There is a charming moment in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince involving the pilot/narrator (whose airplane is stuck in the desert) and the extra terrestrial visitor from a distant, house-sized planet he meets. The pilot is repeatedly astonished by the child’s (literally) “outside-the-box” thinking: e.g. a drawing of a box with holes in it is really the living space for a sheep inside it, and a drawing that looks like a hat to the adult is really that of a boa constrictor that has ingested an elephant! The child describes the difficulties that come with life on such a tiny planet, e.g. an infestation of monster baobab trees. Its microscopic seeds are almost identical to those of delicate rosebushes; left unchecked, however, they overtake the resources of the entire planet, spelling disaster for all other living things. He says:
It is a question of discipline…You must see to it that you pull up regularly all the baobabs, at the very first moment when they can be distinguished from the rose-bushes which they resemble so closely in their earliest youth. It is very tedious work…but very easy.
One would be hard-pressed to find a better description of the purpose of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. At first, the seeds of sin and vice appear harmless, no worse than mere curiosity or attraction to countless other things. But one must pay close attention—what woke educators today call “mindfulness”—to the movements of the soul, and determine whether these attractions contribute to, or distract from, our friendship with God. The only problem I have with the Little Prince’s characterization is the last line: “It is very tedious work…but very easy.” Tedious? No doubt. But easy? Perhaps it is for a child, who has yet to let any habit, good or bad, take root. The problem, of course, is with us grown-ups, who may neglect the call of God for a long time. We allow other things to fill the soul that rightfully belongs to God alone, because “things” seem more urgent to us than “no-thing” (God) Who, in truth, is of greatest importance. Pulling up sin by its roots is painful and virtually impossible, especially when we think we can do it all by ourselves. But the saints remind us that the natural virtues (courage, temperance, justice, and prudence) eventually fail. Only by the touch of grace can we begin to make room in our hearts for God. Prayer is “lifting up the soul to God” (John Damascene); fasting makes us hunger and thirst for him “like a deer that yearns for running water” (Psalm 42:1). Finally, “by the path of love, which is charity, God draws near to man, and man to God” (St. Albert the Great). Indeed, the grace of Our Lord is at work in the desire to become closer to him. We must cultivate this holy seed.
This week’s artwork is a two-part piece depicting the parable of the Prodigal Son by French painter James Tissot (1836-1902). The boy’s “departure” in Venice and his “return” in what appears to be northern Europe are in sharp contrast to each other, both in subject matter and artistic style. The former recalls the Renaissance technique of Vittorio Carpaccio, while the latter reflects the Flemish tradition. According to the Petit Palais in Paris where the paintings are exhibited, the “mix of eras” was criticized by his contemporaries. Yet the juxtaposition of Venetian aristocracy with the son’s humble roots seems appropriate. The discipline of Lent should cultivate in us the same attitude of soul the boy only found the “hard way”: what the Panis Angelicus calls pauper, servus, et humilis (poor, submissive, and humble) before God.