Run as if your life depended on it. It’s a charge full of urgency, something we’d hear in a movie or television drama. But it’s a concept that we can understand; save your life by doing something for all your might.
But so many things present themselves to us as urgent every day – even routinely, in a uniquely modern paradox. But honest evaluation will reveal that it’s rare, if ever, that we confront a “clear and present danger” to our very lives, much less do we have to adjust to a persistent one. We don’t have to walk home each night through woods inhabited by bandits or bears that frequently claim the lives of our neighbors. The Black Plague isn’t moving from house to house. The Secret Police do not knock in the night to “disappear” people. So we grow complacent.
It is precisely this complacency that is the threat; and we must flee, because death itself is the penalty. Although habitual selfishness and indifference don’t leave a mangled corpse every few days, that disguises but does not change the reality that they are a real threat to our very lives.
This brings to mind the words of Saint Peter Chrysologus, one of the Church Fathers, bishop of Ravenna (Italy) in the early fifth century. I read it every year in the Divine Office during the third week of Lent, and am always struck by its candor and directness.
There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.
Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.
Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.
When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.
These are powerful words that remind us that our Lenten practices are no empty ritual or cultural artifact, but a spiritual practice of vital importance to our health and survival. Yes: survival. The sin that settles in and abides will slowly strangle us even while we live in this world, and snuff out the life that endures forever in heaven that Christ has poured into us. Yes, we can lose that great gift; yes, eternal death can, with our complicity, claim us.
This is the annual wake-up call that Lent delivers to the clear and present danger that can insinuate itself into any home, or neighborhood, or soul. This is the also the defense that Lent provides to rescue us, again with our cooperation. Fast, pray, and give alms -- as if your life depended on it.