Our Need for Lent
Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
15 February 2012
The Lord’s words to Cain never quite become silent. They never leave, and they remind me, as they linger, of the need we have of using every means possible to prefer the good and to leave the evil alone: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).
The choice is ours, of course, whether we do well or do not do well, or whether we master sin or permit sin to master us. The desire to defeat our enemies as much as anything I know points to our need for Lent—our need to repent and to return to the Lord.
Defeating our enemies clearly belongs to the category of not doing well and letting sin become our master. As long as we’re clear on that, some room may remain to have a little fun.
We can plunge right in, the deep water being no deterrent. There are at least three means, three natural means, lurking at the door to defeat our enemies. Surely I am not the first to disclose them to you.
Number 1. We can defeat our enemies by having more money than they do. This works in most all cases unless the enemies are truly conformed to Christ. If they are so conformed, they will not care one whit about how much money either of us has. But if they are not conformed to Christ, then having more money usually means Game, Set, and Match; Walk-Off Home Run; and See Ya Later. If the enemy is really dense, however, some of that extra money will just have to be ostentatiously displayed in a new Jaguar, a Chanel suit, a mansion on San Francisco Bay, or a Brazilian Blow-out just to get past that very density. Some blissfully benighted people, however, just don’t know when they’ve been defeated. They belong in Special Cases—for some other time.
Number 2. We can defeat our enemies by weighing less than they do. This is much more subtle that having more money, but you can see how the subtlety works to your advantage. You know how most all of us look so envyingly at those thin-as-sticks models in the magazines and movies, how glamorously chic and supply flexible they are, capable of bending to every new idea and situation that confronts them. Sometimes I wish even I were like that!
Numbers 1 and 2 lurk just beneath the surface of Wallis Simpson’s famous saying, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” And she knew what she was talking about. How else, do you think, she won the struggle for the man who would be Edward VIII, how he preferred her to being king of the United Kingdom and the dominions of Canada, and Emperor of India, leaving at Christmas in 1936 just as war lurked around the corner? Without that kind of wisdom she could never ever have become The Duchess of Windsor leaving divorced if doughty Mrs. Simpson behind in Baltimore, a thoroughly unworthy avatar.
Number 3. Now this one cuts really close to the bone and perhaps is more effective than its predecessors. We can defeat our enemies by having less anxiety than they do. This really works. You will win every argument, negotiation, race for the check-out counter, and important conversation simply by having nerves that haven’t been excited to be anything more than tepid. In fact, according to some suspect sources, intrepid comes from tepid. You can achieve low anxiety by confronting yourself and your sins, by psychotherapy, by studying your family’s genogram and your functioning within your several families or organizations, and by fasting and praying, but not by the usual mind-numbing exercises, texting, blogging, handicapping sporting events, distinguishing bond tranches, and acrostics.
The first three, as I said, are natural means; they use the natural world to gain a worldly victory. The fourth, as I said, is supernatural and is commended. But even it can be misused, so be careful. Sin, as ever, lurks at the door.
Number 4. We can defeat our enemies by loving them as Christ loves them (and us). Really loving our enemies throws this whole competition into the next world; that is why we have to be so careful. But also, genuinely loving our enemies cannot be faked. You really can’t do it if you can’t do it.
It’s very much like turning the other cheek. You really can’t do it if very much of it is about you or your feelings. You can only do it if most all of it is about them and whether they begin to see where they are and where they’re called to be.
Maybe an example would be of help. Examples of loving one’s enemies are rare, as rare as sainthood. My favorite is the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne whose deaths are so dramatically memorialized in the final scene of Francis Poulenc’s The Dialogues of the Carmelites (1956). On 17 July 1794 sixteen nuns suffered the guillotine at the Place du Trône Renversé, now the Place de la Nation. Their only crime was their religious profession. The “saving” Revolution had turned into a Reign of Terror more tyrannical than its predecessor, as the high ideals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité morphed into the chronic anxiety of a Parisian mob. We have trouble, I suspect, of coming to terms with authentic victims of progress.
Historically, the Carmelites’ victory is thorough and not of this world—they seem to have died, but they join the Lord Jesus in genuinely loving their enemies. From the novice to the prioress, they knelt, sang the Veni Creator, and renewed their baptismal and religious vows. Their victory participates in the only victory that matters in the end, the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, the final destination of Lent whose strictures guide and keep us in the way that leads to that victory. Lord I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.