Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Dante Alighieri penned these opening lines as a banished man in his forty-third year. Exiled from his native Florence in the middle of his life, Dante was lost and could not find his way. His life lacked an aim, and he therefore composed a poem about man’s final end. One of the greatest works ever written, The Divine Comedy is also one of the greatest things to come from a mid-life crisis.
As Lenten penitents, we find ourselves in exile at our own midpoint. This Wednesday, our journey toward Easter Sunday is half over. In these forty days, the Church calls us to participate in Christ’s time in the desert, which was foreshadowed in the Exodus of Israel. This midpoint can serve as a time to assess our observance over these past weeks and our hope for the coming weeks. What prayer, fasting, and almsgiving did we set out to do? Have we been faithful? Are we still desiring to accomplish them? What was our hope in accomplishing them?
You are not alone if you set out on Ash Wednesday with unchecked zeal and have now found yourself capitulating to fleshy weakness—substituting black tea for coffee, tepid baths for cold showers, or resetting the alarm instead of hitting the snooze button. If infractions begin to mount, it is easy to fixate and panic. Yet whatever the relaxation may be, it is not cause for crisis. Lenten penances are not ends in themselves. Accomplishing self-appointed goals does not, in and of itself, constitute success. In fact, over-emphasizing one’s self-determination can have serious consequences. An old boss of mine once shared that his evangelical pastor fasted for forty days during Lent, taking only bread and liquids. The man spent Easter in bed with an IV drip. Easter is not about that. That Sunday should find us rejoicing in the Lord, not crowning ourselves with laurels.
Though one can approach penance with excessive severity, one can also practice defective laxity. While it can be tempting to steer away from teeth-gritting rigorism, shirking the struggle of fasting and penitential prayer is not the proper course either. We can give into the temptation to turn the stone of our penance into the bread of indulgence. In a sense, however, we should feel the grit of ashes on our foreheads throughout Lent. Bingeing and self-indulgence today would be akin to buying that midlife-crisis sports car. It is not going to take you where you really need to go.
Midway upon our Lenten journey, if we have found ourselves lost in the dark forest of wantonness, we can find the straightforward path as Dante did. In this, we need to be mindful of our destiny. We are a people incapable of saving ourselves, and the Church’s call to detachment and penance is meant to awaken that truth. Failing in observance can teach self-knowledge. Our weakness and lack of humility come to light when we find we cannot by our own natural powers accomplish the goals we had set. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
To be faithful and terrible at Lent serves to show us how victory can come from defeat, how greatness can come from littleness. Setting a penance on Ash Wednesday and face-planting three weeks later (if not sooner) is humiliating. Even in small matters, our lives stand in much need of help—divine help. If a failure causes one to grow in humility and desire for God’s grace, out of something bad arises something good: for instance, prayer. O God, make haste to my rescue, Lord, come to my aid (Ps 70).
Thanks be to God, our blunders usually do not turn into disaster. Jesus took on our humanity to accomplish what we could not, and He continues to accomplish it this day in us. That is why the Church prays:
In all we do let us show that we are the servants of God by patient endurance and fasting, arming ourselves with integrity and relying on his power.
By His power, Christ’s fasting in the desert does not remain fixed in history. Rather, His sacrifice continues in the Church today. His sacrifice enables our sacrifice, moved by His grace. Should we fail, we can meet it with humility and ask Jesus to make up for what we lack. In this way, even our blunders can redound to the glory of God. Our stumbles can mysteriously move us toward our end, union with God. At this midpoint, if we look around and see the Truth, we find ourselves living a Divine Comedy.
Image: William Blake, Illustration to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell