An Imperfect Lent: The Sons of Thunder

If you were to walk into my living room at any given moment, you would never find a thing out of place. In my bedroom however, where no one visits except The Cat, things can easily become something of a mess if I let things go too long. Mail and opened packages get strewn across the desk where I hardly ever write anything. The window bench becomes a towering pile of sweaters and jeans that need to be folded and put away.

I began this Lenten season with an enormous clear-out, putting everything away in its proper place, and carrying out tons of trash. It helped that we had a blizzard here in DC, where I was trapped in the house for nearly 5 days, so that I could take my time in carrying out this task. With everything rationalized and clean, I felt like I had visually shown myself what I hoped to do with my interior life this Lent.

As part of my Lenten sacrifices I gave up many of my favorite things: social media, coffee and cigarettes, sweets, and fried foods. In their place, I was supposed to take a number of things. Among these, I was going to find time for nightly prayer, I would send a donation each week to a different Catholic charitable group, and I would even make a herculean effort to go out on at least one date, something I’ve not done since last summer.

The end result of all of this has been imperfect, and I can tell because, quelle surprise, my desk and window seat are all cluttered again. I’ve cheated on a few of my give-ups. For example, I was briefly on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp yesterday, and I will admit to having some sweets and fried foods during the weekdays. Although I must confess, the cookies at the office cafeteria are sinful objects in and of themselves. I’m sure that they are baked in the deepest, hottest ovens of Hell, until they have just mixture of softness and slight saltiness in the dough.

Neither have I accomplished all of the take-ons I set out to do. On one hand the almsgiving has gone well, since that just involves writing a check a week, but nightly prayer didn’t exactly happen, at least not in the way I had intended. I didn’t go on any dates, but then I didn’t run into anyone I was interested in taking out, either – which is admittedly an excuse, rather than a legitimate justification.    

You could look at this and say that I’ve failed – except that I don’t see it that way.

What Lent brings home is the fact of both our imperfection, and our need to be grateful to God for His Mercy. In recognizing that we are imperfect, you and I realize that we are no different from the woman caught in adultery, whom we heard about in this past Sunday’s Gospel. I, too, am an adulterer, a glutton, a murderer, a thief, a bully, a layabout, a hothead, a liar, and all the rest. So are you, if you’ll pardon me for pointing out that fact. We don’t deserve to be forgiven for what we’ve done, nor for what horrible things we’ll probably do in the future.

Similarly, in the Passion according to St. Luke that we will be reading at the Gospel this coming Palm Sunday, we hear two of the Apostles are armed and ready with swords, and ready to fight for Jesus, before He goes out into the Garden of Gethsemane. Given their gung-ho nature, I suspect the two were the brothers Zebedee, St. James and St. John, whom Jesus nicknamed “The Sons of Thunder”. Yet they, too, like the rest, all melted away in the garden before the temple authorities, because they were weak and imperfect. It is only later, at the foot of the Cross and after the Resurrection, that they admit their weakness and thereby come into their own.  

When we, too, realize our weaknesses, we are also given the opportunity to realize how grateful we must be that He loves and saves us anyway, despite our imperfections. Through Lenten sacrifice, we learn how weak we are, but we also learn how generous God is. In coming to grips with our own inconstancy, we become aware of what scrawny little things we are on the inside, while at the same time we become aware of how infinitely strong He is, even as He puts up with our cringing and whining and excuses.

So my view is, if you have come to a greater realization of your own imperfection and utter dependence this Lent, count yourself as fortunate. Without Him, we cannot persevere in the self-imposed trials of the Lenten season, any more than we can hope to persevere in what life throws at us, from cradle to grave. For our hope, despite all of our imperfections during Lent and otherwise, is that the grave is not our end – He is.

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Sts. James and John, detail from a panel by Pere Serra (1385)

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Preparing to be Thankful

Yesterday afternoon I was running errands in the village, and saw the shop display pictured below, with the single word “thankful” in large letters stretched across the width of the window.

It had been a long day, the most stressful part of which had been giving notice to my current job that I will be leaving for a new job in two weeks. [N.B.: I don’t discuss my professional life on social media, but suffice to say I’m staying in the law.] This has been a long time coming, but my departure has some elements of mixed feelings surrounding it.  I’m thankful for the opportunities I have had, but I’m also thankful for the opportunities I’m about to have, in order to grow professionally and personally.

Although many things still need to be worked out, since my life is far from perfect, it struck me when looking at that store display that even in the trying times, the difficult moments when you think everything is absolutely terrible, there is still much to be thankful for.  Sure, thankfulness often comes from something terrific, like landing a new job, beating an illness, or achieving a personal goal.  Those things are pretty obvious causes for thankfulness and indeed celebration.  Yet so often in our focus on the big things, we overlook being thankful for absolutely all of the things, great and small, that make up life around us.

Of course, there’s a perfectly sound reason why we don’t stop to analyze every single good thing that we have to be thankful for as we go through our day.  If we had to reflect all the time on those things we take for granted, yet for which we should be thankful – clean drinking water, a good newspaper, an affectionate pet – we would achieve nothing.  Appreciating and expressing gratitude for the smell of wet autumn leaves alone, for example, would take ages.

With the upcoming American celebration of Thanksgiving, marked by the store window display I spotted, the notion of being thankful begs the question, “Thankful to whom?” A cold and meaningless universe, where the existence of life is but a fluke? A senseless commingling of chemical bonds with no purpose? A bunch of dead, fundamentalist Protestants who got kicked out of England centuries ago, like everyone else who didn’t conform?  The Pillsbury Dough Boy?

Well, okay, we can be thankful to him for crescent rolls at Thanksgiving, but you see my point. In perceiving that there are lovely, good things around you, part of the gift of life you have been given, you quickly come to realize that you are overwhelmed on a daily basis with blessings for which to be thankful. In doing so, you come to realize the complete dependence of the created upon the Creator, for every moment life continues, even in its most difficult passages.

Thanksgiving is not Christmas, and there is no Advent season to prepare for it.  Nevertheless, perhaps a good idea for this particular holiday would be to come to Thanksgiving Day with a prayer of actual thanksgiving already written on your heart, for the many blessings you do have.  Do so because you have already taken the time, even if only once a day, to count just some of them. And let us then, indeed, be truly thankful.

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Blog Post 1,000

Verily, these are fine arguments which you cite, and I do not see why you do not commit them to writing.

– Castiglione, Book of the Courtier, Vol. III.

Yes, you read the title of this blog post correctly: this is my 1,000th blog post on Blog of the Courtier.  Over five years have passed since I started this particular blog, centered around the ideals that Baldassare Castiglione put forth in his “Book of the Courtier”, from whence this project takes both its name and inspiration.  And the writings of the good Count still provide me with inspiration on a regular basis – though whether I cite, verily, fine arguments I will leave for the reader to decide.

It strikes me that this is a somewhat improbable milestone to have reached, for what in the end is a project which I work on simply because I enjoy it.  The fact that this regular writing habit happened at all is thanks in no small part to the initial encouragement of two very good bloggers in particular (and you know who you are, lady and gentleman.)  When I was getting going with this current blog, they made an effort to ask their readers to give me a look over; many have stayed and become good friends.

Over time, the readership of this blog has grown from a few dozen to a few thousand readers a month, something I find equally astonishing, since truthfully all I am doing is just scribbling down some thoughts to share with you, about things which I find important or interesting.  As with any activity, the more you do something, the better you get at it, until writing a blog post is something which I just need a few quiet minutes to do each day.  And I hope that over time my writing is improving, rather than otherwise.  In fact just this week, WordPress selected one of my blog posts again for their “Freshly Pressed” highlight page, after having done so for the first time earlier this year.  To know that a diverse community of fellow bloggers appreciates your work is just tremendous.

Naturally it falls to me to thank you, gentle reader, for your continued readership and support.  Whatever I choose to write about, you come along for the ride and allow me to explore a variety of topics, sharing with me your own thoughts and opinions.  The fact that you care enough to give me some of your time and attention, as well as to leave comments, is truly humbling.  It has been both a great pleasure and privilege for me to share these ramblings and ruminations with you, and  I hope to continue to do so through many more posts to come.

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“Sketch of Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione” by Rembrandt (1639)
The Albertina, Vienna