“We are not converted only once in our lives but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ.” —Thomas Merton
“What are you giving up for Lent?” This long-established custom of giving up treats, chocolates, caffeinated or sugary beverages, alcohol, or tobacco is perhaps the way we most often think of Lenten discipline. And it makes good conversation in casual situations. But we know it is surface stuff. Choosing to give up something good for something a bit less is a play-it-safe strategy. Something tells us there is more to spiritual transformation than this. We suspect that playing it safe is not what Christ lived and died for.
Thomas Merton’s view, that we must undergo a series of large and small inner revolutions, is a truer picture of Christian transformation. When we choose some exercise for Lent, daily worship, daily prayer, abstinence from one thing or another, it is not so much the practice that transforms us. It is our willingness to change. And Merton says the process is endless. It’s not about getting there, it’s about being on the way.
Lent is our chance for a fresh start, a new page. We consciously let down our defenses against the grace of God. We admit to ourselves our need for improvement. We notice how hopeless we are. We tell God we’re doing our best but we wish we could do better. We put ourselves in God’s hands. That is what Jesus does when he goes into the desert. He puts himself completely in God’s hands.
In Matthew’s Gospel we read: Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. (My first thought: don’t try this at home.) By exposing himself to hunger Jesus opens himself up to assaults from the Devil. But he isn’t just performing daredevil stunts. He makes a deliberate surrender of the will, a spiritual exercise. Jesus is placing himself in the Father’s hands.
The time Jesus spends in the wilderness is a time of preparation. It is a kind of training. Jesus has a larger mission to fulfill, a ministry, a life’s work. He is preparing himself for a larger call. When we go into the wilderness with Jesus our motive is similar, surrendering ourselves as a kind of preparation.
But how can we compare our little Lents to the walk Jesus takes in the wilderness? Of course the gap is huge between our holiness and his. We can hardly say our own names in his presence. But Jesus doesn’t notice this gap, or he seems to overlook it.
The huge divide between our lives and his is a gap he is constantly closing. He wants us to come into the wilderness with him, if only just to observe at first. “Watch how I do this,” he seems to be saying. “Notice these steps, this maneuver.” Practice, he is telling us. Practice, and you’ll improve, without even knowing it. Practice.
One thing we can learn from Jesus in the desert is to fortify ourselves with God’s word. When the Devil tries to goad him into turning stones to bread, as a kind of power play, Jesus answers with words from Deuteronomy, Scriptures he knows by heart: It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The Devil wants him to break his fast. More important, he wants to weaken Jesus’ allegiance.
What can we learn from just this little visit with Jesus in the wilderness? From watching him resist the Evil One?
We know, by watching Jesus, that emptiness is the beginning of holiness.
We know that we are blessed when we hunger and thirst for righteousness. We know we will be filled.
We walk with Jesus to be purified. We walk with him to be fortified. Nourished by sacrament and word, we walk through desert places more easily. We learn to deal with our own gaps, our lapses. We find that we can tolerate our hunger and our thirst.
We are converted not only once in our lives but many times. And the conversion is little by little. Sometimes it is as imperceptible as grass growing. But Lent gives us a time to move the process along. Intentionally. By small surrenders.
Merton says we “may have the generosity to undergo one or two such upheavals, (but) we cannot face the necessity of further and greater rendings of our inner self. . . .”
Merton says we cannot. But I think he knows we can. That is how our holiness grows, by small surrenders, without which we cannot finally become free. Learn More.