Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The great English writer and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Catholic Church and Conversion “The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” He continued “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” He understood the human condition in a profound way. We human beings, though we can often be right about things, do not need to be told when we are right. We generally think we are right. But honest reflection helps us to see that we do not always have the right perspective, and having been told the truth by someone (or something) else, allows us to see, in hindsight, that something needs to change in our lives. Based on his own conversion experience, Chesterton could write “the convert is profoundly affected by the fact that, even when he did not see the reason, he lived to see that it was reasonable.”
As a seminarian, I knew everything and was always right. Until I wasn’t. Our practice in the seminary was to sing the entrance antiphon and the communion antiphon at Mass. Only on rare occasions were the antiphons substituted in favor of a hymn. I remember not liking it and thinking that naturally, my taste and past experience must be right. Imagine my discomfort and unhappiness when the priest responsible for our formation in the liturgy very kindly and gently showed me the Church’s documents relating to liturgical music. He showed me what the Church calls for, and the order of preference (hymns are in fourth place on the list of things to be sung during the entrance and during communion, and do not appear in the list of things to do at the end of Mass, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal). He taught me how to read and understand an instructional document given by the Church. And I hated it. At first.
Chesterton also wrote “Any truth that a man fears will be good for his soul.” I was uncomfortable with the idea of a musical practice with which I was unfamiliar. But the more I read, the more I studied, the more I fought, argued, and disagreed with this priest (and to this day I hold on to some of those disagreements!), I found my heart and mind opening. I began to understand that the chanting of an antiphon accompanied by texts from the Psalms placed our Catholic worship in the same tradition of the Jewish people before us, allowing us to pray with the very words that Jesus Himself would have prayed with the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph as a child and with the Apostles in His later years. I began to appreciate the simplicity of the instruction the Church gives us so that we can celebrate the sacred liturgy reverently and well. I found myself filled with regret that in my lifetime, none of the priests I knew or parishes I had attended had ever shared these ideas with me or followed these instructions carefully. And I came to understand that when the Church teaches, whether it be a liturgical matter, a disciplinary matter, a moral matter, or a theological matter, if I was able to find in my heart the humility to put aside my preconceived notions and trust that someone somewhere knew more than me, I might find courage to believe.
The season of Lent is an invitation to exactly that humility. By prayer, fasting, and almsgiving we are, as a community of faith, called to set aside our preferences and preconceived ideas. We confront, through our acts of penance, the inconvenient truth that we are not God. In our hunger and sacrifice, we will find that we are truly in need of grace and divine assistance at every moment. The act of self-denial opens our mind and heart to the full depth and breadth of what God desires for us. “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid,” G.K. Chesterton wrote. These forty days of mortification represent an opportunity to open our minds to that the truth of the Gospel, the truth taught by the Church, the truth communicated to the human heart by means of the sacraments. We are invited in this season to open our minds, that they may be closed on the solid foundation of Christ and His Church. And as we close our hearts and minds on the solidity of the Church’s teaching, we will find them continually opened anew to deeper learning, to profound spiritual reflection, to a growing sense of that which we do not yet know. May this holy season help us to know more, to embrace the challenge of the truth, and to appreciate the beauty of being formed in the church of Jesus Christ.