Approaching Lent becomes our clarion call to look inward. How have we distanced ourselves from God and his holy plan for our high call? What are the habitual sins that bind us? We plan on disciplines to work through Lent and move us forward on our path to heaven — Confession, fasting, prayer and almsgiving. We stand before God as an individual who will need to give account for his life. But, wait? Aren’t we more than just individuals?
As a convert, the Catholic emphasis on the primacy of our connectedness to others has stood in dramatic relief against the individual-orientation of Protestantism. The Lord led me through my head and heart home to Holy Mother Church – through my studies of medieval and early modern philosophy and through the simple faith witness of my (then future) husband.* There have been countless witnesses guiding me – ongoing.
When I was in the midst of the first phase of my conversion process, as a graduate student in political philosophy, we wrestled through texts on such “important” issues as the irreconcilable issue if “the many and the one.” Three years of graduate studies were blown away in one sentence by a thoughtful priest: Only in Christ are the one and the many reconciled. He is the Creator and the Redeemer. He creates all, and He “counts the hairs on our heads.” He redeems all, and He saves me from each one of my sins. He is the one Lord who breaks His Body – and feeds each of our bodies in the Eucharist, one by one, to restore us to wholeness with God – as one.
I was like the cartoon character with the flashing light bulb shaking the dialogue bubble. That light shone bright, and penetrated through my larger confusion. Yet, it took time for God to move my head and heart on a clearer path. And, one of the steps it took was for me to break out of the boundaries of my individuality in “getting it” about the faith journey.
I had to get out of my own way to be able to see the expanse of others surrounding me – from close circles of intimate relationships to the fullness of the Communion of Saints. That’s a lot to take in for one individual. Fortunately, the Lord prepares us for this gradually. It’s as though our entire life forms a series of stretches where we see that we are part of something larger.
It mirrors the growing-up process as well: from self-absorbed youngster, through selfish teen, to the strains to serve our family, work and community needs through adulthood. We long someday to join that large communion of saints and see the face of God, a focus I assume will intensify as we near our own earthly deaths. Yet, we see the face of God in the saints we meet every day, “though through a glass darkly,” as St. Paul and St. Augustine remind.
This Lent I encourage you to stretch how you SEE yourself in relation to God and others, more than just focus on what you DO in relation to God and others. Lent focuses on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, with devotions like the Stations of the Cross and Confession to frequent. We tend to set up a fuzzy line between what we work toward to heal our individual sins and what we do to help others in Lent. But that dividing line needs shifting. It’s more than what we do in relation to others; it’s how we see ourselves in relation to others. Lent’s outward focus on almsgiving should not distract us from getting it that we are one with those we serve.
It’s about reorienting our sense of self to embrace more. This requires a gradual shift from understanding our singleness as one of “many” to our connectedness to others. OK, enough indulgence in philosophy, let’s get practical.
In the vocation of marriage, we are connected in community to our spouse and to our children – each as individuals and all as a collective family entity. We have our parish, where we may know some families more than others, participate in some tasks or committees where we know some more intimately. We are bound in both small and large spheres of connectedness in our church life. Our churches are connected to the Vatican, to Christ’s church the world over, and to the heavenly throne.
We experience layers of belonging, like concentric, elliptical spheres in which we orbit, overlapping and interconnected – even throughout the secular aspects of our days. This happens in our neighborhoods, schools, places where we work, in all our places of belonging. Yet it all starts at home, in our families and in our domestic church. Whether you are a consecrated single, live in religious community or live out the vocation of marriage and family life, we all have that private sphere which forms our domestic church.
Our domestic church mirrors our parish church, gathered in the wider embrace of the Liturgical Year, which taps a rhythm through our days, and joins us to every Catholic the world over – and to the thrones of heaven where the glad Alleluias resound. Mass is celebrated somewhere around the world every moment of the day. The day’s Scriptures are read by His people the world over, every day. The saints invoked hear the chorus of intercessions within that same 24-hour period of the liturgical year. That’s a lot to take in.
That holy presence comes into our homes as well, visibly and invisibly. We have our Bibles, prayer books, Rosary beads, and sacramentals (crosses, statues, icons, pictures, Scripture passages, prayer cards, candles) to help us orient our senses to the divine. That pattern of connectedness to God’s people, his saints and the heavenly host – on Earth and in Heaven — builds outwardly toward and through the Trinity, which is a community of love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
When I have a cup of coffee with my husband to catch up on the day’s events, the Trinity is with us. When I hug my children at the end of the day, the Trinity both embraces and enfolds within our mother-daughter embrace. The Trinity even travels through the phone lines, when my daughters from college text me, “miss ya, mum.” The Trinity snuggles up with my husband and I at night, and we rest on the breast of Jesus.
We are much more than individual souls before God. We are woven through connections of body and spirit that form us into a series of connected fibers – sealed in the Body of Christ as children of God. Those threads suffer tears from our sins. Our freedom means we can sever those ties completely with God and others. Hell is a reality, and we have all glimpsed it in moments of despair or conflict. We know what that brokenness feels like within, but do we always see larger patterns of brokenness that tear our points of connectedness with others — those that make the spheres fall out of orbit?
In the battle against our individual and habitual sins, we have to notice the sins of community that surround and fuel tensions and dysfunctions in family life. As I write this, the battle rages around me, as my children butt heads through Saturday chores. So, enough philosophical indulgences, there is a spiritual battle calling me in this moment. Pray for patience and wisdom as I try to guide my children toward the type of family life God calls us to. Confession starts at 4.
As ever, the day’s Scriptures tell me what I need to do, why and how:
The Epistle: By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible…[W]ithout faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:1-5)
And Psalm 145 for today: Let all your works give you thanks, O Lord, and let your faithful ones bless you.
The Gospel today seals it – the Transfiguration. This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.
More to come: on the concept of subsidiary and the order of charity in upcoming posts.
*Those were only the proximate causes I could identify, in my limited view. I know, of course, I was the lost lamb, and the Shepherd found me through countless means. Praise God!