By Cardinal Justin Rigali
In Saint Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of an “acceptable time.” After quoting from Isaiah 49:8, “In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you,” Paul writes, “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). As we prepare for another Lenten season, a very acceptable time is approaching for each of us in our relationship with God. Speaking of an opportunity such as this, Saint Francis de Sales writes: “When God sends a great and mighty inspiration to embrace his love, if we do not avail of it in its entirety, we shall benefit from it only partially” (Treatise on the Love of God, book 2, chapter 11).
One of the themes that we often hear of during Lent is that of conversion. This word is used in different senses. We often speak of a conversion when someone has turned from a sinful life to a virtuous life, or has returned to the sacraments. This is certainly a proper use of the word. We also speak of someone “converting” to the Catholic faith as well. But during Lent we speak especially of the daily turning of our hearts to God, no matter what state they are in.
In our relationship with Jesus, as in any worthy human relationship, we should be constantly challenging ourselves as to how we are living out our love for Him. Since we are living in the body, with all the temptations and weaknesses that go with our state, we have many opportunities to succeed, or to fail, in our desire to show our love for our Lord. Since we often have to overcome our natural inclinations in order to be faithful, we call this a series of constant conversions. What is the first step in this constant conversion we are always called to as Christians, but which we are invited to in a special way in this coming Lenten season? We have to begin with an honest recognition of who we are and how we are living.
Knowledge of self
Saint Augustine (354-430) wrote: “Lord Jesus, let me know myself, let me know you.” In making this prayer, Saint Augustine joined concepts, which are very basic on our road to constant conversion. We must first know ourselves with complete honesty if we are going to know Jesus. We have all heard the expression, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” If we blind ourselves to who we really are, we will be unable to engage in any constant conversion for the sake of Jesus.
In learning a new language, there is always the danger of allowing oneself to stop at a given point and think that enough has been learned. It is dangerous when there is no further study or desire for correction but a sense of confidence that all has been accomplished. This usually leads to many errors and to an unfortunate halt in a study that should be continuous.
So it is with our Christian lives. If we have determined long ago that we are Christians, we are religious, we are observant and we are good and do not need improvement through self-examination, we will wind up being poor examples of the constant conversion necessary to the Christian life.
It is necessary to ask God the Holy Spirit to enlighten us with the grace to see ourselves as we really are, not as we imagine ourselves to be or as others may see us. If we have a truthful vision of ourselves, and we are striving to lead a godly life, then no amount of injustice or misunderstanding directed at us should disturb our peace. If our vision of self is based upon fantasy, self-deception and the deception of others, then we will never know peace.
This self-examination needs honest effort, supernatural grace and the time necessary to reflect quietly and prayerfully on who we are and how we are living.
In the Christian life, this self-examination is never an end in itself. At the beginning of Lent two years ago, Pope Benedict XVI addressed this concept in the context of Christian conversion. He said: “To be converted is not a work for self-fulfillment because the human being is not the architect of his own eternal destiny. We did not make ourselves. Therefore, self-fulfillment is a contradiction and is also too little for us. We have a loftier destination. We might say that conversion consists precisely in not considering ourselves as our own ‘creators’ and thereby discovering the truth, for we are not the authors of ourselves” (Audience, 21 February 2007).
As we begin our Lenten prayer, let us begin with honest self-examination and an awareness that we will never completely know the “Christian language of the Gospel” in this life, so it is foolish to cease examining ourselves. In this examination, we ask for the grace to perceive who we really are and not a fantasy of our own creation.
Does conversion mean discouragement?
There is always the danger for an unhealthy self-examination to result in discouragement. That is not the point at all. The great Easter message is that Jesus has loved us, with all our faults and sins. Self-examination is not self-disparagement. It should rather lead to a desire to conform our outlook, our thoughts and our actions to the Gospel. After self-examination must come listening and after listening comes action.
During his recent visit to our country, Pope Benedict gave a wonderful homily in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. He used the Gothic structure of the cathedral itself to draw a lesson for the Christian life. He spoke of the fact that Gothic architecture is intricate and complex but always leads to a marvelous unity of structure. This is meant to symbolize the unity of God’s creation. He then drew a conclusion that is an excellent definition of what constant conversion should mean, as he posed the question: “Does this not bring to mind our need to see all things with the eyes of faith, and thus grasp them in their truest perspective, in the unity of God’s eternal plan?” (Homily, 18 April 2008). This kind of vision is what fuels the constant conversion of the Christian.
The call to constant conversion is not meant to discourage us, as we honestly face our failings. It is meant to be an ongoing act of love and faith as we seek to conform ourselves to the message of Jesus at every moment of our lives. We do this not out of fear but out of love and because God always sees the slightest movement of love, He sees our efforts and loves us for them in return. In this way, our relationship with Jesus is a full and living one, based on honesty and self-giving. It is interesting to note that this can also serve as the definition of a good marital relationship or healthy friendship.
Our dominant fault
The great spiritual writers speak of the “dominant fault.” This is the particular area of temptation that, while differing for each inspanidual, is a major source of temptation for that person. What is the dominant fault for one person may disturb another person very little. It is easy to become discouraged when we are confronted with this area of our lives. However, discouragement is not what Lent or the spirit of constant conversion is about.
We know from our human relationships that we can recognize a particular area of struggle in the life of someone we love. It may be due to an inherent human weakness. It may have its roots in a person’s upbringing. Whatever the source, it is challenging to both people in the relationship. If we see that person struggling with that particular weakness and we see progress in an area which we know is difficult, we are touched with admiration and love. In fact it may cause our love to grow deeper. If we, with all our imperfections, know how to recognize the struggles of another and stand in admiration before another’s success, how much more will our loving God know and love us more deeply because of our struggles?
As we enter another Lenten season, when we are called to dwell on the challenge of constant conversion, let us not be ashamed of our weaknesses. Let us recognize them and confront them with honesty. Then, with the help of God’s grace, we will turn them into acts of great love, which will be repaid by a loving God as only He can.
19 February 2009