2010-02-21 - "When a man is wrapped up in himself . . ."
One quotation, to which I have had frequent recourse, is commonly attributed to Harry Emerson Fosdick, although he seems to have taken it without attribution from John Ruskin. It is always safe to say that Benjamin Franklin fathered an aphorism, including this one, though I do not think Ruskin read much Franklin. The most reliable source is that ubiquitous author known as "Anonymous," and so it should be, since every age has said it one way or another: "When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package."
Lent is a time to relive this truth, as we put away the old man and put on the new. Certain "corporal mortifications," which strengthen us by self-discipline, such as confession and different forms of fasting, are part of this, but more important are increased acts of charity, such as almsgiving. The end of all this is to unwrap the self and to grow into the stature of Christ: "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing." (1 Cor. 13: 3)
It was a special blessing for me last week to conduct a retreat in France at the shrine of St. John-Marie Vianney in Ars and in the nearby ancient cathedral of Lyons. Some thirty priests from New York attended along with our Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who offered Mass each day, and we received the Precious Blood from Vianney's own chalice. While the Curé d'Ars personally lived a life of total selflessness and acute mortifications, he bought the finest sacred vessels and vestments for God's glory. Our culture tends to make the self rich and God poor, and of course, that never works. The original church of Ars was a very humble structure, so tiny that it held only a handful of people, and when Vianney arrived there in 1817, he found it crumbling from the neglect of the French Revolution. But he was confident that God would do great things there, and it happened - all because Vianney was a prodigy of humility, willing to unwrap himself and cloak his people with charity. When one skeptic met him, all he could say was, "I have seen God in a man." He had encountered the sanctifying grace that Christ wills for all of us: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." (Gal. 2:20)
Lent is such a brief time that it seems to end almost as soon as it begins, but such also is life itself, and the purpose of Lent is to make precisely that point. The ashes yield quickly to Alleluias for those who outgrow themselves. The Curé d'Ars encouraged his flock: "Not all the saints started well, but they all ended well."