Trying to make sense of real estate ads is often like deciphering the meaning of an ancient hieroglyph. Take the following: “Like a dream: charming old-world home in historic neighborhood. Three cozy bedrooms; vintage kitchen; lush gardens. Going fast; act now.” Translation: “My dream is getting rid of this hideous dump; your nightmare is rolling up the driveway in a land that time—and the Sanitation Department—long forgot. My oven and ice box are fire traps, the closets where we sleep are barely enough to contain a cot, and the overgrown bushes in the front have completely engulfed our rotting shack. Call ASAP; my creditors are rounding the corner with a wrecking ball in tow.” In short: one must know when to renovate or start from scratch. The same holds true for the spiritual life.
Lent is a time when we pause to consider the state of our soul, what St. Teresa of Avila refers to as the Interior Castle. It is where Jesus knocks and enters, to find the host ready to welcome him. But how can Our Lord even find the door if it is covered with growth, and the floorboards infested with vermin? The saints (Thomas Aquinas, Teresa, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux) describe three “ways” to rehabilitate our spiritual lives with the grace of God. The first, as we have discussed before, is the “purgative” way in which a beginner puts an end to warring passions that threaten the life of holiness, and then identifies the “near occasions” of sin to avoid them. This might seem elementary. Does not every second grader know as much? Perhaps, but this is the foundation upon which everything else rests. Self-denial and mortification can be very painful, but they are the cost of maturity. The “illuminative” way, by contrast, has a more positive aspect to it: the desire to attain friendship with God by the practice of virtue and prayer. Still, the soul is not perfect to the extent that it goes through periods of spiritual desolation. During these times, the sweetness of God’s grace is “withheld” in order that the maturing soul might remain faithful to God in the absence of an immediate “reward.” The final, “unitive” way consists in the soul being so completely seized by the God’s love that the image of God is made perfect in it. The soul may be subject to temptation, as consolation may vanish without warning, but it remains steadfast in its fidelity to God.
The Third Sunday of Lent (Year B) features the story of Christ cleansing the temple (John 2:13-15). It seems a perfect example of the purgative way, as God eradicates the roots of sin. To be sure, the effect of grace can be tumultuous, so inured has the soul become to its spiritual shackles. And yet, one senses a godly restlessness, whereby the soul takes its first steps toward divine union.
This week’s artwork is El Greco’s masterpiece, the Cleansing of the Temple (1528). According to St. Albert’s Catholic Chaplaincy (Scotland), the painting is divided into two halves. In the first, the terrified money changers are driven out of the temple, while above them looms the scene of Adam and Eve being ejected from Eden. One the other side, the disciples converse in relative tranquility, while above them we behold an image of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The scene anticipates the Final Judgment. Where will we find ourselves? Better to let Jesus cast out from our hearts the roots of sin, and be found pure at his coming.