Always Lent... For Now.
This past Tuesday was the feast of St. Francis of Paola. This is a saint I’ve never paid any attention to before this week. He’s certainly not one of those famous saints that even non-Catholics know about, and since this Francis was also a Franciscan and thus follower of the great
St. Francis of Assisi, it’s even easier to ignore him—how many saints named “Francis” am I supposed to keep track of? With so many saints to learn, it’s enough, it seems, to start with the major ones, since there are already so many of them!
But over the last year I’ve been reading in my daily holy hour from a book called Saints of the Roman Calendar, by Enzo Lodi. In the course of this reading I’ve been drawn to new figures, who, although they’ll likely never become very famous, each have something important to contribute to our knowledge of Christianity. In reading about Francis of Paola I came across a remarkable thing: “The life of this miracle-working and austere hermit, who vowed to observe the Lenten fast throughout the entire year, was something truly extraordinary in a society that was so averse to any ascetical practices.” Aha, a society which didn’t like to practice penance. Francis must have lived in modern times, right? Actually, Francis lived in the 15th century, over five-hundred years ago. We like to think that “in the old days” people were much more Catholic than they are now. But the 15th century was not unlike ours, for compared to the “ancient times” of early Christianity, that century was rather “modern.” The faith of many had grown cold, and Christianity was perhaps for most nothing more than a duty which one tried to carry out with the very minimum of observances: Mass attendance on Sunday, a brief visit to the Sacrament of Confession at most once per year. A man like Francis of Paola must have seemed strange, even mentally unstable, to such a worldly society as 15th century Europe.
What does it mean, that Francis lived as if it was always Lent? Clearly it isn’t always Lent! Sometimes it’s Christmas, and certainly it is sometimes Easter—there are times when we should be feasting, not fasting. Perhaps Francis had gotten things wrong, and didn’t really understand that Christianity isn’t about “always fasting”, that sometimes you have to enjoy yourself and relax and have a good time. I’d like to argue that Francis didn’t “have it wrong” after all.
It’s true that we should observe the feast seasons as well as the fasting and abstinence seasons, and of course it is true that we should sometimes relax and have a good time (Catholics are especially good at this!). But the fact is that—if one really pays attention to the liturgical calendar—these seasons of fasting and feasting are never just all one or the all other: there are penitential days in every festal season, and festal days in every penitential season. We need saints like Francis of Paola to remind us of the feast within the fast, and the fast within the feast. In this world, in this age in which we live, there is feast and fast. Just as we solace ourselves during a hard winter that spring is on its way, we also sober ourselves during a long and beautiful summer that winter, too, is coming. To do anything less would be to lie to ourselves about this present reality. To forget the coming of spring would be to fall into despair. But to forget also the imminent arrival of winter during an Indian Summer would be to fall into a dangerous complacency that would lead us to be unprepared for the hard times which are always ahead of us.
Francis of Paola reminds us that our besetting sin in this world is not austerity and “over-doing it” with respect to penance, but quite the opposite: we are always tempted to live as if this world is all there is, and to do our best to make ourselves as comfortable in it is possible. In our affluent society it is quite possible indeed to make ourselves all-too-snug in this world. To do so is not only to leave ourselves unprepared for hard times to come, but in the end, unprepared for the next world, the world of the rule of God, Heaven.
Penance is, above all, a preparation for Heaven. We must always remember, as St. John wrote, that “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). But when we say “Heaven” we don’t mean “and not the world”. Recall that Christ has taught us that “there will be a new earth” as well (Rev 21:1). Heaven will include this world, although not as we now know it. This world will be transformed, brought to perfection in Christ. So, while we desire the life of God we also desire the God-transformed life of this world as well. It’s not, in the end, one or the other.
The trouble is that we only know “the world” as it presently exists, in its fallen state. Our present world contains goods and pleasures, yes. But in themselves they are not dominant. Rather, there is something spoiled about this world, something poisoned in it. Mainly, that spoiled, poisoned thing is us—human beings. We are the ones who are fallen. And thus we spoil everything we touch in this world if it is not first given over to God, if we are not first given over to God. If we spend our lives cultivating desire for this world as we now know it, we will not be prepared for the next, but not because this world is bad, but because we are not yet sufficiently good to make of this world what it should be for us. In this age, life lived just “for the world” cannot succeed. We would be devoting ourselves not to that which is eternal, but to that which is dying. If there is one thing that the Christian should know about how to live well in this world, it is this: the one who lives for God will have the world as well. The one who lives for the world will lose both God and the world.
This is why we need saints like Francis of Paola. They remind us that we are not yet finished, that this fallen world is not all there is, that we are not yet fit to live either in Heaven or in this world. They remind us to wait, and to prepare ourselves for the transformation that is yet to arrive. This is why we must know that in some true sense it is “always Lent….for now.” For in Lent I say to myself “this present world is not my final home. I prepare for a new world by taking some measure of distance from this one.” That is the meaning of Lent, and the meaning of being a Christian. Paradoxically, if I live this way, I’ll become more good for the world and the world will become more good for me.
- Fr. Hagan