification, or fasting. This immediately means temperance in one’s drives or instincts, temperance in the use of instinct. Temperare in Latin means governing according to the purpose, toward the purpose, therefore, keeping in order. Order is the relationship of the thing to its goal, as both direction and time. To temper, to govern the thing according to its goal, is thus keeping the thing in the dynamic order toward its purpose.
So then, we can translate the invitation to sacrifice, the invitation to mortification and fasting, as faithfulness to what’s “most meaningful” in the thing. In the thing we have to temper, in the thing we have to mortify and sacrifice, the norm is faithfulness to what is meaningful, to the meaning of the thing. Sacrifice is faithfulness to what’s “the most meaningful.” In fact, there is an immediate meaning of the thing: someone is hungry and he falls greedily on his food. He feels affection and, zoom, he hitches up. There’s also a third field, we’ll mention out of love for thoroughness, which is vainglory, pride, or, better, the urge for possession, but for economic-political possession. Saint John indicates it in his first letter: “Concupiscentia carnis, concupiscentia oculorum, superbia vitae.”15 A voraciousness in instincts, a non-temperance of instincts.
But I’d like us to dwell more on the definition of sacrifice as faithfulness to what is most meaningful in the thing. In eating and drinking, what’s most meaningful is that they are instruments for our journey, not gorging or feeling your whole palate react sweetly and vibrantly upon contact with the molecules of your wine. Therefore, I call us to this mortification as the concrete expression of the search for what’s most meaningful in eating and drinking as well. In fact, the word “fast” in liturgical history, immediately meant this (for those, instead, who refuse to eat enough, the opposite is the most meaningful).
But, most of all, we have to focus our attention on affectivity (the third thing, the voracious affirmation of self, could be recovered in the other liturgical indication that speaks of brotherly love): it’s precisely in affectivity that this sacrifice, this mortification, as faithfulness to the most meaningful, must act, and must act keeping sharply on the lookout, must act non-stop, without falling asleep, without parentheses of forgetfulness. Faithfulness to what’s most meaningful… in affection, what’s most meaningful is not adhering to the immediate reverberation that affection has (at whatever level and color, whatever name it can have). For this reason, there’s a harmony, an understanding, that, expressed in a certain way, divides, and there’s a tension that, if not tempered, alters, makes you go off the road. In any case, it’s enough that you reflect on the formula “faithfulness to what’s most meaningful.”
Anyway, the word mortification shouldn’t frighten us, because death is already in that separation by which, even in the greatest intimacy, one can never truly identify with the other. What truly lets us identify with the other is precisely the search for what’s most meaningful; it’s the faithfulness to what’s most meaningful, because total identification is “in Christ,”16 as Saint Paul said. His formula–“in Christ;” “do everything in Christ;” “the world in Christ”–indicates the profound and final unity of everything, as what we are destined for. And if we always say that liberation is unity and slavery is division, then we must feel this call not as an enemy but as a friend.
There is a reverberation of this “faithfulness to what’s most meaningful”–that must operate attitudes of real mortification, must establish components of real mortification–there’s a test, a result: freedom, freedom in the thing. This is precisely a test. And from this, one physically perceives the faithfulness to what’s most important. This is what mortification brings about, exalts, and builds: freedom–freedom from the result, so that one finally is able to love the other, free from the response of the other, from the other’s way of corresponding. It’s truly freedom, truly love, and that’s that. Love finally without deceit. And, secondly, freedom from oneself, that is, from gusto. Freedom from the result, from the other, and freedom from gusto (also from the mountain, for example, from the snow, the rocks, and the glacier; otherwise, if you don’t go there for what’s most meaningful, the trip becomes just another Alpine Club activity).
3. Brotherly love
The third thing that the liturgical prayer indicated is brotherly love. Here, too, I’ll indicate in what the conversion must happen, the general aspects in which conversion must happen, and will talk in detail about the life of the house on another occasion. First of all, I’ll mention some general indications, in order to make our reflection more concrete.
We normally treat the others by mutilating their history, as one of us rightly observed in a gathering. What does it mean to mutilate the history of the other or mutilate the person, reducing the other and reducing the history of the other? We tend to reduce the history of the other to our criteria and our measures, to our mindset and, hence, to our convenience, to our evaluation of things. We tend to reduce the history of the other to this and we tend to mutilate the personality of the other, because we underline what interests us, what corresponds to us; what doesn’t correspond and what doesn’t interest us we don’t look at, or we’re angry at it. In other words, it is the exploitation of the other. This is the first colossal and permanent sin in our relationships: the exploitation of the other.
The second aspect that I’m underlining, among all those that could be mentioned, is a variation on this mutilation of the other and of this reduction of the history of the other, of the exploitation, which is called indifference to the other. Pay attention to this, please, because coming into your homes or looking at the Memores Domini, you see it at first glance; the indifference to the other strikes the eye, certainly, in periods. Then there is the moment when the person interests you, but outside that moment when he interests you, you’re indifferent.
The third aspect is what the Liturgy last night called “pointing the finger,”17 that is, ire, interior resentment or exploded resentment or spreading resentment (complaining and grumbling).
The lack of “simplicity of heart,” the psychological aspect of being “poor in spirit,” is at the origin of these grave errors in brotherly love that Lent invites us to look out for–to look out for means that every day you need to examine your conscience on these points; examining your conscience means asking Christ to forgive these things in His mercy, so they may be reabsorbed, eliminated from our history; without this patience, it’s not asking. The origin of these errors in brotherly love is the lacking of “simplicity of heart,” which is the psychological aspect of “poverty of spirit.”
Let’s look more closely at the word “simplicity,” simplicity of heart. Simplicity of heart lives memory in the relationship. Simplicity doesn’t judge the other, because, as Saint Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, “Who are you to pass judgment on someone else’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls.”18 (“Domino suo stat aut cadit.”) The person who has simplicity of heart doesn’t judge the other but, before the other, only tries to respond to God’s admonition to his own maturity, an admonition expressed through the attitude of the other–the attitude of the other, be he a good or a bad example, is the way God calls me to my maturity. Therefore, brotherly love is missing from the relationship because simplicity of heart, simplicity of faith, is lacking from the judgment, because the presence of the other is the existential, historical way God calls me–calls me!–to my maturity, admonishes me toward my maturity.
These are the points of the ascetical practice that is the sacramental sign of Lent, that is the sign within the transforming mystery of Lent. The aspect of Lent must be this practice, not overrating the practice, but because this ascetic practice constitutes the expressive instrument (as the word is in affection), our stuttering, infantile, chaotic, impotent word of response to the love of Christ. This ascetic practice is exactly what tries to express, during Lent, that faith by which Christ is everything for us and for the world.
An ascetic practice, mark you, is always made up of two roots; in order to live these things, two roots are necessary. The first is the value judgment, called faith, because faith is a value judgment. What are you for me, now? What are you for me, here in front of me? This is the point. A value judgment is what responds to this question, and it is this value judgment that, responding to this question, establishes the settings of my relationship, even if later I don’t manage to maintain it.
The second root is personal toil. This is why we really should eliminate the expression, “I find it hard!” We can still say, “This is so hard!” as an exclamation, but we should really throw out “I find it hard” as the beginning of a dialogue, as a question staked out in an exchange of views with someone who is authoritative or in a brotherly comparison of ideas, as a problem one sets forth–because it’s obvious. Instead, when someone says, “This food is so good!” then one can say, “This is so hard! What a stomachache!” Instead, “I find it hard” as a problem one sets forth is perfectly useless, a real waste of time, just prevarication.
Today’s Gospel19 about the temptation of Christ is a page of extremely lucid teaching for all of us. What did all the temptations hinge on? On a value judgment. First, instinct: you’re hungry, so eat. Then the tempter becomes shrewd, because he sees that Jesus responds, “Man does not live on bread alone” (there’s a measure). So then he builds his temptation on values. What he says next are values, and he even says them with the word of God; what he says are values, but values torn out of the context of the covenant, the history of God, torn from their truth, such as the concept of freedom or the concept of fragility and sin, just as we usually use them; they’re ripped out of their truth, which is the context of the covenant, of history.
Instead, we have been told: Blessed, blessed, blessed are you, because “knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God has been granted to you.”20
1 “Through our annual Lenten observance, Lord, deepen our understanding of the mystery of Christ and make it a reality in the conduct of our lives.”
2 Collect of the third Sunday of Lent, Roman rite.
3 “[The Prophet] makes the entire people present to God, in prayer and in imploration (Ex33:12-13): in it he does not ask for one thing or another, but for God Himself, His presence, His manifest companionship, His help, the continual actualization of the covenant (Ex 33:14-17).” (School of Community, 1974-1975: Christian Reconciliation – 2. “Liberation from Sin” pro manuscripto, p. 28).
4 Cf. Rev 22:20.
5 Cf. Gal 4:6.
6 Cf. Lk 11:13.
7 Phil 2:17.
8 G. Leopardi, The Infinite, v. 15 (Renato Pogioli, trans.), in The Poem Itself (Stanley Burnshaw, ed.), Simon and Schuster, 1981, p. 276.
9 Cf. Is 55:8.
10 Cf. O. V. Milosz, Miguel Mañara (E. Mörlin-Visconti, trans.), Kampala, Uganda: COWA Publications, p. 44.
11 Cf. 2 Pt 3:8-13.
12 Cf. Rom 8:28.
13 Psalm 63:4.
14 Psalm 63:7-8.
15 1 Jn 2:16.
16 Gal 3:28.
17 Liturgy of the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, Roman rite: Is 58:9.
18 Cf. Rom 14:4.
19 First Sunday of Lent in the Roman rite, Year A: Mt 4:1-11.
20 Cf. Lk 8:10.