A dear friend once wrote to me a phrase that I have never forgotten. It has remained with me as a question for many years, and slowly I am starting to make sense of it. The sentence went like this: “We have to give thanks to Our Lord for all that he gives us, but also for all that he takes away.” It is a strong affirmation, but if we reflect on our experience, we can intuit its truth. Our thoughts go directly to the Gospel, where we see Jesus who gives much of – in fact all of – Himself, “taking away” the evil from peoples’ lives: the sicknesses, the possessions, their individualism.
There are, however, a few episodes in the Gospel in which Jesus gives Himself, a bit paradoxically, through a direct and tough refusal. Many times, in fact, Jesus doesn’t satisfy the prayers of people, or, for lack of a better word, the requests that they make of Him. “Give us a sign” is the question that He heard many times and to which He did not respond. Other times He prevents the crowd from following Him, in some moments only letting a few apostles stay close to Him; in other moments He vehemently reprimands, like when He cleansed the temple of the merchants. Perhaps these are gestures of a lack of consideration in which He forgets about man’s needs? Or is it actually a help to discover our truest needs?
At times, our Lord takes away things or doesn’t give us what seems necessary to us, so that He might lead us to discover the One necessity of our life. In fact, there are many things that instead of being a help, are clutter and obstacles to our relationship with Christ and to the truth of ourselves. It is never easy to renounce these things, because detaching ourselves from them often requires struggle and pain. A journey in which we entrust ourselves with confidence is necessary to give us a fuller vision of life. If we accept this journey, however, over time we discover that the negations of God are instead more profound affirmations, that they are gifts of charity, that charity which is at the origin and the scope of every gesture of Christ.
This became clearer for me when I rediscovered the Canticle of the creatures by St. Francis. He sings God’s praises for all that is: the sun and the stars, fire and water, men who build peace and those that forgive. In the end, he also praises God for that which takes away life: “Praise to my Lord for sister corporal death.” What is more dramatic than the clutches of death, then the “no” to the desire for life that she represents? We know well that God did not want death, and yet every death, not only physical death, is a mysterious gift from God and can be the road to a bigger yes to life, to true life. Every sacrifice can be the beginning of a truer attachment to “that which never dies”: Christ. Sacrifice tears us away from idolatry towards the gifts to which we sometimes become attached so that we can rediscover the giver.
Lent is the occasion to live this journey of stripping away and entering into a truer and more realistic vision of ourselves. Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the Church teaches us to leave behind the things that weigh us down, the ballasts, not so that we might distance ourselves from the Earth and reality, but so that we might arrive at the heart and the depths of reality, and truly enjoy it. Fr. Giussani taught us to call this way of living “virginity”: a truer possession with detachment. The forty days that precede Holy Week is the time in which we learn to look at reality as Christ does.
In the photo, a pilgrimage to the Jesuit reducciones with the parishioners of San Rafael (Asunción, Paraguay)