Mandeville, LA – “What did you give up for Lent this year” has taken on the religious significance of “what was your New Years resolution” or even worse “what’s your target credit score!?” We can blame decades of poor catechism, the near-reverent impotence of our Bishops and even Pope Francis for the comical and irreverent state the American Church Militant finds herself this Lent. These would count toward solving the crisis of reverence in the Church about as much as seeing (Saint Alouisious) Gonzaga and Georgetown make it to the NCAA Final Four and thus there being a Catholic presence in the championship bracket. The hard truth is American Catholics have been told to forget that Lent is the annual season given us by the Gospels of Our Lord; nourished and enforced by His Church for the penitential benefit of the Faithful and instead treat it as the season the Knights of Columbus get to practice frying seafood on Fridays.
And there’s the 1st problem: the purpose of the Lenten sacrifice is to condition the Will for Holy contemplation that is normally crowded out by our obsessions with the charms of this world. As Abbott Pafuntius instructed the then harlot, Saint Thaisis, effective devotion to a penance first requires an act of humility and praise. “Qui plasmasti me, miserere mei”; Lord that hast formed me, have mercy on me.2″ This little ejaculatory prayer is just the kind of devotion that is missing from the daily lives of the faithful; an earnest, vocal admission that a constant appeal to the mercy of God must be part of our constant, daily devotions, especially during Lent because the tendency is for Pride to swell our hearts over any Lenten “success” and proclaim this conquest as of our doing when in truth, it was the Grace of God that perfected our effort. As Saint Augustine reminds us:
“Whether it be little or whether it be great, it cannot be done without Him without whom nothing can be done.”
The “nothing” in Augustine’s world actually encompasses the everything in our world, convinced of its own radical autonomy and importance. We have no concept of “nothing” outside of “not successful”, as measured by material metrics which would render “something” a “nothing” because it has no superior sale value in a market of crowded sale values and not “nothing” as in “void” or “missing”. That “nothing” reminds us of our eternal need for God to fill that nothing and in asking for his aid, admits of our incompetence to the task like Augustine. And Augustine is not alone in this Lenten and indeed, life intention. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a full 900 years ago, confronted a diluted, Lenten orthodoxy and offered his sermons on Psalm 90 (or 91) to his monks as guidance to restore Lenten reverence. Below is Chapter – Sermon 1, from Psalm 90, Verse 1.
‘Whoso dwelleth in the help of the Most High : shall abide in the protection of the God of Heaven.’*
YOU will better understand who dwelleth in God’s help if you consider who does not do so. There are three kinds of people, you will find, who dwell not in God’s help: first, those who do not hope; then, those who have lost hope; and lastly those who hope in vain.
The man who takes not God for his Helper but trusts in his own strength and in the multitude of his riches certainly does not dwell in the help of God; for, ignoring the prophet’s injunction, ‘Seek ye the Lord while He may be found; call ye upon Him while He is near,’ and seeking only temporal things, he vies with evil-doers, seeing the peace of sinners, and is far removed from the help of the Most High, of which indeed he thinks he has no need. But who are we to judge the folk outside? I am afraid, brethren, that there may be someone even among ourselves who dwells not in the help of the Most High, but trusts in his own strength and in the multitude of things that he possesses! Someone full of zeal, maybe, mighty in watching and fasting and labour and so forth, who has—as he thinks—laid up great store of merit over a long time. Putting his trust in all this, he is slacker in the fear of God; with a baleful sense of security he turns aside to idle and trifling matters; he grumbles, he criticizes, he disparages. This man, if he were dwelling in the help of God, would give heed to himself and fear to offend Him of Whom he knew God. Yet now, I grieve to say and see, there are some who were sober and careful enough at the outset of their conversion; but now that they have made a little progress, instead of going further in accordance with the words, ‘He that eateth me shall hunger still, are beginning to behave and speak as I have just described. ‘Why should we serve Him further,’ they say in effect, ‘when we already possess that which He has to give us? O if you knew how little you had got, and how quickly you lose it if He Who gave it does not keep it safe! Only the knowledge of these two things can make us really submissive and God-fearing, and so keep us from being of those who dwell not in the help of the Most High, because they think they have no need of it. And those are they who do not hope in God.
There are also people who have ceased to hope; who in view of their own weakness have thrown in their hand and fallen victims to faintheartedness. Such persons dwell in their own flesh, and are so absorbed in its infirmity that they are ready to reel off a list of all their sufferings on the spot; for where you are really interested, you are vigorous enough! But these folk are not dwelling in the help of God, neither do they know it; for they cannot pluck up courage even to meditate on it sometimes. And there are other people who do hope in the Lord, but hope in vain; for they so flatter themselves in regard to His mercy towards them, that they do not amend their faults. That kind of hope is wholly vain; and the confused thinking which produces it is due to lack of love. The man, who in his easygoing pride drives grace away and empties his hope completely of its content, most certainly hopes in vain. None of these three types dwells in the help of the Most High; for the first dwells in his own merits, the second in his sufferings, and the third in his sins. The abode of the last is foul, that of the second is wretched, and that of the first is dangerous and silly. What could be sillier than to live in a house that has scarcely been begun? Do you imagine you can finish it? But ‘when a man hath done, then he begins. And this house is all tumbling down, and stands in need of props and buttresses, not of inhabitants! Is not this present life brittle and uncertain? Must not anything that is founded on it be the same? And who imagines he can build a lasting structure on a weak foundation? Dangerous indeed is the dwelling of those who hope in their own merits, dangerous because it is a tumbling ruin. But the dwelling of those who are thrown into despair by the thought of their own weakness is wretched, and they live in torments, as we said. For as long as they both endure the actual pains that bruise them day and night, and also suffer anguish even greater on account of those which they have not felt yet and maybe never will, what suffering could be worse? What hell could you imagine more unbearable, especially as, burdened and toiling as these people are, they yet are not supported by the heavenly bread?
These hopeless people dwell not in the help of the Most High. The others did not seek it; these lack it because they seek it in a way by which they cannot get it. They alone dwell in the help of the Most High who desire to obtain and fear to lose that help and nothing else, and devote themselves to their quest with careful and anxious thought; which dutiful service is in very truth the worship that we owe to God. Blessèd indeed is he who dwells thus in the help of the Most High, for he will abide in the protection of the God of Heaven. What is there under heaven that can hurt a person whom the God of Heaven wills to protect and keep? And all the things that do harm are under heaven; the powers of the air are under heaven, this present evil world is under heaven, so also is the flesh that lusts against the spirit. It is well said, therefore, that he shall abide in the protection of the God of Heaven; so that he who is found worthy of God’s help may fear nothing that is under heaven at all. And whether you take the phrase with that which follows, ‘He will say unto the Lord, “Thou art my Guardian,”’ or regard it as the explanation of the foregoing: ‘Whoso dwelleth,’ the meaning is the same: we are to seek God’s help not only to enable us to do good works, but also to protect us and deliver us from evil. But notice that it says ‘protection’ only, and not ‘presence.’ An angel rejoices in God’s presence and is blessèd in it; but as for me, if I could only stay in His protection and be safe!