Monday, March 12, 2012

Our Hearts Were Not Made for Magic Wands

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, 2012

At the meeting this past Wednesday with the Junior high we were talking about the Eucharist, originally, but then, as normally happens, we got off topic.  I forget how it came up – I think I was talking about the five precepts of the Church, the duties that we have as Catholics – and of course one of them is that we go to confession once a year.  “What?” they said.  “Really?”  “I haven’t been to confession in forever.”  One of the things I enjoy most about the Junior high age is how there is no filter.  “How many of you,” I asked “have not been to confession since your first confession?”  8 out of 10.

And you know, it’s the same with our high school kids, many of whom we’ve been worked in recent weeks to help prepare for their second confession.  As I recall, it was the same for me: there was a huge gap between my first confession and my second at a high school retreat.  And then things were spotty after that – a year here, two years there…  No regular reception of the sacrament until my later college years.  Given the numbers of confessions that we have, I would hesitate to guess the average number of years that it’s been since a Catholic in our parish has been to confession: 5, 10, 15?

It used to be different.  There was a time when Catholic families would go to the church at least twice a year, if not monthly, to receive the Sacrament of Penance.  My dad talks about how it was just a part of the family routine growing up. 

But after the Second Vatican Council, the practice seriously declined.  Why is that?  Often I hear people say that they were told at one point or another that we don’t need to confess our sins to the priest any more.  As if it’s some kind of archaic practice that has become outmoded.  Sometimes they apparently heard such things from priests themselves.  That unless they had killed someone they shouldn’t worry about confession. 

But that has never been the teaching of the Church.  Instead, the confession of sins and the forgiveness of sins – the continued cleansing work of Christ in the temple – is one of the most ancient and revered practices of the Church.  And this is because the Church has always understood that Christ desired to continue his redemptive work of forgiveness of sins in us through the apostles and their successors.  He specifically told them: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  In doing so, he ensured that his work of forgiveness and healing would be more than a doctrine, something that we recite in the creed each week, that we believe happened once upon a time in some distant place. 

No, in their ministry of forgiveness, exercised by the apostles and their successors in the Sacrament of Penance, Christ’s work of cleansing and restoration remains alive, remains a personal experience of Jesus’ healing and forgiveness in time and space.  When giving absolution, the bishop or priest does not say “Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection forgives sins, so I guess your sins are forgiven as long as you are sorry for them.”  He says “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The words of absolution make it very clear: it is Jesus who speaks to us through the priest, acts through the priest.  In this sacrament, he breaks through the limitations of this world to be with us and heal us, to restore to us the freedom that he wants us to have as his sons and daughters.  As he did 2000 years ago, he enters the temple of our hearts, throwing out the idols that have taken his place, opening wide its windows and doors, airing it out, sweeping the floors and letting his Spirit wash over all things, filling them with a peace and joy that only he can bring.

So why don’t we go – what holds us back?  It doesn’t sound that bad.  Penances aren’t that severe these days.  I haven’t given a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a while…

Do we doubt that we can be forgiven?  Or perhaps we doubt that Jesus is really still at work in this old Church of ours through some old priest in some old ritual?

Or maybe we don’t want to be judged, we don’t even want to be judged by Jesus himself.  We don’t think that we should have to be judged in order to be healed.  He should just be able to cast some spell over us that will clean everything without having to enter inside and deal with all the mess.  We don’t like the idea of turning ourselves inside out, airing the dirty laundry, revealing ourselves as unclean.  Sure, we know we’re not perfect, but no one is – why the need to grovel in it?  Isn’t God good and merciful and all powerful?  Does he really need us to go through these old rituals?

But Christ’s answer is clear on this one: yes – yes, he does.  Not for his sake, but for ours.  Christ has decided to continue his healing and forgiving of sins among us in a very humble and simple way because he knows who we are and he knows what we need in order to find healing.  Our hearts were not made for magic wands, they were made for him – they were made to hear his voice, to be filled with his presence.

And so he gave us the gift of Confession – but he will not force his forgiveness on us.  We have to approach him.  He will not heal us if we do not approach him for healing, he will not cleanse us if we do not open the doors of the temple and let him enter.  Jesus respects our free will. 

So if you’re having a hard time going, if it’s been a while, ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen your will, to help you muster up the courage to stand before God unafraid of the accusations of the enemy.  God invites us, entreats us to come to him without fear: to stand before him so that the Spirit, our advocate, can defend us, so that the Son, our redeemer, can offer himself on our behalf, so the Father, the Judge, can pronounce the verdict that he knows we long to hear: “Not guilty.”  But you cannot be declared innocent without going to court, without facing your accuser and the judge. 

Courage, courage my brothers and sisters!  Our Father has not come to condemn, he will not scorn us when we approach him.  Jesus is not the accuser, the enemy.  No, he is our redeemer, he sends his Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to save us, to lift our burdens, to free us from all that binds us, to heal us and give us new life. 

So go to him this Lent, bring your children to him – teach them that they have nothing to fear at his approach, that his gaze is one of love and mercy, not judgment and scorn.  His words should be soothing to us: “I absolve you, your sins are forgiven.” They should be like a fresh breeze that makes the soul carefree and at peace. 

I have placed guides to the sacrament in the rear of the Church.  The cover image is of the good shepherd.  Take one.  Look it over.  It’s not an archaic ritual – it’s Jesus himself, come to free you from your sins and heal you and give you new life.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The JPII Generation Comes of Age

Some recent thoughts I've been having about the Church: about where we find ourselves and where I find myself as a young Catholic.

I am a JPII priest.  Seeing Blessed Pope John Paul at World Youth Day in 2003 swept away the final reservations I had about entering the seminary.  “Do not be afraid,” he told us, “to set out into the deep for a catch.” 

By then we knew, I knew, that entering the seminary meant setting out into the deep.  New revelations in the priest abuse scandals were breaking daily.  Every year it seemed that another priest left ministry with a lover, male or female.  The Church had been declining in youth and vigor in Maine for decades.  It was not hard to conclude that my ministry as a priest would be carried out during dark and difficult years for the Church in the West.

The seas had not always seemed so ominous.  I grew up in the Bernadine years.  The years of consensus leadership, of being welcoming and tolerant.  Dialogue was the way to address any disagreement, any difficulty. 

I don’t recall hearing anything about principles, about virtue, about sacrifice, about the truth.  It seems that a whole generation, the generation before me, had been turned off by such things.  They distained talk of objective right and wrong.  Of good and evil.  Of virtue and sin.  And they pointed out continually that such dichotomies were either the mark of simplistic and na├»ve thinking, or the propaganda of those who seek to control others. 

We were basically taught that the heart of the Gospel was to love others, and that that meant we should always compromise conviction in favor of the person.  The only virtue I recall being drilled into my head was that we seek to be on good terms with everyone, regardless of their point of view.  To be likable.  It was the underlying subtext in most moral narratives: the protagonist gives up his or her convictions or preconceived notions in order to love the antagonist.

I think 9/11 was the first sign that the Bernadine years were over.  People kept asking “Why do they hate us?”  We looked at ourselves, we all seemed likable enough to one another – so we were completely thrown by the idea that someone could possibly not want to get along.  Didn’t they know the golden rule?  What kind of rock were they living under?

Then, for Catholics, came the pedophilia scandals.  And all of a sudden many of us realized that many, many likable people, bishops, priests, and laity alike, had been so concerned about being likable that they had turned a blind eye to horrendous evil right in front of them.  Being likable, being kind, had aided and abetted some of the worst criminals in society while they perpetrated unmentionable crimes right before our noses.

It was all coming down around us in that summer of 2003, the summer of World Youth Day.  And I think it was then, as we looked upon the humble yet strong frame of that man of God, John Paul II, that many of us realized that the generation before us had sold us a useless bill of goods, rather than the Gospel.  We had not been taught the fullness of the faith, we were not given adequate tools to handle real life – to deal with evil, to seek what is good.  We were not trained in the virtues, we were not given a solid foundation in logic and critical thinking, we were not exposed to the cultural and religious treasures of our western heritage.  Instead, we had been brought up by a generation that was convinced that the way to show their love for us was by being likable and entertaining us.  The youth ministry mantra was, I’ll never forget, the “4 F words”: food, fun, friends, and faith.

But in the face of terrorists trying to kill us, criminal priests, divorce, substance abuse, psychological illnesses, violence, and promiscuity, the 4 F words just didn’t cut it, being likable and entertaining didn’t cut it either.  Many of my peers left the faith, tired of being around a bunch of people who seemed obsessed with being likable, rather than being good.  Who didn’t have any answers for the larger questions of life.  Who didn’t seem to want to talk about suffering and death and desire and addiction.

But there were some of us who, through God’s providence and grace-filled guidance, were able to hold on to our faith.  And with much struggle and prayer, we began an arduous transformation, a fundamental shift in the understanding of what it means to love and be loved as Christ has shown us.  To this day we are trying to make that shift, even as we remain a conflicted generation, this JPII generation.

The conflict within the JPIIs is caused by a dissonance between the appetite and the intellect.  Temperamentally, we are deeply uncomfortable with conflict and want people to get along, even if that means sacrificing what we know is right.  Culturally, we were raised on washed out themes – the words to “Hear I am, Lord” ring in our ears, reminding us of the tear-filled retreats of youth even if we know that half the time we were just being emotionally manipulated.  Even though we know we should, we don’t know how to live a life rooted in ritual prayer because our parents didn’t even know what that looked like.  And so even basic spiritual discipline requires herculean effort for us.   Intellectually we lack rigor, we were told that every opinion was valid for so long that we have a hard time being critical, even if we are suspect of what we hear.  We tend toward reactionary extremes, and toward a certain nostalgia for times when there seemed to be greater regard for human excellence and virtue.  But we’re really not sure what that looked like or how to achieve it, because we’ve never experienced it in a living culture.  Instead we grew up on the Nintendo and MTV, the St. Louis Jesuits and cut out butterflies.  A washed out culture, a decadent culture, and a largely secular culture.

And yet even as conflicted as it is, I believe that gradual conversion was begun and continues in the JPII generation, my generation. Slowly, and with God’s grace, many are breaking free of the appetite for a Church experience that is characterized by a warm and fuzzy group hug among people who like each other, and instead developing the desire for a new and more profound ecclesiology that is rooted in a common fidelity to Christ and sacrifice for the sake of what is true and good and beautiful.  This conversion of appetite in my generation has been largely due to the reforms undertaken during the last 25 years to some of the fundamental structures of the Church.  Doctrinal soundness and rigor in formation has been restored in seminaries for the most part.  Core doctrines of the Church have been clearly expressed in the Catechism and in many wonderful encyclicals and other papal teachings.  The liturgical excesses of the 70s and 80s have for the most part been cleared up and the new translation has brought us into greater continuity with our tradition.  Bishops are for the most part speaking with one voice and in union with the Holy Father.  The basic structures necessary for the continuation of Christianity in the West have been buttressed in recent decades, and the JPII generation is the first to really experience the fruit of these reforms.  Thus we really bear the name of the great reformer: John Paul II.

Yet as much as the JPII generation has been graced by the reforms of these last years, I pray that the hell that is fermenting in the West does not break lose until our children come of age.  They will be much more competent to handle the wiles of the evil one.  They will have had the advantage of clear Catholic teaching from their youth, of being formed by a reasonably intact liturgy and reconstructed domestic ritual of prayer.  And they will not have to contend with an older, ideological and jaded generation that second guesses every effort at holiness and is threatened by any attempt at human excellence.

I am not sure how my generation would handle the full weight of what this culture of death is capable of throwing at us.  The reforms are so new and have only had a decade or two to sink in.  We are still very weak and our training cursory at best.  We are not well supported by family and friends.  Too often we foolishly resort to political power plays, are distracted by worldly fears.  We are easily side-tracked by minor skirmishes, we underestimate the cunning and force of the enemy.  And we are too attached to the things of this world – to our stuff, our esteem, our comfort.  God’s will is often not the first thing on our minds.  We lack the spiritual imagination, depth, and discipline required for the all-out pitched spiritual battle that approaches. 

Thus I think that it is critically important that the JPII generation realize in all humility its limitations, the limitations inherent in the time and place that we were born.  We came of age during a time that was nothing short of spiritually catastrophic.  The bastions had been razed.  Christian culture in the West had been devastated.  Through no fault of our own, we are building from scratch and our generation therefore lacks the sophistication of many generations of Christians who have gone before us.  We are largely incapable of the aesthetic beauty of gothic stained glass, of the heights of contemplative prayer, of the theological prowess of the great doctors of the Church.  Mounting such heights required the dedicated work of successive generations of Catholic men and women, not one generation alone. 

And so such heights are probably not for most of us.  Ours is instead the work of John Paul: the work of the quarry.  We have been called to lay the foundation for such heights to be attained once more.  To take up the backbreaking toil that falls to a first generation: slogging into the mud, into the trenches, working to gradually break up the rubble of vice and error and to lay the foundation stones of virtue and human excellence.  In doing so, we can work to ensure that the Church that is rebuilt upon our shoulders stands not upon the sand of likability and false tolerance, but upon Christ, clearly present in lives rooted in the sacrificial love and fidelity.  And this work, far from being a drudgery, can be a source of joy as we find comfort and consolation in knowing that, as a first generation in the process of building an authentic Christian culture, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the first apostles and countless missionaries who have undertaken such work over the course of the Church’s 2000 years.

In short, our holiness, the holiness of the JPIIs, is unlikely to lie in heights of virtue and excellence – it is more likely to lie in blood, sweat, and tears.  In fidelity: in sacrifice and toil unconditionally offered for the love of Christ and his Church.  It will not be particularly beautiful.  But foundations do not need to be beautiful – they just need to be solid.  And, with the grace of God, we can do that.

Offering the Sacrifices God Asks of Us

Homily from the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 2012

Last week, as you may have heard, Bishop Malone was in town for the Rite of Election.  It was a wonderful occasion as over 20 catechumens and candidates from our parish were enrolled in the book of elect in preparation for their reception into the Church this Easter.

During the homily, the bishop was talking about the process of conversion, and about St. Augustine and what he had said of his conversion in his book the Confessions.  “Late have I loved Thee, ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved thee.”

Now I must admit that I thought the bishop might choose another famous passage St. Augustine penned as he was wrestling with his conversion: “Oh Master, make me chaste and celibate, but not yet.”

It is kind of a classic line from St. Augustine, and I think it is because it sums up a common theme of the spiritual life.  How many of us, myself included, have said to our Heavenly Father at one point or another, “I promise you can ask anything of me, but just not that.  Please just leave me this one thing, don’t ask me to offer it in sacrifice to you.  It might kill me.”

This, I imagine, was the prayer on Abraham’s lips as he walked into the land of Moriah with  Isaac, his only son.

Yet Moriah – the land of sacrifice, is also a land that must be walked by all who attempt to follow Christ.  Jesus has instructed us that whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever wishes to lose it for his sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it. 
And that means walking through the land of Moriah, it means that throughout the Christian life we are asked each day to die a little more to ourselves, to embrace God’s will more completely, to worship him with more and more of our full heart and mind and strength, foresaking whatever would keep us from him. 

Some might say, “Well this is all very severe.  How is this the story of a loving God?  This is the story of a jealous God, a God who won’t let us love anything but him.  Why should I worship that God?  It just sounds like a path to misery – a recipe for feeling guilty about enjoying anything good in this life.”

And that would be true, if the sacrifice was the end of the story.  But we must keep reading – God did not actually have Abraham follow through with the sacrifice – he let him keep Isaac and he granted to him descendants as numerous as the stars. 

The purpose of his original command of sacrifice was not to take away the one thing that was more precious to Abraham than life itself, but instead to purify and test Abraham’s faith, to ensure that he was not worshipping false idols.  Why?  Because God was jealous?
No, because God loves us.  And he created us to love him.  And so he knows that if we try to worship anything other than him as God we will be miserable, that he is the only one who can satisfy the deep longing of the human heart for eternal love.  And so he works to purify our hearts of idols so that we can worship him freely and find joy. 

That’s what was happening to St. Augustine – the Holy Spirit was working on him, testing his heart, telling him what he needed to offer on the altar of sacrifice in order to worship the true God.  Unlike Abraham, St. Augustine wrestled with the Spirit for many years.  He tried to bargain with him “I’ll do all of these other good things instead” “I’ll put up with this or that difficulty, I’ll make these sacrifices instead.”  Anything to keep from offering the sacrifice that God was asking of him, the one that God knew he needed to make in order to find freedom and peace.

But all of St. Augustine’s attempts at bargaining and justifying and substituting and avoiding failed.  God is relentless, and he continued to place the altar before Augustine, continued to speak to him: offer the sacrifice, offer what I have asked of you, offer it.

And finally he did.  Finally St. Augustine broke down and gave up what he thought would kill him.  And what he found was that instead of dying, he was filled with an inexpressible joy and peace and freedom. 

Now every Sunday we approach this altar, or maybe we should say that this altar approaches us.  And every Sunday our Heavenly Father asks each of us for an offering.  Sometimes we try to avoid it, sometimes we bargain, or try to offer other things, or we fane ignorance.  But at least in my heart of hearts, when I stand here and look upon the altar, more often than not I know exactly what the Father is asking me to place upon it.

The question is, will we offer what is asked of us?  Will we follow Abraham, or will we follow the young Augustine and say ‘not yet, not that.’ 

After Jesus Christ was transfigured before his disciples, the voice of his Father in heaven told them “Listen to him.”  What did he tell them?  He told them about his sacrifice, he told them about how he would offer his life for us.  He revealed himself as Lord of the eternal sacrifice of praise that unites all of us to the Father.  He revealed himself as the priest, the altar, and the victim of sacrifice, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham our father in faith.

As priest, Jesus offers all sacrifice to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
As altar, Jesus is the one through whom all sacrifice is offered to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
And as victim, Jesus is the perfect sacrifice that is offered to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ is revealed to us as Priest, Altar and Victim: one Lord of the Eternal Sacrifice of Praise, of the Mass.

We receive him, the Lord of this eternal Sacrifice, in a few moments.  He is the one in whom every sacrifice is made pure, through whom we are given the grace to offer to the Father what he asks of each of us. 

What is Jesus asking to help you to offer, along with his body and blood, to the Father today?  Let us ask him for the grace we need to place whatever God asks of us on this altar, to resist the urge to say ‘not yet.’

Thursday, March 1, 2012

There is No Spiritual Glass Ceiling

Homily from the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

During this last Sunday of ordinary time before Lent, we find ourselves in preparation mode.  We will be instructed, as ashes are placed on our foreheads on Wednesday, to turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.  And so during these last few days, it is a time to figure out what we’re going to be doing, the areas of the spiritual life we may have let languish and need to take on this year, the areas that we want to try to add new practices that will allow us to deepen our faith.  And just to kind of gear up – to prepare ourselves for a time of intensified spiritual and religious activity.

Lent should be a challenging time.  Not challenging because we do more stuff, but because we enter into a season that is spiritually charged, a time that calls for conversion. 
One of the greatest challenges, I think, can be summed up in a paradox of the spiritual life: that when we are really working hard to make spiritual headway, we also become increasingly aware of our limitations. And so as we ramp up our efforts to live our faith, we can quickly find ourselves very aware of hitting the same obstacles we seem to trip over continuously, of our frailty and weakness in seeking true conversion.

We ate the cookie.  We missed the prayer time.  We have not been able to carry out the duties, the actions that we needed to, that we promised we would.  We’ve lost our temper and just yelled, said stupid things that we know inflicted harm on another.  We fell back into an old habit that we really were hoping to break.

It doesn’t take long, when mud season is in full force here in Maine, to find oneself frustrated.   And we ask things like: “Why do I fall into the same sins, am I even  making any headway?”  
It can seem that we are beneath a spiritual glass ceiling: that we are fated to be constantly plagued by one sin or weakness or another. 

And in those moments when our efforts to make progress in responding to God’s grace hit a wall, we tend to get really frustrated with ourselves.  Or at least I do.  You want to bang your head against the wall.  Maybe you talk to yourself: you idiot, you idiot.  Was the cookie really that good?
Now that’s really not a particularly helpful response – but it is understandable.  It is frustrating not to be able to do what God asks of us, what we want to do.  And it is easy to just get frustrated with our lives in general and with God. 
We might ask: “You know me, you know what I need – why’d you make me like this, why’d you let end up in this situation when you knew I would fail?!  Why do you ask me to do something that I can’t do!?  Why yes and no?

If we look to our first reading, and really, to the whole of the Hebrew scriptures, it is this experience of yes and no that torments God’s people.  They enter into a covenant, but they cannot be faithful to it.  They are called to be God’s people, but again and again show themselves incapable of following his commands.  Their frustration becomes poignant in the prophets, in Isaiah, who begins to show them that their only hope lies in a Messiah, a new outpouring of God’s grace and favor that will give them the grace to say yes faithfully, to leave behind the miserable and meandering path of yes and no.
That’s what St. Paul is talking about in our 2nd reading today. 
In Christ, he says, we have that Messiah, we need no longer be afflicted by the torment of yes and no.  Instead, we who carry the Spirit of Christ within us carry a Word that speaks only yes, yes to the Fathers’ will.  Through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that yes of the Son who is faithful to the end lives in us, giving us the promise of salvation.

And so there is no spiritual glass ceiling – because of the grace that Jesus gives us, the frailty of our nature, of our will, of our past experience, of our original sin, need not keep us from faithfully saying yes to a life united to God in Christ.  In him we are not only all called to be saints, but we are given the grace to be saints.  No longer yes and no, but yes and yes, called and capable in Christ.
One of the greatest threats to making spiritual progress is the loss of the conviction that when we strive for holiness God gives us the grace to attain it.  But that is precisely what Jesus promises those who follow him.  We have been sealed with his Holy Spirit.  He dwells within us and makes our efforts fruitful, allowing us to find real conversion and newness of life. 
And so it is true that if we enter deeply into the spiritual discipline of Lent we will experience with greater poignancy our weakness and sinfulness.  But such awareness need not lead to frustration.  Instead, inspired by the scriptures and nourished by the sacraments, a deeper awareness of our sinfulness can force us to deepen our trust in Christ.  Trust that all things can and will be overcome by his grace alive in us and that our efforts united to him will result in the victory of God’s grace over our sinfulness and weakness.   That Christ is faithful. 
As we prepare for the discipline of Lent, let us ask for a share in the perseverance demonstrated by the four men who assisted the paralytic to reach Christ in today’s gospel.  They worked hard to carry the man from his home to Jesus.  The crowd was too large, so they climbed the roof.  They could find no opening, so they broke through it, even though they risked angering the owners.  They lowered the man down to Jesus, while the scribes looked on with disapproval.  How many frustrations?  How many limits and roadblocks?  How many times did they fail? 

What was the source of their perseverance?  They knew that when they came to Jesus he would say Yes.  They knew that Jesus always says Yes.  The perseverance that is required for you and I to make genuine progress in holiness is rooted in this same steadfast trust in the faithfulness of Christ, that he will always say yes when we ask him for healing.

Open Seas and Deserts

Homily from the 1st Sunday of Lent, 2012

Which would you choose, 40 days on the open sea or 40 days in the open desert?
Sounds like some kind of survival show.
But no – it’s the sacred scripture this weekend.

Noah and Christ both make retreats into a type of wilderness, the open sea, the open desert: environments characterized by harsh conditions and isolation from civilization.  Places where time and space become less rigid and defined – where minutes and hours and days melt together – about as close to a sense of the eternal as a human being can get in this life. 

These are places of purification, places where the earth itself marshals its strength to push away all that would distract us from the reality of our humanity and God’s divinity.  To remove from us all sense of control, of being anything other than creatures who live and breathe and exist only by the grace of God.  Any pretense: of grandeur, of self-sufficiency, of notoriety, of excellence, is stripped away, by the stinging of sand or of waves.

St. Peter teaches us in our second reading about this kind of purification, true purification, of the soul.  It is not, he says, a matter of removing dirt from the body. 
In other words, it is not a matter of abstaining from all contact with earthly things as if they are what contaminate us and make us impure.  After a good retreat, one should leave with his or her feet more firmly planted on the ground, not less.  Dirt is good.  Food,  drink, companionship, are all good, very good.  Holiness, St. Peter tells us, does not require that we live in celibate isolation atop an acropolis eating only rice cakes. (The most benign food I can think of ).

Instead, this is the description of purification that St. Peter gives us: purification, he says, comes by means of an appeal to God for a clear conscience.  And this appeal is not made by us, but by Christ, and yet it is an appeal that lives and breathes within us who have been baptized.
Through baptism, each of us has received the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ that appeals to God on our behalf, that cries out, as St. Paul tells us “Abba, Father.”  We carry his Spirit, the spirit that moves in the open desert, over the open sea, within us.  It is the Spirit of Christ who emptied himself of everything, who took on the form of a slave for our sake.  Who though he was in the form of God did not deem equality with God something to be demanded, but instead humbled himself and obediently accepted the cross.

And so we need not go to the desert, there need no longer be floods in order to find the Spirit, in order to find purification.  Instead, the Spirit of Christ Jesus who is the source of all purification dwells within us, in the wilderness of the interior life.

We have begun our retreat of 40 days.  Rather than seeking out sparse accommodations, we are called to find them within ourselves.  Jesus tells us we do that by going home, going to our inner room, shutting the door, and praying in silence.
The Church instructs us all to work to simplify our environs during this time not because they are bad or inferior, but so that we can more fully retreat into the open sea, the open desert of the interior life of prayer.

I encourage you during lent to leave the television set off for a time, the radio in the car, the computer.  To seek out places of silence, be they quiet churches or chapels, libraries, or hiking trails.  To allow the spirit to drive you into the silence, into the sparse lands where he moves freely to instruct and purify our hearts. 

We don’t need to choose between the open sea of the open desert in order to find healing and purification.  The Spirit of Christ appeals to God for a clear conscience, for peace and freedom, from within interior deserts and oceans that are waiting to be explored by us during these 40 days.