Progress is an interesting illusion which Lent invites us to revisit. Hope that we have really learned a lesson from life or achieved a long-sought objective is very seductive. We tend to assume that as soon as things change on the surface, the same change has thoroughly worked its way all the way down. And then we are surprised and disappointed to discover that is not the case. Old patterns often return, sometimes with a vengeance.
After long periods of persecution the Christian church, in the fourth century, must have felt God had let it win the lottery when the Emperor of Rome announced his conversion. Constantine saw the Christian god as a powerful ally in his domestic and military policies. He had no spiritual interest in his new faith. But it seemed to the small, scattered, marginalized congregations of the empire that the great exorcism of the Cross had eventually spread to the highest realms of power. As the churches swelled in numbers their faith was diluted. Before long, whenever possible, Christian leaders used their upper hand to destroy the temples and chop off the heads and legs of their statues of the old gods, with all the intolerance of the Taliban today or the Puritan reformers of the sixteenth century. They did not martyr the pagans because they were still numerous and widespread, but the Christian leaders ridiculed their beliefs and outlawed their rituals. We are not very pleasant when we are so sure we are right and even less so when we think we have won.
This tide of arrogance and disrespect, however, also called forth a different kind of Christianity exemplified in the monastic movement of the desert. Here Christians came to live the mystery of Christ in the deepest and most humble personal way. Even on their deathbed, the old teachers of the desert reminded their disciples that the inner struggle with one’s own demons and especially the demon of pride and self-deception was what mattered. And that struggle continued, for us all, to the end. Even Jesus struggled with the demon of fear on his last night.
Lent humbles us in this way. It is most effective when what humbles is something small and trivial. It only takes a sudden craving for what you gave up, or the surge of attachment for what you had let go of yesterday or a struggle to sit through the whole evening meditation, for us to land with a bump. As the self-woven illusions with which we clothe ourselves unravel, we are embarrassed to discover we are naked and that we don’t look as good naked as we do when we are dressed up. We see that progress isn’t forever, nor is it as linear as we thought. Perhaps the real progress is in discovering this.