What does it take to make a house a home? Or rather, what does it take to restore an old, familiar home that needs work on the foundation, even before we attend to its more “cosmetic” features? Long before Chip and Joanna came along, St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th-century Carmelite mystic, compared the human soul to a once-beautiful edifice that has become dilapidated but remains our meeting place with the Lord. Her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, is a series of spiritual conferences to her sisters for their spiritual perfection. The Castle comprises a number of “mansions” through which one passes on the way to perfect union with Christ. The second of these, an introduction to prayer, describes not so much a technique as an attitude one must bring to any form of holy exchange with God. She writes that one “must be resolute and prepare himself…to bring his will into conformity with the will of God.” That’s the rub, isn’t it? An age that fancies itself as “spiritual, but not religious” finds the idea of surrendering my will to anyone as counterintuitive, even pathological. Indeed, popular culture tells us: “I’ve got to be me!” “I did it my way!” “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all?” The Catholic, rightly, receives such bromides with mixture of bemusement…and horror. To pray, rather, is to entrust my entire being to God, knowing that all will be well.
In the holy season of Lent we pay special attention to what should be our priority every day of the year, namely, a progressively deeper union with almighty God. How does this happen? As they say: first things first. Our cover art comes from the medieval Cathedral of Saint Michel and Sainte Gudula in Brussels (Belgium), which took over 300 years to complete (12-15th centuries). The stained glass window shows God (more specifically, the Divine Word that became flesh) talking with Adam and Eve after their fall from grace. (Notice the clothing.) They who succumb to the temptation of desiring what they neither are nor can manage—that is, equality with God—are yet encouraged by the promise of a Savior, one who like them was tested but did not yield to temptation. The artistry of the glass conveys the (outer) beauty and youth of our first parents, which reflects the deeper harmony of the soul, a harmony “disfigured” by sin.
Two of my favorite spiritual writers follow up on the positive notion of Lent as the restoration of health and beauty to the soul. Fr. Von Balthasar says that the human person is “the creature with mystery in his heart bigger than himself: a tabernacle around sacred mystery. Contemplative prayer cleans it and makes it habitable for the Divine Guest. There is room already there at center of man.” To be clear: we may be pushing the broom, but God is the one who purifies. A habit of prayer helps us discover God in our soul, not in the sense of talking to ourselves, but in the sense of seeing ourselves, as it were, through his eyes, not ours.
Sounds great, but how does this happen? There’s just no way of getting around it: union with Christ always, always brings us face to face with the cross. This is where the temptation of Christ becomes relevant. Let’s face it: we love our “chains,” those temptations toward pleasure, presumption, and (worst of all) control (St. Augustine calls it the libido dominandi) that convince us we can do without God. My other favorite, Pope Benedict XVI, points out the difference between judging the world by human standards (Peter) and those of God (Jesus). Peter “would like the victory without the Cross. He is relying on his own resources.” Jesus, however, refuses “to be induced by the devil to throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple.” He does not manipulate his Father, but instead trusts in the Father’s love and providence.
That, of course, is a pretty tall order: impossible, in fact, for human beings. So many in our Church—and in our parish—find themselves in circumstances that would otherwise break the spirit. Yet they know that God uses even suffering to make a room in our heart, our soul, our castle…to welcome the Divine Guest.