Magazine article U.S. Catholic

3 Ways to Get into Spiritual Shape This Lent: Lent Is a Time of Spiritual Awakening. It Is the Time When We Act to Improve the Quality of Our Friendship with God, Who Is Eternal Love

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

3 Ways to Get into Spiritual Shape This Lent: Lent Is a Time of Spiritual Awakening. It Is the Time When We Act to Improve the Quality of Our Friendship with God, Who Is Eternal Love

Article excerpt

When you listen to some older Catholics talk about the spirituality that formed them, you hear a lot about a harsh, demanding, and rather unforgiving God, a moral taskmaster brooding over the slightest offense, a Father wearing a perpetual frown.

And when you press the issue, you discover that Lent was the season when this God was particularly present to them. During the 40 days of austerity and self-denial, they were compelled to meditate upon the innumerable ways that they had offended, disappointed, or otherwise let down the Judge. The purple cloths covering the statues in church were evocative of their own mood of moral unworthiness, and the Lenten confessional was the place where the drama of self-reproach was played out.

When you listen to many Catholics of my generation (I went to first grade in 1965, the year Vatican II came to a close), you hear something very different. For us God was presented as one-sidedly positive, an affirming and upbeat friend, someone who would be there for us no matter what. We almost never heard the language of divine judgment or anger or demand.

And here is an interesting paradox: For us too, Lent was a season when this God was especially on display. During the 40 days, we were encouraged to think about how good we were and how much we were loved. Instead of giving things up, we were told to do something positive, to express our creativity and generosity. And the confessional was not the place of accusation and low self-esteem; rather it was a forum of celebration. Once we were told (and I'm not making this up) to go into Confession and tell the priest, "I am a really good person!"

Would you permit me a cry from the heart: A plague on both your houses!

For the past 30 years, these one-sided and simplistic theologies have bedeviled and divided us, preventing us from embracing Catholic faith and practice in all of their complexity, surprise, and delight.

Let me try to state this as clearly as I can. If God is a cruel taskmaster whose purpose is to inculcate in me self-hatred, then I'm against and will fight this God like some combination of Frodo, Gandalf the Gray, Legolas the elf, and General Patton!

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, in the second century, summed up the Christian faith with these simple and wonderful words: "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." Unlike the gods of the ancient world, the true God is not a rival to us, is not competing with us. On the contrary, God wants nothing more than that we be alive.

Jesus said it as unambiguously as you could possibly want: "I have come that you might have life and have it to the full" (see John 10:10). And to make this flourishing possible, God tore open his heart in love and pursued us even to the limits of godforsakenness, loving us to God's own death.

Though he has lived in the neurotic imaginations of some Catholics, the cruel God is alien to the Bible, to the liturgy, and to the greatest of our spiritual teachers.

Yet at the same time, if God is, in theologian Paul Tillich's phrase, "a sugar daddy," someone who smiles benignly and blandly on all that we do, someone who would never dare utter a discouraging word or summon us to dangerous spiritual adventure, then I'm against him too, and I will not so much fight this God as turn away in boredom.

Both testaments of the Bible practically brim over with the language of judgment and demand. God hates sin, injustice, stupidity, and self-destructiveness, and God burns in anger against them, passionate to set things right.

When Moses, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, and Paul come into the holy presence of God, they become more, not less aware of their sinfulness and unworthiness. Just about the last thing we would expect any of them to say is, "Lord, I'm a really good person."

There has been no greater celebrator of the divine exuberance than the English writer G. …

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