The sonorous start of Lent jolts with the reminder that man is dust and shall return to dust. It is hardly what we call news: before there were calendars and clocks or Donne’s tolling bell, Abel learned it when Cain struck him. Even the immortals of our civic pantheon and postage stamps were immortalized by way of their shocking mortality.
The daunting fact that God came into the world as a frail baby and left this world as the Risen Lord stretches the short attention span of the human intellect, but there is an instinct to line up for ashes on Wednesday before Lent, because dust is cogent and so too is a sense that there is more to life than dust. As a priest for a long while in New York City, invoking my poor arithmetic but adequate memory, I estimate that I have stood in front of altars as at least a quarter of a million people have come to be marked with ash, some of them saints and others spiritual hitchhikers, but all asking by mutely lining up, “Can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3). The answer comes when a breath not of this created world breathes into creatures, and the bones come alive again, “an exceedingly great army” (Ezek. 37:10).
That army is a metaphor signaling how the Holy Spirit can stir up long dormant abilities and skills that animate the intellect and will. How, for instance, does one explain the effulgence of cultural innovation after moribund centuries? What explains the Italian Renaissance and the Scottish Enlightenment? It is unlikely that novel powers were at work, or talents sprang anew as from the brow of Zeus. More probably, the breath of God gave life to what was waiting to come alive. What was then can be now. There may be a few Raphaels and Titians nascent in the Bronx, but dormant because untutored; and there may be a Raeburn or a Scott in Chevy Chase or Grosse Pointe, ready to paint and write but distracted by an overbearing mother driving him to soccer practice. On a deeper level, everyone is a potential saint, and that potency can flourish if one does not “quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19).
One of the longest discussed, and often most harshly argued, questions for Christians has been how much divine breath, that is saving grace, is needed to give new and unending life to the broken human condition. Possibly from acquaintance with the sort of people one instinctively avoids, the notion that man is “totally depraved” took wide hold in the sixteenth century. But it had already been engaged in the fourth century when, at the very same time there spread the opposite contention that we are better off than we think, and can manage quite well with just a little help from God. That excited the rebukes of men so unlike each other as St. Augustine and the more irascible St. Jerome, who called the mistaken optimist Pelagius an Irishman overstuffed with porridge. The Irish say he was Welsh and the Welsh say he was English.
Later, through misreadings of Augustine, not helped by some of that saint’s own expressions, self-styled Reformers like Luther and Calvin, and then Bishop Jansen of Ypres in the Catholic sphere, took the more pessimistic view of man’s ability to grow in grace. They lost their grip on the original benign form of creation. Like all misguided reformers, as Chesterton said, they knew what was wrong but did not know what was right. All heresies are an exaggeration of a truth, to the exclusion of its subtleties. The Council of Trent affirmed the truth that man cannot be in harmony with God’s plan, or “justified,” by his own good behavior without the grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ. This is why Christ said that no one is good except God (Mark 10:1). But Trent also rejected the lie that “since Adam’s sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished.”
Dry bones and limp lives can come alive by giving God permission (as St. Teresa of Calcutta often said) to make us what he wants us to be. While no one is good except God, anyone can become perfect (Matt. 5:48). This is not a contradiction. Goodness is a quality of being; perfection is the result of contact with that goodness. True goodness is divine; perfection is by way of becoming a “partaker of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). A perfect man is not a perfectionist. Perfectionism is a neurosis based on the confusion of goodness and perfection. The perfectionist tries to defy mortality without the help of God who alone is immortal. In the social order, a secular progressive dreams of perfecting an ideal society on earth through human effort, and learns the hard way that utopias end up being hells. After all, for all his cheerfulness, St. Thomas More invented that word because “utopia” means no place. That is the opposite of the Kingdom of God, which is heavenly without being inaccessible, and earthly without being temporal. To say that God’s “center is everywhere and his circumference is nowhere” could fit the vagaries of all sorts of thinkers from Empedocles to Voltaire, but when meant as Nicholas of Cusa used it, then God is both transcendent and immanent and, so, his immortal goodness can bring to perfection what is mortal.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry said that perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away. (Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher.) Perfectionism tries to add, as though goodness were a sum, while perfection subtracts that which obscured goodness. It is said that Michelangelo explained to a child that he sculpted Moses simply by chipping away from the marble all that was not Moses—but Moses had been there all along.
Exactly two years ago, twenty young Coptic Christian Egyptians were kidnapped by Islamic State militants while on a work crew in Libya. Lined up on a beach east of Tripoli, and taunted by their captors, they refused to renounce Christ. Defiantly and joyfully, they chanted in chorus “Ya Rabbi Yassou!” (“Oh my Lord Jesus!”). A black youth from Chad, Mathew Ayairga, not a baptized Christian, was watching and, when asked by the captors, “Are you a Christian?” he replied, “Their God is my God.” He was baptized by blood when all twenty-one were beheaded. While these martyrs had most likely never heard of Pelagius and Calvin or engaged disputes over grace, and probably would not have pitted James 2 against Romans 3 on the subject of justification, they were confident that Christ can raise life eternal from dust and ash. The purpose of Lenten disciplines, not salvific in themselves but solid training for beatitude, is to train voices to join their chorus of faith. “Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.”
(Photo credit: Associated Press)