Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
Psalm 50;3-4, 12-13, 18-19
I can’t resist adding a word about this portrait of Saint Mary of Egypt by Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, also known as Lo Spagnoletto. Ribera came to Naples in search of Caravaggio in 1609, but Caravaggio had just died. Ribera’s Mary of Egypt is emaciated and hollow-cheeked. Her once voluptuous body is wrinkled and weatherbeaten. She stands in prayer against the landscape of her conversion: the desert. There is even a certain resemblance between the saint and the skull on the ledge in front of her. The broken loaf of bread is a symbol of the Word of God, recalling the saying of Our Lord in the desert: “Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).
Lent is supposed to be unsettling. Lent is supposed to disrupt our routines. Lent is about entering into another rhythm of life, a rhythm different from the one by which we ordinarily organize our lives. The unwillingness to be disturbed, to make a change, even a very little one, in what has become customary reveals an underlying resistance to the grace of conversion.
Newman speaks of indolence. Indolence is a state of sluggishness; it is the habit of seeking to avoid exertion. The indolent person says, “I am quite comfortable with things as they are, thank you. I have neither the desire nor the need to change my routines, to displace myself, or to do anything differently from the way I have always done it.” Indolence is incompatible with Lent.
The opposite of indolence is alacrity — a very Benedictine virtue — an eager willingness to get up and get moving. The dictionary defines alacrity as a “cheerful readiness, promptness, or willingness.” When Saint Benedict treats of Lenten penances in Chapter Forty-Nine of the Rule, he says that they are to be offered “spontaneously in the joy of the Holy Spirit.” There is in this something of the quickfooted and swift obedience of Chapter Five of the Rule, an obedience that brooks no delays.
Sackcloth and Ashes
In today’s gospel Our Lord gives us two examples of alacrity in penitence: that of the Ninevites and that of the Queen of Sheba. The Ninevites wasted no time in responding to Jonah’s preaching. He had gone but a day’s journey into the city, preaching repentance, when the people of Nineveh believed God. “They proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jon 4:5).
Jonah’s message completely disrupted things as they were. Word of it reached the ears of the king. “He arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jon 4:6). A dramatic departure from routine! The king proclaimed a fast affecting not only the people of the city, but even their beasts, their herds, and their flocks. The Ninevites are to put on sackcloth, but so too are their beasts. The image of a sheep, a goat, or a cow wearing sackcloth is almost too amusing; clearly it signifies a departure from business as usual. The extraordinary thing is that this public penitence is done with alacrity, in prompt obedience to Jonah’s preaching. Nothing is said of a town meeting to discuss and decide what response might be appropriate. Jonah’s message is pressing and it is urgent that the people of Nineveh waste no time in talk, lest the judgment of God overtake them.
Change of Habit
Think for a moment of the social and economic effects of this very public change of behaviour. Nothing is as it was before. Shopkeepers cry mightily to God in their deserted shops; the king sits in ashes; there is nothing in the stewpot, no fragrance of bread baking, none of the reassuring sights and sounds of ordinary life. Everyone from the greatest to the least feels hunger. In the streets one hears the braying of donkeys and the bleating of sheep. People and beasts even look different; putting on sackcloth is, both literally and figuratively, a change of habit. The Ninevites oblige me to admit that if Lent has not yet disrupted my life and changed my routines, I have not yet begun to observe it.
The Queen of Sheba
The second example of alacrity given us by Jesus is that of the Queen of Sheba. Her change in routine is enormous. She is anything but indolent. Eager to “hear the wisdom of Solomon” (Lk 11:31), she sets out on a long and difficult journey, leaving behind the comfort and security of things familiar. “At the judgment,” says Jesus, “the queen of the South will arise with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold something greater than Solomon is here” (Lk 11:31).
Seven Days Into Lent
Concretely, we are obliged today to ask ourselves, after seven days of Lenten observance, to what extent we have allowed our little routines to be unsettled and changed. If Lent has not disrupted my life — literally, caused a break in things as they are and have been — I have not yet entered into its grace. Lent is a disruptive grace. Disruptive? One may find the word harsh: to disrupt means to break apart. And yet, there is no avoiding it: the healing of the heart begins in its being broken apart. Broken routines can be the first step in owning the brokenness of our hearts and in bringing them before God in a penitence that is not just theoretical but real. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn” (Ps 50:17).