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Life is the best spiritual director

Third Sunday of Lent


I once owned a huge golden retriever named Duffy, who taught me the flesh-and-blood meaning of this week’s Lenten gospel. Duffy’s first owner was an avid show dog trainer. She had brought Duffy to the kind of perfection to which show dog aficionados aspire. He came on command. He heeled to the knee. He sat without moving for minutes. He “finished” slowly and ponderously but with never a flaw. He watched his handler’s every move. Duffy had a problem, however. Without a command to respond to, he was clearly nervous, timid and afraid. You could see it in the hang of his head. You could tell that new things confused him. You knew that risk, dare and exploration were not his strengths. He was perfect but he was not happy. He was a healthy dog but he was not a frisky one. He was a good dog but he was not a playful one. He simply lived his life waiting to be told what to do next.

So after a while, I decided to stop showing off all his training exercises. I gave him no orders at all after that. I simply depended on the relationship between us to keep him near me on our walks. It took a long time before Duffy could trust stopping along the road to smell the flowers. It took ages before he chased a butterfly. It was a long time before he ran to retrieve a tennis ball. It was ages before he lunged at me, big paws flailing, tail high, drooling with delight. But when he got to that point there was something new in him. It wasn’t “obedience.” It was development. Duffy had outgrown “perfection” and become “good” instead. He wasn’t an automaton anymore; he was a dog. And, interestingly enough, I began to see in him what had been lacking in my understanding of Lent for a long, long time.

The question with which we are brought to wrestle in the Third Sunday of Lent -- “Are we expected to be perfect or are we expected to be spiritual?” -- raises the issue of development again, only this time in regard to our own. It requires us to look carefully at our surrender of self to a religion based on fear, at our own eventual defiances, at our own straggling attempts at life, at our own disappointing selves, at our own stumbling excursions into adulthood, at our own hearts. The gospel leads us to ask ourselves precisely what we are really intended to be: Pursuers of the spiritual life or pursuers of perfection? Don’t be fooled into thinking that one is necessarily the other.

The history of spirituality is a very sobering chronicle to explore. It is sometimes hard to imagine how those reading it could even think of committing themselves to a pursuit of the spiritual life in this day and age. The extremes of asceticism abound there. Spiritual athletes perform feats of self-mutilation, self-abnegation and self-sacrifice on those pages that defy human comprehension. As a result, we live with an honor roll of saints in our minds who punished themselves to control themselves: desert monastics who lived on locusts and wild honey and fasted even from those for days, Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pole for years, women who mutilated themselves to preserve their chastity, men who beat themselves with whips to subdue the impulses of the body.

We admire them, these religious Olympians, these holy fools of history, in a reluctant kind of way, but we hardly ever set out to emulate them. In fact, if truth were known, we are inclined to suspect those who do. At least my scholastic mistress did. It was sufficient for her that you were in chapel on time, not that you set out to kneel there all night long. Sufficient that you didn’t eat between meals during Lent rather than that you starved yourself into a physical state too weak to do your work. Enough that you kept silence not for the sake of inducing a vision or two but simply so that everyone around you could think. “No one ever approaches perfection,” William Hazlitt wrote, “except by stealth and unknown to themselves.” My scholastic mistress would agree. Her philosophy was a clear one: Life was its own spiritual director; none other need apply.

Jesus, it seems, thinks the same. To make the point, he tells a story that sets up a tension between expectations and reality, between the average but always artificial standards of any system and the incalculable effects of time and circumstances on the individual soul.

Every farmer in the audience knew three things for sure as they heard him speak. They knew, first, that it takes a fig tree three years to mature before there could be any hope of produce at all. There would be years of wasted time to the process of growth, in other words. They knew, as well, as they looked out over the thin strip of green belt in sallow, dry Israel, that land could not be wasted on a plant that was useless. A tree that did not produce could not be kept. They knew, finally, that the three years were up for the tree in the story and the owner expected results. In fact, they knew, the owner had a right to expect results.

But there was a conundrum to the story as well. The groundskeeper, wise in the way of living things, knows that everything in life does not run according to schedule. Instead of uprooting the barren tree, he suggests more time, more care, more seasoning. To the owner of a vineyard who sees no use in giving more time and resources to a tree that has borne no fruit, the groundskeeper cautions patience. The tree is not perfect, no, but the tree is, after all, yet alive and might still mature, might still develop, might still grow, might still produce something of real value, might still become its best self if only it gets the time it needs. It is a parable about risk, hope and trust. It is a parable that weighs perfection and growth in the balance and chooses for growth.

Who is there who does not understand the impatience of the owner? Who does not want instant success and permanent achievement? And who is there who has not been the patient groundskeeper who, when patience seemed foolish, asked for it nevertheless -- for a child, for a project, for themselves? Who of us can possibly claim that we have not also, at times, even been the tree -- the one who disappointed everyone else’s expectations, the slow learner in a sea of confusion, the one who took years to see through a thing and change it, the latecomer to responsibility, productivity and maturity and what the family called “good sense”?

Who is there who has not expected perfection of someone only to watch them shrivel under the pressure of it? Who is there who has not expected too much of themselves too soon and so stumbled through life ashamed, drowning in self-hatred, despairing of future possibility?

But only perfection is superficial enough to be gotten so easily. Growth, real growth, the kind that changes us internally forever, comes slowly, and often through the hard, searing, humiliating, disappointing experience of failure. It’s when we can no longer face ourselves, when we can go beyond guilt to possibility, only then are we ready to grow.

This Sunday in Lent takes us down into ourselves, into our families, into our relationships and makes us rethink all our own expectations, revisit all our guilt, redefine all our errant efforts from failure to success. We discover that we can fail in honesty and learn openness, that we can fail in chastity and learn love, that we can fail in greed and learn values, that we can fail in obedience and learn truth.

This is a story about not giving up on the self. As the ancient story puts it, the old monastic, asked by the young seeker, “What do you do in the monastery?” answers simply, “Oh, we fall down and we get up again. And we fall down and we get up again. And we fall down and we get up again.” All of life is about failing to meet standards and, as a result of each failure, growing in ways we could never have dreamed without those failures. That is, after all, what life is about: about seasoning, about experience, about wisdom, about failures that make us grow. Lent is the reminder that we are being given, by a patient God, everything we need to become whole. Lent is the call to answer some important questions about what our lives really need now.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001