Last Ash Wednesday, we began our 40-day observance of Lent, a period of preparation for Holy Week which culminates in our remembering and celebrating the great mystery of our faith, the Cross and the Resurrection.
This First Sunday of Lent’s Gospel gives us a mirror image of the Lenten pilgrimage and Holy Week. The Gospel opens with Christ’s 40 days in the desert, where he prayed and fasted, and was also tempted by the devil.
Mark is terse in his description of the temptations, but we see detailed accounts in Matthew and Luke. We see a basic choice that Christ had to make as he began his mission from God, his Father.
Will he live out the mission with great fidelity to his Father’s plan, or will he choose to veer away from the plan, give in to temptation, or at the very least, compromise? He makes the choice, and lives out his mission with constancy, great love and service—as Ignatius of Loyola put it, totus ad laborem, giving one’s self totally to the work.
Temptation is critical in the period of preparation or formation. When we were in the novitiate, we had four trials, each a month long. Trial, test or temptation is not meant to harm us, but to make us better and bring out the best in us by the choices we make.
The Flow experience framework of renowned psychologist Mikhaily Csikszentmihalyi gives us a good handle to understand this formation process. He states that when high levels of challenge and skills are in a balance, the greater the chances of experiencing Flow in the activity.
The Flow experience is an optimal experience, a high, marked by peak performance and total absorption in the activity (sports, dancing, playing a musical instrument, writing, being with a loved one, serving, praying) where awareness and action merge, and the person loses track of both self and time. This is the totus ad laborem, to lose one’s self in mission, in rendering greater love and service.
This is what the formation process is all about. It brings the level of skills closer to a balance with the challenge. The challenge is the mission and what it demands of us. The challenge is to “repent and believe in the good news,” and the mission to live a life witnessing to this.
This Sunday, let us focus on the skills developed through trials or tests. I purposely veer away from temptations to “bracket” preconceived notions.
William Damon’s 1995 classic, “Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America’s Homes and Schools,” calls the crisis of indulgence, particularly among the youth, a “failure of spirit.” He points out that research has shown how children desire to be of service to others, are open to moral and religious formation, and look for intellectual challenges, but the culture of indulgence has killed all these.
For America it is a problem of a culture of indulgence, but for us in the Philippines this is limited to a minority, and for the great majority, the “failure of spirit” is wrought by robbing people of the opportunity to dream and be inspired simply because of the lack of opportunities.
These are the people for whom Christ came and to whom he proclaims “the Kingdom of God is at hand… believe in the good news.” For them, developing their skills to be equal to the challenge is basic, give them the opportunity to dream and to work for the fulfillment of their dreams.
Contrary to what some think, they do not want dole-outs. “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
For us who have been more fortunate to dream and to have the opportunities to pursue them, I share the words of Pope Francis (Ash Wednesday 2017 Homily). These perhaps are the tests we need to face.
“Lent is the time for saying no… to the spiritual asphyxia born of the pollution caused by indifference, by thinking that other people’s lives are not my concern, and by every attempt to trivialize life, especially the lives of those whose flesh is burdened by so much superficiality… no to the toxic pollution of empty and meaningless words, of harsh and hasty criticism, of simplistic analyses that fail to grasp the complexity of problems, especially the problems of those who suffer the most… no to the asphyxia of a prayer that soothes our conscience, of an almsgiving that leaves us self-satisfied, of a fasting that makes us feel good… no to the asphyxia born of relationships that exclude, that try to find God while avoiding the wounds of Christ present in the wounds of his brothers and sisters: in a word, all those forms of spirituality that reduce the faith to a ghetto culture, a culture of exclusion.”
Lent is a Season of Grace that reminds us that we need to face our trials and tests, and we must make a choice. It is not enough that we repent or turn away from sin.
This is simply the beginning. The deeper choice is to believe in the good news and to live in the joy of proclaiming this good news to others, most especially to those whom Christ had a special bias for.
I end with Pope Francis’ ending: “(Lent) is not the time to rend our garments before the evil all around us, but instead to make room in our life for all the good we are able to do. It is a time to set aside everything that isolates us, encloses us and paralyzes us.
Lent is a time of compassion, when, with the Psalmist, we can say: ‘Restore to us the joy of your salvation, sustain in us a willing spirit,’ so that by our lives we may declare your praise.”
May the Season of Lent be a Season of Grace for all of us, to form our heart and soul once more and to choose—or renew our choice—to live a life of mission. —CONTRIBUTED