“Have a Token Lent” and Other Seasonal Suggestions from a Weary Jesuit

John L’Heureux was a Jesuit for 17 years before he quit in ’71 and got […]

CJ Green / 3.13.19

John L’Heureux was a Jesuit for 17 years before he quit in ’71 and got married. He’s also written an insane amount of fiction and poetry which I am slowly working through, and loving. I first encountered his work with The Rise and Rise of Annie Clark from a New Yorker issue last autumn and am currently flipping through Picnic in Babylon, a journal from his seminary days in the 60s. Young L’Heureux was a committed student but a keen observer with a frequently ruthless eye. The following entry—a bit of a rant—was written around the beginning of Lent, 1964:

Sunday March 1

8:30 A.M.; a long moody breakfast mulling over the Lenten Mind… Each year we spend forty days pretending Jesus is going to die; we go hungry and grow—despite ourselves—angry; we prepare for what is going to take place. But it has, dammit, it has taken place. Christ has died and redeemed us and has risen from the dead. We are new and alive. Love should be our concern now (read St. Paul) and instead we mope around and bewail our sins, which have killed our Savior. Well I have more to bewail than anybody, of that I am certain, but I’m tired of bewailing and I’m tired of going hungry and growing angry, and I’m tired of pretending Christ is going to die. I am forgiven my sins and the bridegroom is among us. Lent as we now observe it is a medieval hangover; we have drunk too much Roman wine. The carnival days bear me out: carnival, farewell to meat, so gorge yourself for tomorrow we diet. One last fling. Sick. Tumescent.

We commemorate the death of Christ as if it were our destruction rather than our salvation. Liturgy, yes. Have some sort of token Lent, a week perhaps, and have the beautiful Masses and the symbolic ritual; but why these externals which are, if not meaningless, at least so anachronistic as to be alienating? I’m thinking of fasting the morbid attitudes we put on as casually as purple vestments, the excessive gloom and pseudoreverence (eyes down, whispering) of Holy Week. I don’t mean liturgy. But the sick self-conscious Lenten Mind has to go and the Christ-conscious joy of a positive Christianity has to come. The cross is meaningless without the Resurrection.

Later. On the other hand, there is the current tendency to concentrate only on Easter, only on the risen Christ. We are saved. We are good. This is the Worship tendency; it hasn’t yet filtered down to the popular Catholic mind. This spiritual cakes-and-ale attitude inculcates a false optimism just as destructive as the Lenten Mind…

Well, what is it I want? Something of awareness, something of relevancy, something larger than self—whether self-damnation or self-salvation. The hard bone of Christianity is what I want. The eye of bones that sees both the Lenten Mind and the Easter Syndrome as exaggerations and hence as betrayals; they fly the issue, they evade involvement in Christ today. Now. This I think is the value of Existentialism and Absurdism and the plays of somebody like Albee: they bring us back to issues. Man is suffering and Christ is lost in him. There are problems to which only Christianity is the answer. Absurdity points the question and there is no answer forthcoming. We have it. The relation must be made between the absurdities of existence and the coherence of Christianity, between Lent and Christ suffering in our contemporaries, between Easter and Christ showing us our ultimate triumph. Lent and Easter are not merely personal experiences. They reassert the divine economy of salvation. It is criminal, therefore, to reduce Lent to self-reproach and Easter to self-complacency. Forgive me, I preach…and it is I who most need the sermon.