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T.S. Eliot said “April is the cruelest month.” Wrong. It’s March. The madness of it. The tease of a day in the 60’s followed by a night in the teens. A snowy St. Patrick’s Day is just the kind of insanity that brings out great art, as my friend Rebecca Teti’s parody of Danny Boy, the fruit of another DC snowstorm, can attest: “Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are frozen, /From end to end and down the whole northside; /St. Patrick’s snow is not what I’d have chosen /-And truth be told, I hardly can abide.”
Eliot’s choice of April was based on the spontaneous rebirth of nature mocking the slowness of our own belabored and far-from-automatic spiritual rebirth. Well, it’s been a roller coaster week on that front, as well. (I’ll save the details for a man sacramentally duty-bound to take them to his grave.) If there were a way to measure the soul scientifically, I’m sure we’d find that there are times when it has as many ups and downs as a March thermometer.
But ups and downs are the warp and woof of fallen creatures. Your dog will never have a bad day of being a dog. Every day for Fido is a dog day. But we have days when we are closer to what God wants of us, and others when our pursuit of other false freedoms weighs us down for sure. How awesome would it be to stay on top?
As a kid I didn’t like roller coasters very much. I couldn’t quite comprehend why someone paid for me to have a near death experience. But, somehow, it was ok if my dad or older brother was there. I didn’t get the logic of that either, since they certainly couldn’t stop the ride or save me if we went off the rails, but it worked nonetheless. Comforted nausea strangely beats nausea all alone.
Jesus Christ, God on high, came down to share our life, to accompany us, to save us. His life is also one of ups and downs. Glory in the highest and the Descent into Hell, Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain, the depths of a stable-cave and the height of Mount Tabor, the height of Mt. Calvary and the depths of a tomb. As the Second Sunday of Lent presented us the Transfiguration, Pope Francis picked out two important concepts in the Gospel for his Sunday Angelus message. You guessed it: “up” and “down,” to ascend and to descend.
“We need to go apart by ourselves, to ascend the mountain in a space of silence, to find ourselves and better perceive the Lord’s voice. We do this in prayer,” said His Holiness. And how tempting it is to stay there, to enjoy our time with God like we enjoy 65 degrees in early March, basking in the warmth and wishing we were already in heaven.
But Pope Francis quickly added, “But we cannot remain there! The encounter with God in prayer moves us again to ‘descend from the mountain’ and return below, to the plain, where we meet many brothers who are burdened by toil, sickness, injustice, ignorance, material and spiritual poverty. We are called to bring to these brothers who are enduring hardships the fruits of our experience with God, sharing the grace we have received.”
Those very brothers who get on our nerves, cut us off on the road, and are the Debbie Downer stations of our personal way of the cross.
Thomas a Kempis wrote that every time he went out among men he returned less of a man. I think Pope Francis is correcting him, here. When we spend time with God, we bring something with us for others, and that is supposed to decrease, to be lessened while it enriches others. No water boy should complain that the bottles get empty when he goes down to the field. His job is to go back and fill them up again.
And Pope Francis, fresh off his week of Lenten retreat, is telling us the same. Carry around a part of the mountain, and hike up there in spirit each day, reading the Gospel a little bit and then sharing it with others.
Jesus Christ is with us on this roller coaster, accompanying us no matter what we do, even walking down Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day, rain or shine. The ups and downs are best with Him. It’s not about feeling good on the mountain. The Church militant is about being on the march, trudging up and down that hill to bring God to mankind and mankind to God.
St. Patrick was the Apostle of Ireland. He knew that it was crazy always to pray for sunshine. He knew the value of the bluster and the rain, the freshness and the green it brings. He prayed not to get off the roller coaster, but that Christ be before him, and above him, and below him. The ups and downs become fruitful for all eternity when we live them with Christ and in Christ, and with Christ with us and in us.
On this feast of St. Patrick, if you’re fed up with March letting you down, pray the prayer that Patrick called his “breastplate.”
And once we’ve spent that time on the mountain, let’s go down and serve our brothers and sisters, easing, with our love, the cruelty of a long and crazy March.