I saw a movie about a woman who walked several thousand miles through the desert in Australia. By all the usual standards, it was a bad movie. There was no story arc of a loveable protagonist learning to overcome the tensions of the conflict and arrive at a satisfying resolution. The only deep conflict that occurs came at the end, when her dog died. Every character was largely static, except for a little self-knowledge gained here and there.
Really, it was just a movie about a woman walking through a desert and getting to know herself a little better. Therefore, perhaps it was one of the most real and honest movies I have ever seen.
Life doesn’t follow a neat story arc; it spirals. Yes, we travel through conflict and tension, but these don’t always teach us a satisfying lesson. We’re constantly growing and changing, but the arc of that development almost never follows a linear progression with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In a spiraling manner we make the same mistakes over and over again, have the same conversations year after year, and the only thing that seems to change is that we learn a little bit more about ourselves with each pass.
But this is rarely boring. Even though the repetition seems endless, living in each moment is filled with passions and pain, love and loss. The spiral doesn’t have to travel downward; it can move upwards as well.
Our Liturgy is painfully honest about this. Year after year we live out the same story, from Advent to Christmas, Lent to Easter, and all the Ordinary Time in between. But this isn’t just a tedious retelling of the same old story. Each season is animated with passions and pain, love and loss. Through the Liturgy we spiral higher and higher into Christ’s life. We learn a little more about ourselves with each pass, and every year we learn to love Him with a little more freedom.
Today a priest traced a cross on my forehead with the charred remains of a green plant while whispering the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This truth hurts. For thousands of years, people have lived and died in endless repetition. By a simple sentence and some ash, the Church saw fit to remind me of this.
This is how Lent begins every year. By this gesture we set off into the desert, with our mortality literally on our minds from the very beginning of the journey. Over the course of 40 days we go hungry and thirsty, and we learn about our weaknesses. It’s a messy trip, but it ends at an oasis—a Paradise of new life found in the Resurrection.
But what do you tell yourself at the beginning of this time in the desert? What words could possibly mollify the crushing anxiety of knowing that in the next 40 days we will be hungry and will learn about our weaknesses, a time that will only end when our Best Friend dies a horrible and tragic death? I would suggest praying the words we pray every day in the seminary at the beginning of Morning Prayer:
“God, come to my assistance. Lord make haste to help me.” We may say this every single day, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. Like life itself, each time we say this prayer it is an opportunity to learn a little more about its truth. With each pass over these words, we have the chance to spiral a little higher. The more this happens, the more our pain will be like Christ’s pain, which transforms death into life.
Mr. Josh Bathon, C.S.C., is in his first year of vows at Moreau Seminary, after completing his novitiate in Cascade, CO. Josh entered the Old College Program in 2010, and graduated from Notre Dame in 2014 with an undergraduate degree in history and philosophy. He is from Greenville, South Carolina.