Lent Circular Letter - 2014

It is Your Face that I Seek

It is the search for God that gives our Christian life its whole meaning. In this sense, ours is an angelic life insofar as we seek forever to behold the Face of our Father in heaven (cf. Mt 18, 10). The true Christian is someone who is not content with speaking of God in the third person, as though He were absent or distant from our conversations. Rather, with the awareness that "in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28), God is the One to Whom our conversation is oriented. Imitating the divine Wisdom, we are "filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence" (Prov 8:30).

During the Season of Lent we intensify in a specific way our attempt to delight in God's presence by a twofold means: first through voluntary renunciations which serve to help us turn away from creatures and secondly, an increase in prayer and the reception of the sacraments as a way of turning toward the Creator.

The twofold way

On the first Sunday of Lent the Church presents the Gospel in which Jesus is "led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (Mt 4:1). This sets an example for the first of the two means. God wants to lead us into the desert in order to speak tenderly to our hearts (cf. Hos 2:14). We cooperate by making sacrifices which have as their finality the removal of the unnecessary distractions and seductions of this passing age which keep us from our true purpose. However, it must always remain clear that we should never practice a soulless asceticism. Rather, our observance of self-denial, ideally, should arise from a spontaneous pursuit "of him whom our soul loves" (Song 3, 3). Our penances have little meaning if they are not somehow an expression of the yearning spoken of by the psalmist: "It is your face, Lord, that I seek. Hide not your face from me." (Ps 27:8).

On the second Sunday of Lent, the Church presents us with the Gospel of the Transfiguration of Christ. With this, we are shown that the struggle of this holy season comprises the toil of climbing Mount Tabor, in order to behold the divine glory radiating from the transfigured Christ. Encouraged by the prophetic promise "Your eyes will see the king in his beauty; they will behold a land that stretches afar" (Is 33:17) we are confident to persevere in our renunciations. "Looking to Jesus, the author and consummator of our faith, who, for the joy set before Him, sustained the Cross and despised the shame until He sat on the throne at God's right hand" (Heb 12:2) we too want to fix our eyes in meditation upon the radiance of Jesus until we become blinded to any disordered attraction to transient things.

The Presence of God

In the transfiguration of Christ, "a bright cloud overshadowed [the apostles] and a voice from the cloud said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.' When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe" (Mt 17:5-6).

The bright cloud is a manifestation of God's mysterious and glorious presence. This same cloud was found throughout the Old Testament and appears also in the Apocalypse. The luminous darkness of the radiant cloud into which Moses entered on Mount Sinai was afterwards to fill the first tabernacle that he set up in the desert as a dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant. Later Solomon's temple was filled with the same cloud. The shining cloud that led the Israelites through the desert should continue to guide the People of God as we pass through this world toward the Promised Land. As St. Paul says, our aspiration is that "we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord Who is the Spirit" (2 Cor 3, 18).

The triumph of Christ's great work of redemption has as its consequence that God's glory no longer fills only a temple in a specific place. Rather, now we can profess with confidence that, "the heaven and the earth are filled with Your glory." When Jacob awoke from his sleep in Bethel, he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven" (Gen 28:17). This same sense of awe can be sensed to every time and place within God's creation for everything has been rededicated by the eternal High Priest. In particular, this is realized through the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. But beyond this, it applies particularly to the living temple of our body. "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body" (1 Cor 6:19-20). Our faith in the glorious presence of God, even in the darkest and most seemingly despairing situations, is expressed especially by our praying the Sanctus in every circumstance.

In reference to the cloud of glory shining from the presence of Christ, the theologian Louis Bouyer explains:

It is only in revealing all its magnificence to us that this mystery also makes known its supreme force of attraction. God only begins to be known as the God of love where He is finally known as the Savior who dwells in light inaccessible. Grace, the revelation of which all the fragmentary revelations made to the prophets pointed—grace is indeed the "gift of God", of which Christ spoke to the Samaritan woman. And the magnificence of the gift of God is not only that it is a gift which God makes, but the gift by which God gives Himself. In it, the Inaccessible comes to us Himself. Therein the all-Pure chooses as His dwelling place us mere vessels of clay. Louis Bouyer, The Meaning of the Monastic Life, p. 67)

Reverence and Love

A twofold movement should arise from the contemplation of Christ's glory. The first is a profound sense of "fear and reverence for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:28-9). The manifestation of God's inestimable grandeur causes even the angels to veil their faces from its presence (Is 6:5). For this reason we strive to cultivate as a fundamental disposition in the Work of the Holy Angels a profound sense of reverence.

At the same time, the glory of Christ inspires an extraordinary desire, a yearning for communion as expressed in the psalm: "O God, You are my God, I seek You, my soul thirsts for You; my flesh faints for You, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have gazed upon You in the sanctuary, beholding Your power and glory." (Ps 63:1-2).

Purification through the dual impulse

The angel, in Blessed John Henry Newman's poem the Dream of Gerontius, strikingly describes how purgatory is the natural consequence following upon the vision of the beauty of the Divine Judge due to this same twofold impulse:

WHEN then—if such thy lot—thou seest thy Judge,
The sight of Him will kindle in thy heart,
All tender, gracious, reverential thoughts.
Thou wilt be sick with love, and yearn for Him,
And feel as though thou couldst but pity Him,
That one so sweet should e'er have placed Himself
At disadvantage such, as to be used
So vilely by a being so vile as thee.
There is a pleading in His pensive eyes
Will pierce thee to the quick, and trouble thee.
And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself; for, though
Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinned,
As never thou didst feel; and wilt desire
To slink away, and hide thee from His sight;
And yet wilt have a longing aye to dwell
Within the beauty of His countenance.
And these two pains, so counter and so keen,—
The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,—
Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.
(John Henry Newman, The Dream of Gerontius, 5th Phase)

The "purgatory" that is experienced during the season of Lent is, on one hand, the consequence of the struggle involved in the renunciation of things of the world which give us comfort and security. It is part of that which St. Paul refers to when he says: "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal" (2 Cor 4:17-18).

On the other hand, another more profound purification should result upon our contemplation of the face of the "fairest of the children of men" (Ps 45:2) which, for motives of divine love, became the face of Him who "had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces" (Is 53:2-3). We must pray sincerely and continually for the grace to "behold the man" Whom Pilate exposed to the Jews on Good Friday morning. Gazing upon the man of sorrows with loving contrition and recognizing in Him the fount of the incomparable beauty of God's love, we should begin to experience a purgatory here on earth. Once more, the words of the angel from the Dream of Gerontius expresses this sense of purification. In this passage, the angel describes what happens when the soul entrusted to his care runs to the beauty of Jesus the Judge:

The eager spirit has darted from my hold,
And, with the intemperate energy of love,
Flies to the dear feet of Emmanuel;
But, ere it reached them, the keen sanctity,
Which with its effluence, like a glory, clothes
And circles round the Crucified, has seized,
And scorched, and shrivelled it; and now it lies
Passive and still before the awful Throne.
O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe,
Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God.
(John Henry Newman, The Dream of Gerontius, 6th Phase)

Let us ask our own Guardian Angel to assist us in making good use of the special graces of the holy season of Lent, so that the eyes of our mind be purified to behold joyfully our heavenly King in all His beauty.

Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC