Life is a journey that is made up of many journeys. Many times we find ourselves midway through a journey, look back, look forward, examine where we are and move ahead. This is the basic story of life and all journeys and is oftentimes captured well in literature. In his famous work, The Divine Comedy, the medieval Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, makes a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. He starts his journey by stating, “Midway through the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed from the straight pathway to this tangled ground.” A twentieth century American poet, Robert Frost, also makes a journey through woods in his famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. He stops in the middle of his journey to reflect, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
Like Dante and Frost, we find ourselves at a midway point, that of our journey through Lent. Sunday, March 14, marks that midway point on what is traditionally called Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday. Sunday, March 21, will commence the final two weeks of Lent when statues in churches used to be draped in purple. At this midway point, we can stop on our journey and look back to Ash Wednesday or we can also look ahead to the coming celebration of Easter. However, time will march on and the journey will continue whether we wish it or not!
Midway points on a journey are good times to examine ourselves as to how we are doing. Certainly, this is very true of our journey during Lent as we try to discern how faithful we have been to our acts of charity, works of penance, and practices of prayer. More importantly, our examination of Lent helps us to discern how we are growing in our relationship with Christ and how this growth makes a difference in our daily lives. We may find ourselves somewhat satisfied with our Lenten journey so far or we may find ourselves disappointed. No matter what our situation may be, perhaps this midway point should be a reminder to all of us that our journey through forty days of Lent is but a trifling reflection of our journey through life. Like Dante, we are involved in a journey of life that takes us into eternity, and, like Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep, no matter how close to the end of our journey we may be.
Our lives are part of a bigger picture which involves eternity. While it is not popular to speak of it today, hell and purgatory are as real as heaven. In fact, they are more real than what we immediately see before us. Our lives involve choices in terms of what direction and purpose we wish to take, and those choices involve our eternal destiny. If our society was ever faced with the question of eternal meaning and destiny, as well as that of good and evil which affect that journey, it certainly is at the present time of history. Life’s meaning goes far beyond today and without that vision, life truly lacks purpose. The good that one does perdures into eternity and so does the evil.
Each year the Pope spends five days at the beginning of Lent on retreat with members of the Roman Curia. This practice began under Pope Pius XI almost 90 years ago. Last year, Pope Francis was not able to be present at the retreat due to a cold. However, he did participate “from home” by following the retreat from his residence at the Casa Santa Martha. This year, due to the safety restrictions of the pandemic, Pope Francis asked the Curia to make a private retreat from February 21 through February 26. He gave each member of the retreat a 17th century Italian text for their reading. The text was written by an anonymous Cistercian monk and is entitled Abbia a Cuore Il Signore, which means, Keep the Lord in your Heart. This midway point of Lent is a good time to reflect upon how we keep the Lord in our hearts as we look back and ahead but especially at the present moment.
Midway through Lent should remind us all that our lives must have eternal perspective. We need to see that what is before us today always stands before a God who loves us and offers us eternal life. We need to look at the past and realize that we cannot change it. However, we also need to realize we can change the present which does affect the future as well as our eternity. We are able to look to the future, but we really do not know when and if it will come. However, God’s eternal goodness and His life will always prevail. As the author of Keep the Lord in your Heart reflects, “God will meet you where your humanity has descended all the steps of weakness and you will have reached the awareness of your limitation. If you yourself do not choose the path of abasement, life will take you where you would not want because, as the Lord teaches, only those who live their weakness with humility will be exalted.”
Midway on our journey through Lent should also remind us that, like Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep. It does not matter how young or old we may be nor does it matter how early or late we might be on our journey through life. What is before us today is what is important. What we have done in the past certainly has an impact. However, what we do with the time that is before us still will make the greatest difference. This may be a hard lesson for our age with its emphasis on youth and achievement. Nevertheless, it is the core message of the Gospel and the one that stresses the dignity of each person made in the image and likeness of God. When Jesus tells the parable of the laborers hired late in the day who earned the same wage as those hired early in the day, He makes clear that we simply cannot rest content with the past nor feel it is too late to accomplish anything (cf. Matt. 20:1-16). We all have miles to go before we sleep!
As we look at our Lenten journey at this midway point, let us all examine what we are doing always with the view toward eternity as well as with the view toward the importance of the present moment for the future. Perhaps that perspective is the best lesson we can take from this midway point as we continue to journey through dark woods toward Easter and the promise of new life with the Lord always in our hearts.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
March 12, 2021