A King, a Prophet and a Priest

No, they didn't walk into a bar.  They just made me think.

Tomorrow is the first of 11 days when I will be at church every evening for several hours.  There are a few days when I will practically wake up and fall asleep there.  In short, Lent is coming to an end.  And as you can probably tell from my sadly-neglected blog, it's been harder and harder in the last few weeks to come up with something to say.

Lent is a time of growth – it involves taking a hard look at yourself and making some changes, throwing out things to which you're attached and clinging to what is true and good.  It's a time of prayer, thought, and sacrifice, and those things aren't very easy or entertaining to write about.  It’s a time of testing, as I can always count on a major catastrophe or two to send me reeling, and one in particular has kept that promise this year.

But all this has been good for me in countless ways.  More than “good for me;” I’ve actually felt blessed by it.  Being sustained by grace, day after day, is a rare and precious experience. I marvel at the complexity of this message of hope I’m about to share, one that spanned many days and was borne by a diverse cast of characters. Yet it was obviously intended for me – it’s what I needed to hear, what I needed to learn.

From a king: “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.”  I’m slowly working my way through the Old Testament on CD, and I realized last week that I hadn’t read Ecclesiastes since college.  It’s an amazing story of a king who had all the world had to offer, yet realized how worthless it all was without some central meaning.

Why do we flee sorrow?  Why do we tell each other to smile, put on a brave face, project the appearance of success?  Pain is such a crucial, beautiful, beneficial part of life.  As I read the rough drafts of my students’ term papers last week, I was stuck by how many of the world’s most formidable literary talents had lives that were wracked by sorrow: illness, rejection, guilt, struggles, death.  To a person, these writers turned their sorrows into keenly incisive works that speak plainly of the human experience.  This is why literature, and all of art, is so moving to us.  We are fallen.  It’s a fallen world.

From a prophet: “[Food] will taste so much deeper, more intense.  Everything will feel that way for awhile.  You’ll feel more alive.  You should probably try to hang onto that feeling for as long as you can.  It’s a gift.”  It might be a bit of a stretch to call a fictional character a prophet, but I think that’s his closest title.  I heard this while watching The Mentalist, a formulaic detective drama that for some reason is awfully compelling.  I am mainly drawn to the title character, a man who has undergone a traumatic loss and is consumed with a desire for revenge, coupled with an unbearable grief that he largely hides from those around him.  I call him a prophet because he is able to understand others at a level far beyond ordinary humans, but the sad irony is that he isn’t able to understand himself – or isn’t willing to.

In this situation, he is speaking to a girl who has just lost her mother.  I love the simplicity of his speech, and the fact that he doesn’t pull punches with her, telling her it will be all right or her mother is in a better place – but also doesn’t apologize for what he can’t control.  Having been through an even worse experience himself, he is serenely circumspect – seeing everything and taking this experience for what it’s worth.  Her mother is dead.  This experience will change her.  The change could be a good thing.

From a priest: Man’s punishments from the Fall were really second chances for humans to restore communion with God. We work the earth in toil, but we enjoy the fruits of our labors. We bring forth children in pain, but we still desire each other.  We have knowledge of pain, but also knowledge of a source of healing.

That’s a paraphrase from the Lenten retreat I attended last weekend with Fr. Theodore Dorrance; I vowed I would not take notes during this retreat, since I never re-read them anyway and I felt I could listen more deeply if I wasn’t concentrating on writing everything down.  But I didn’t need to write it to remember the impact of what he said.  What an illumination!  Even our greatest punishment – what makes us uniquely human, our suffering and alienation – can be viewed as a gift.  If we were self-sufficient, we wouldn’t need God.  I rejoice in my infirmities as a means for acquiring even greater healing.

Lent draws to a close.  It was a good Lent, if only for these three small things – things that have helped me to see clearly, to be stretched, to cut away the excess and feel freer from the world.