A few weeks ago at daily Mass the Gospel was the story of the possessed man in Gerasa, from whom Jesus drives a “legion” of demons who then enter (and kill) a nearby herd of swine. The people of the neighborhood, rather than being delighted at the man’s recovery, ask Jesus to leave – he’s threatened their livelihood and they can’t abide that. I encourage you to read the whole story and to think about it for Lent. (The passage is Mark 5:1-17, also in Matthew 8:28-34 and Luke 8:26-37.)
There’s a saying among psychotherapists that “Most people want to get better, but they don’t want to get well.” Getting well costs too much – lessening the pain a little is a more comfortable goal. Finding a rough equilibrium between the pain caused by our vices and addictions, and the pleasures those same vices bring – that’s a not-uncommon strategy. Get better, but not well. Heal the possessed man, but let us keep the swine for our profit.
Lent is a time for facing the possibility – perhaps the likelihood – that we do that. Lent is a time to discover why and how we love our demons. The traditional tools for this self-discovery during Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; each is a way to uncover in ourselves what possesses us and why we make a home for these forces – what they do for us that we can’t quite reconcile ourselves to letting go.
Prayer undercuts our self-satisfaction; it reminds us of our dependence on God. Prayer requires disciplining our attention away from what we might prefer to concentrate on, and probably shows us just how unable we are to do that with any consistency; trying and failing at prayer reveals our addictions to what preoccupies and binds us.
Fasting confronts our instinctual preference for what pleases us. Fasting from food is traditional and still important, but in our world fasting from media might be even more important. Shut off the smartphone for an hour a day; for God’s sake, don’t bring it to the table when you eat!
Almsgiving draws our attention to our attraction to money and to our ability to ignore the needs of others, especially the poor. It can show us our readiness to judge others as “worthy” or not of our charity. And it can reveal our fear of not having “enough” for ourselves. It can likewise reveal what we think “enough for ourselves” means. Money often means (under the surface) a way we measure our security, or power, or success, or something else. Our hesitation to give alms might show us those motives.
Together, these disciplines will change us; not all at once and dramatically, but over time. They are, to use the traditional word, practices. We do them regularly – every Lent, or every week, or even every day – over and over, until they become part of our character and thus windows into our souls.
It’s not hard to see the conflicts in our society illuminated by the conflict those Gerasene people felt in the presence of Jesus: We want contradictory things, some of which can only be provided by making peace with (at least metaphorical) demons. We want peace and the “security” provided by overwhelming weaponry. We want civility and the “right” never to be shamed or contradicted for our own uncivil behavior. We want a society free from addictive drugs and a pain-free life. (There’s wonderful essay by a woman who had major surgery in Germany and was prescribed for her healing rest, ibuprofen, and herbal tea. It worked.)
Lent is a time for getting to know the demons we’ve made friends with over the years. Only when we discover our attraction to what they do for us can we imagine asking Jesus to rid us of them. Until next week, peace.
1. If you can, start thinking about the story by reading a short poem by the late Richard Wilbur (he was the Poet Laureate of the U.S. 1987-88, and died this past November). I can’t quote it here because of copyright, but you can find it on the web at https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/richard-wilbur/matthew-viii-28-ff/