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Entering Deeper into Lent with Just A Little Talk

We all have something in life we struggle with. Things that we find difficult to deal with, and don’t really know where to begin addressing them. This could be something personal or relational. Maybe it is a vice we just can’t seem to shake off, a relationship that has become estranged, the loss of a loved one, etc. We may try to brush these pain points aside and keep moving forward in life, simply gritting and bearing it, but the pain never really goes away. These struggles continue to make their regrets known and their sorrows felt. During the Season of Lent, we are asked to confront the personal, relational and societal struggles and shortcomings of our lives in light of the self-sacrificing and life-giving love of the Son of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.

I wrote Just A Little Talk several years ago when I was reflecting on a tragedy in my own life that touched nearly every single aspect of my existence as I knew it up until then. By the grace of God working through many good people around me, I eventually came to understand that the only source of real healing was the saving love of Jesus Christ. This is reflected in the structure of Just A Little Talk.

Most of its chapters revolve around one of the traditional stations of the cross. And so, while the book can be read any time of the year, it is especially appropriate for Lent. It was written with the hope that anyone struggling could place his or herself in Dominic’s shoes, bring their struggles, fears, and desires to Jesus and find new life in His loving embrace. This is precisely the meaning of the main character’s name. “Dominic” means, “of the Lord.” And we become of the Lord by leaving all behind and following him. This is to become his disciple (see Matthew 19:27 & Luke 18:28). Thus, what becomes immediately apparent is that to be “of the Lord” is to embark on a journey, a journey with a definite trajectory, up Calvary. As we make this journey, we are to do as Christ does. Accordingly, immediately after foretelling His Passion, death and Resurrection, Our Lord tells His disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Therefore, if we are to live a life of Christian discipleship, there is no more fitting object of contemplation than Our Lord’s Passion. This is precisely what the Stations of the Cross offer us.

It is important to note here that the act of contemplation facilitated by praying the Stations of the Cross does not imply a mere act of intellect, but a true participation in the events being recalled. In other words, to pray the Stations of the Cross is to participate in Our Lord’s journey up Calvary in a manner analogous to what takes place in the Eucharistic Liturgy. Thus, the intention of the person praying the Stations of the Cross to participatorily imitate the journey of Christ up Calvary is of the utmost importance. The journey must be freely made, and, as far as possible, fully informed. This is important for two reasons.

To be sure, there is some degree of efficacy in praying the Stations of the Cross as a simple remembering of the action undertaken by Christ on our behalf, of how He loved us “to the end” (John 13:1). Nevertheless, Christ is not satisfied by our mere acknowledgement of His saving Love for us. Rather, He came not simply to show His Love for us, but that we might have life to the full (John 10:10). Life to the full is found only in one place for the human person created in imago Dei, by participating in the life of the God Who Is Love (1 John 4:8). This is why the intention to participatorily imitate the Passion of Christ in praying the Stations of the Cross is of the utmost importance. Authentic love is never unthinkingly mechanical. Rather, authentic love is free and intentional. This is where the novel comes into play.

Throughout the novel Dominic is invited to journey further up the road to Calvary, and each time the invitation requires a response: Will he continue to follow or not? As the reader, you too are asked to make that same decision: Will you continue to follow or not? What makes the decision difficult is the reason why we see Dominic hesitate to continue at times throughout the novel. To move forward means confronting one’s brokenness. It is to, as St. Paul tells us, to put the old self behind us and put on the new man. What does this entail? Paul doesn’t leave us guessing.

For surely you have heard about [Christ] and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:21-24).

In Romans, St. Paul along similar lines, though in more theological language, he writes:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (Romans 6:5-8).

Notice how the two passages parallel one another, and if read in light of one another what we are being told is that to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection is a very practical, everyday matter. It works itself out in the seemingly mundane matters of everyday life, day to day, in accordance with Our Lord’s call to take up our cross daily and follow Him. The transfiguration, if you will, takes place by leaving the “old self” behind, riddled with the diseases of sin and vice of innumerable kinds and to varying degrees, denoted by Paul as the “lusts” of the flesh above. What are these lusts? Of course, the vice of the same name comes to mind and is surely indicated here. Yet, the lusts of the old self are more all-encompassing, and can be properly summarized by St. John’s threefold concupiscence: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life (1 John 2:16).

If we take these in order, we can see how the seven deadly sins are contained in these three. Lust of the flesh is fairly straightforward and includes lust and gluttony, those things that denote an inordinate love for those things which satisfy the desires of the body. Lust of the eyes is a bit more complicated in some respects. It includes the vice of greed, which inordinately desires material goods one does not possess. The vice of sloth should also be included here, but understood in a more encompassing way to consist not only of a listlessness or torpor with regard to spiritual goods, but also of a state of distraction or restlessness, which in turn, leaves us lacking the attention necessary to pursue spiritual goods (see e.g., Evagrius of Pontus, Praktikos, P.12; Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 35.4, ad. 3). Finally, we come to the most dangerous of the deadly gang of seven contained in the component of pride of life. Included here, of course, is the vice of pride. If the vice is understood along the lines of the Latin superbia, pride is an inflated sense of self that regards oneself as above (super) life (bios). Put simply, it is to put oneself in the place of God in one’s life. This self-idolization gives birth to the last two deadly sins of wrath (which seeks vengeance on those who have done us wrong—truly or only perceived), and avarice (which desires the things which others have, not only so as to have those things, but in such a way that those who currently have them no longer do).

These seven are a formidable force in our lives. Vanquishing them in the soul is difficult depending on the degree to which we have allowed them to take root within us and, more importantly, because they are central to what we perceive as our very selves. Thus, like the man in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, we would rather live with them, than destroy them (The Great Divorce, 106). This is why leaving the old self behind is excruciating (pain from the cross), because we experience it as a death of the self. Yet this is precisely what Paul exhorts us to do when he speaks of the old self having been crucified with Christ. Of course, of our own accord this is impossible. But Our Lord tells us, with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26), for we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13), whose “divine power (divinae virtutis suae) has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4). Notice the same movement mentioned by Paul above echoed here, this time couched in the tension between “lust” and “divine virtue.” It is this divine virtue, which can only be had by participating in the life of Christ Who is the virtue and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), which enables us to leave the old man behind and put on the new man, Jesus Christ, as we participatorily imitate His journey up Calvary.

So, where do we start? What virtues are we looking to exercise and how can Just a Little Talk help. Well, for starters, to join Dominic on this journey demands doing the same kind of work we see Dominic doing at the beginning of the book. There, in the church, he is confronted with his true brokenness, his anger, confusion, his acknowledgement that he’s not even sure if he knows who he is anymore. This is the work of the virtue of humility. Humility comes from the Latin humus, which means earth or soil. Whereas pride fosters self-deception, leading to an inflated and delusional sense of self, humility allows us to see ourselves as we truly are, including those parts of us that are broken. I would suggest doing a really thorough examination of conscience here. Take some time in prayer to discern which vices are keeping you from participating most fully in the life of Christ. Perhaps an addiction that would require an increase in the virtue of temperance, or a disordered relationship that demands the virtue of justice, or a seeking after the goods of the world (wealth, pleasure, power, etc.) that demands better decision making and the help of the virtue of prudence, or a fear that must be overcome and demands the virtue of fortitude. No matter what issue you choose to focus on, it will be apparent as you make your journey that all of these virtues are required to follow Christ up Calvary.

Time and again you will be asked to put prudence to work in choosing to leave the old self behind and follow Christ. And, as you travel with Dominic, you will have time to think about the relationships in your life, both positive and negative, with yourself, others and God, which is the area of justice. Amidst all of this contemplation, you will see what is preventing you from giving yourself totally to God, the work of temperance, and be asked to move forward even in spite of the pain and difficulty of leaving the old self behind, the work of fortitude. All the while, you will have the face of Christ before you, you will enter more deeply into the emotions He experienced, the fear He conquered, the kindness He showed to those kind and unkind to Him, and ultimately the mercy that compelled Him to love you to the end (John 13:1). By contemplating Christ and by imitating the greatest love that the world has ever and will ever witness, you will be drawn further into the eternal embrace of the Love that once created you, and in Christ, re-creates you.

And here is the true Beauty and magnificence of this whole journey. For, in following Christ up Calvary, you not only imitate the love that manifests itself in time through the sacrifice of the Cross, but the Love that is perfectly exchanged from eternity among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In short, by participatorily imitating Christ on the Way of the Cross, you begin right here and now to share in the eternal embrace of God, and thereby, as St. Paul says, by God’s grace, work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). This is the hope of Just a Little Talk, that in some way, however small, it can become a providential tool of grace in your life by pointing to and helping you meditate on the life of Christ, whose Love comes to make all things new (Revelation 21:5), including you, and through you, the world around you.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

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