In the Office of Readings for Monday of the Third Week of Lent, Saint Basil the Great writes: “Boasting of God is perfect and complete when we take no pride in our own righteousness but acknowledge that we are utterly lacking in true righteousness and have been made righteous only by faith in Christ.”Every time I make my commitments for Lent, I know that I am setting myself up for failure! Sooner or later, I am not going to perfectly fulfill my zealous promises on Ash Wednesday to pray, fast and give alms with greater generosity and depth. The penance of Lent seems to open up our weakness on purpose, to encourage us to both embrace a spiritual ideal that is beyond our grasp and to console us when we fail along the way. Wouldn’t it be easier to just set our sights lower, so that we would fall closer to the ground?
In his quote, St. Basil reminds us that we need to radically get in touch with our sinfulness and weakness, to experience the collapse of our self-sufficiency, to feel the pain of our moral failures, to taste the bitterness of plans defeated, so that we can come more fully to faith in Christ as the One who loves, redeems, forgives and clothes in righteousness.What can be said of Lent can probably be said of seminary formation as well. A man preparing for the priesthood is challenged on so many levels to grow and be formed anew in Christ. The seminary will call him to allow these years of intense preparation to mold and shape his intellect, prayer, manners, morals, sexuality, punctuality, management skills, ability to communicate, emotions and thoughts. This process is a tall order and no one does it perfectly.
Precisely where seminary ideals and human weakness intersect can be found the mercy of God! Knowing both our strengths and weaknesses well, we can thank God for the gifts we have received and humbly rely on Him in our imperfections. God always chooses earthen vessels to accomplish His will in this world. Both Lent and the seminary call us to shoot for the stars, in terms of sanctity, but also remind us that only the grace, mercy and righteousness of Christ can actually carry us to that sacred place Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.Once we get what Basil is talking about, our life can become a balance of self-acceptance and self-challenge, always striving for a deeper embrace of the devout life, yet knowing that we will continue to sin. Is this steady climb of rising and falling not an extension of Jesus’ journey to Calvary, a place of death, but ultimately the strange and wonderful spot of final victory?