A Reflection for Lent
I read Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck recently. There’s this terrific moment when one of the main characters, Pilon, has a sacred encounter with sea gulls:
“These birds are flying across the forehead of the Father. Dear birds, dear sea gulls, how I love you all. Your slow wings stroke my heart as the hand of a gentle master strokes the full stomach of a sleeping dog, as the hand of Christ stroked the heads of little children. Dear birds,” he thought, “fly to our Lady of Sweet Sorrows with my open heart.”
And then he said the loveliest words he knew, “Ave Maria, gratia plena –”
There was, nor is, nor ever has been a purer soul than Pilon’s at that moment… A soul washed and saved is a soul doubly in danger, for everything in the world conspires against such a soul. “Even the straws under my knees,” says Saint Augustine, “shout to distract me from prayer.”
Pilon’s soul was not even proof against his own memories; for, as he watched the birds, he remembered that Mrs. Pastano used sea gulls sometimes in her tamales, and that memory made him hungry, and hunger tumbled his soul out of the sky. Pilon moved on, once more a cunning mixture of good and evil.”
We looked at Jesus in the desert at our house church gathering this past Sunday, and noted how this episode of temptation came right after a high point: his baptism in the Jordan River. Is this paradigmatic of human life? Are we most vulnerable when we’ve just come through a profound spiritual moment?
Lent is a season to consider new spiritual practices, or to incorporate some new habits. Yet, as Augustine notes, even our best intentions are easily undone by distractions shouting at us from around and beneath us. This is probably true these days as ever, amid Facebook notifications, Twitterfeeds, and busy schedules. But that also makes this season of Lent as needed as ever.
In the coming weeks, we might do well to intentionally spend some time in the straw, adding a new spiritual discipline or practice, while paying attention to what it is that distracts us from these higher pursuits.
And who knows, perhaps a moment of sublimity such as Pilon knew will come our way.
Just watch out for Mrs. Pastano’s tamales.
Bryan Berghoef writes and tweets from the nation’s capital. His book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God invites you to engage in deep conversations over a good beer. You can follow Bryan on Twitter @bryberg.