First Sunday of Lent Reflection
finding Our Joy in the Lord
March 14, 2011
If you cease to tread the
keep my holy day free from your own affairs;
you call the sabbath a day of joy
the Lord’s holy day a day to be honored,
you honor it by not plying your trade,
not seeking your own interest
attending to your own affairs,
then you shall find your joy in the Lord,
and I will set you riding on
the heights of the earth . . .
call to keep the sabbath, to keep a time when we are free from
our own affairs, may sound a bit quaint to us as we enter the
second decade of the 21st century.
Thanks to the increasing capacities of our own
technology, our work and its demands are now always with us.
For many of us it is quite rare to have an evening, or a
conversation with friends, or a meal with our families during
which we are not also “plying our trade” and “attending to our
Keeping a whole day free from these things is now, for many if
not most of us, unimaginable.
Could it perhaps be that, for this very reason, the
summons of Isaiah that we hear in the liturgy of the Saturday
after Ash Wednesday has a particular relevance for us this Lent?
In a recent book
entitled In the Valley of the
Shadow, James L. Kugel, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature
at Harvard, describes “a certain state of mind” that overtook him at
the moment of being diagnosed with a highly aggressive and likely
fatal form of cancer.
After the initial shock, I was, of course,
disturbed and worried.
But the main change in my state of mind was that – I can’t think of
a better way to put it – the background music suddenly stopped.
It had always been there, the music of daily life that’s
constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities; and
now suddenly it was gone, replaced by
nothing, just silence.
There you are, one little person, sitting in the late-summer
sun, with only a few things left to do. (p. 2)
We live in the background music, an experience
so pervasive that we have ceased to be aware of it.
It is the “world” of our own inner “I,” our personal
thoughts, anxieties, duties, responsibilities, fears that we live
out of and in reaction to.
This background music (or noise) is the accompaniment to the
self-conscious and self-centered “I” that is troubled and worried
about many things because it assumes a god-like role and identity.
As Kugel experiences it, when the music stops and it is
silent, we are just “one little person . . . with only a few things
left to do.”
Father Adrian van
Kaam taught that our functional dimension, our capacity to work and
to manage life, can be a servant of the vital (bodily) dimension of
life or a disciple of the transcendent (spiritual) dimension.
When our capacities for management and control are primarily
at the service of the vital dimension, our works tend to be
compulsive in nature.
The result is a vicious circle by which we are not only working in
reaction to our anxiety but are increasing our anxiety through the
stress such constant work produces.
Yet, when our functional dimension serves our transcendent
dimension, we experience at once our own smallness and our efforts
as a small contribution to the ongoing unfolding of Divine creation;
we know ourselves as small but significant participant in a Divine,
Our life of work and
functioning is discipled to the transcendent by means of a
discipline of true leisure (not doing), silence, and stillness.
This is the meaning of the Sabbath.
It is a time to remember, by stilling our own god-like
tendencies, that “the earth and its fullness” is the Lord’s.
Perhaps we can begin this year’s celebration of Lent by
asking ourselves, in the words of Isaiah, how we “tread the sabbath
underfoot” and whether or not we have enough time “free from our own
affairs.” If it seems
well beyond the possible to spend one day out of seven “free from
our own affairs,” perhaps we can at least look to see if we can,
with some deliberation, have a few moments each day when we are not
available for a cell phone call or an email, or where we are fully
present, with our technology turned off, to members of our family or
to our friends. Perhaps
we can find a few moments each day in which we dispose ourselves to
an outer and inner silence in which the constant hum of the
background music may cease.
By stopping and resting in this way, we can experience the
truth of our own smallness and perhaps discover a momentary
fulfillment of the promise of Isaiah:
“. . .then you shall find your joy in the Lord.”