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Colleen DulleFebruary 12, 2024
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for Friday of the First Week of Lent

“If the virtuous man turns from the path of virtue to do evil,
the same kind of abominable things that the wicked man does,
can he do this and still live?
None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered,
because he has broken faith and committed sin.”

A dear friend of mine is a Jesuit spiritual director—the best I’ve ever encountered, actually. Since we’ve known one another for a long time, I’ve heard him give the same retreat talks and answer the same questions a few times. Often, after he summarizes Ignatian consolation as “moving from good to better” in our relationship with God and desolation as “moving from bad to worse,” someone will ask, “Is there a neutral?” That is, can we be in a state of stasis in our relationship with God, where it’s neither getting better nor worse?

Of course—I will only speak for myself here—this question comes from thinking, or wanting to think, that our relationship with God is in such a neutral state. Being free from the “good to better” vs. “bad to worse” duality also necessarily means one’s existing relationship with God can’t be judged “good” or “bad” to begin with. Surely if moving in a negative direction means it is negative already, and a positive direction means it is positive already, a neutral direction means it is simply neutral and can stay that way.

My friend’s response to this is that there is no “neutral” in our relationship with God. Ezekiel says something similar in today’s first reading: If a wicked person turns away from sin and does what is right, that person will not die but live. Inversely, if a virtuous person turns away from sin and does evil, that person will die. The good or evil they did up to this moment will not be remembered; what matters is what they’re doing now.

It’s a message that is challenging, even paradoxical: Don’t we all do both good and evil all through our lives? And don’t those choices add up? Isn’t the mystery of God’s justice and mercy more complex than a simple “yes” or “no” based on our last acts or the state of our soul when we die? And yet, isn’t it good to know that we can change for the better at any time, with the promise that God will forget about our sins?

This idea that “there is no neutral” is worth wrestling with in this season of Lent, when we’re asked to assess our relationship with God, because we “do not know the hour nor the day” when our lives will end. It is the time to ask ourselves: If there is really no neutral, in which direction am I moving? From “good to better” or “bad to worse,” toward God or away?

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