Monday, February 18, 2013

Lent: A Call to Conversion

The tests which modern society subjects Christians to, in fact, are many, and affect personal and social life. It is not easy to be faithful to Christian marriage, practice mercy in everyday life, leave space for prayer and inner silence, it is not easy to publicly oppose choices that many take for granted, such as abortion in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, euthanasia in case of serious illness, or the selection of embryos to prevent hereditary diseases. The temptation to set aside one’s faith is always present and conversion becomes a response to God which must be confirmed several times throughout one’s life.

The major conversions like that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or St. Augustine, are an example and stimulus, but also in our time when the sense of the sacred is eclipsed, God's grace is at work and works wonders in life of many people. The Lord never gets tired of knocking at the door of man in social and cultural contexts that seem engulfed by secularization, as was the case for the Russian Orthodox Pavel Florensky. After a completely agnostic education, to the point he felt an outright hostility towards religious teachings taught in school, the scientist Florensky came to exclaim: "No, you cannot live without God", and to change his life completely, so much so he became a monk.

I also think the figure of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch woman of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. Initially far from God, she found Him looking deep inside herself and wrote: "There is a well very deep inside of me. And God is in that well. Sometimes I can reach Him, more often He is covered by stone and sand: then God is buried. We must dig Him up again "(Diary, 97). In her scattered and restless life, she finds God in the middle of the great tragedy of the twentieth century, the Shoah. This young fragile and dissatisfied woman, transfigured by faith, becomes a woman full of love and inner peace, able to say: "I live in constant intimacy with God."

General Audience, February 13, 2013

Reflection – The Pope now develops the theme of conversion by turning to various examples from our own time. Florensky came to his religious faith in the context of the rising atheism and eventual persecution of Soviet Russia. Hillesum found God in the midst of the Nazi extermination of Jews. Both began as agnostics or even atheists; both came to know God in the most difficult social contexts imaginable.

And so, both of them are worth considering. For Florensky the scientist, it was dissatisfaction with a wholly positivist explanation for reality, the spurious rationalism that rejects any possibility of transcendent being and knowledge. For Hillesum, it was her own interior emptiness and need for love that led her to this mysterious God.

So many today are in this same boat – left with a certain intellectual despair where all that knowledge can offer us is greater and greater technological mastery, but with nothing to say about what it all means and is for. Others feel keenly the failure of human love to satisfy, the existential emptiness or insufficiency of created goods to fill our need.

And so many thrash around looking anywhere but God-ward in all this. Perhaps we Christians are at least partly to blame for that. We have not always shown forth the face of a loving merciful God in the world. But many are looking still, and there is a great potential for a new evangelization in our times.

The world is shaky right now. Economics, politics, personal freedoms and rights—so many things are just very uncertain and tenuous right now. There is a great chance for a new presentation of hope in God and faith in Christ as so many of the things we have placed our hope and faith in crack and crumble.

But of course, we who have faith must ourselves be converted, must be willing to make these hard choices, pay steep prices for the faith we hold. We live in a secular society that provides no encouragement at all for a lively faith life, that often opposes it in obvious and subtle ways. So Lent is a time to take hold of our lives again and examine them. Do I live as if God is the most important value, the first and deepest good, the source and goal of my life? Or am I living somewhere else, doing something else, choosing something else? This is our Lenten question, and the call to repentance and conversion at the heart of this season.

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