This Lent, ask yourself what you really want. You just might get it.
A Reflection for Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time
Find today’s readings here.
In Dante’s Inferno, each punishment is an inversion of the sin: The wrathful fight one another senselessly for all eternity while the sullen “languish in the black slime” of the River Styx. In Judecca (named for Judas Iscariot), those who betrayed God are cast in ice, unable to move or speak. They have cast themselves away from the very source of light and being itself; the only thing that moves is Satan’s wings, whose flapping only further freezes the ice.
All of this for thirty pieces of silver. In a way, it’s exactly what Judas wanted. He abandoned friendship with God for a reward that was cold and lifeless, and so too was his ultimate end.
Dante’s vision of hell, according to my high school English teacher, is one in which “everyone gets exactly what they want.”
This notion of hell is far from the one that terrified me as a girl. I always imagined that finding oneself in hell must come as some terrible surprise, the ultimate mark of failure. But this version of hell, which I would argue coincides well with James’s, is much scarier, I think. Dante’s story is a fable, not a source of Catholic doctrine, but it speaks to a profound truth about the way our desires give shape to our spiritual lives. In turn, it can help procrastinators (like me) determine what we should give up for Lent.
Today’s first reading from the letter of James reminds us that “Each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.” When we pursue desires that are shallow and cruel, we form our souls in that same image and become shallow and cruel people. But if we pursue what is good, beautiful and true, we draw nearer to God, the source of all perfect gifts.
St. Ignatius says it well in the first principle and foundation of the Spiritual Exercises: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of this to save our souls.” Therefore, human beings “ought to desire and elect only the thing which is more conducive to the end for which [we are] created.” We should only desire those things that serve our eternal soul—it’s no small task.
A way to determine what we should give up for Lent (and the clock is ticking, Ash Wednesday is tomorrow) is to look more closely at what it is that we want. Of course, as Catholics, we all want to say that we want life with God, but do we actually pursue it? What desires shape our daily lives? Am I actually pursuing meaningful relationships with God and others, or are my relationships marked by vanity, gossip and exclusion?
And when I say I want to give up sweets, am I doing so because I want to curb a borderline gluttonous habit, or do I want to lose five pounds? Am I giving up TV to have more time for “productivity,” or to deepen my relationships with God and other people? We forgo a profound opportunity when we view Lent as just another New Year’s Resolution, a time for self-optimization rather than spiritual nourishment.
But if done right, Lent can be a time where we re-orient our desires towards God. In a phone interview with America, theologian Susan Ross said that ascetic practices can be “little tiny deaths of our attachment” to things that do not serve us, which subsequently allow us to deepen our life in Christ. We can also use this time to adopt positive practices, like saying a daily rosary or spending time in service to the poor, which can help remind us that “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”
If our attachment to temporal things is rooted in our abiding love of God and desire to live with him forever, we are able to love them more fully. St. Ignatius knew this well, and Dante reminds us of the catastrophic consequences of disordered desires. So as we approach Lent, we should all ask ourselves what it is that we truly want—with the sober understanding that we just might get it.