What follows is the first week of reflections in our “Beauty in the Desert” Lenten series. To receive these each week in your inbox, click here.
As I write this, I am teaching Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” to my high school juniors. In the first chapter and titular vignette, O’Brien employs multiple meanings for the word “carry.” The soldiers carry cigarettes, ammunition, gum, toilet paper. They also carry shame, fear, desire, responsibility. They carry each other. Not everything they carry can be touched, but all of it holds weight.
Seamus Heaney’s poem “Miracle” shifts the focus of the story of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic to “the ones who have known him all along / And carry him in.” Instead of the one who will lift his mat and walk, whose sins will be forgiven, Heaney looks to the friends who surround him, who brought him there. He looks on “Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked / In their backs, the stretcher handles / Slippery with sweat.” He addresses the reader in the imperative and commands: “Be mindful of them as they stand and wait.”
I love this poem for many reasons, but especially for these last lines. Be mindful of the ones who carry in the paralytic, Heaney writes, as they stand and wait, “For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool, / Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity / To pass.” What could be more apt for Lent? We stand and wait, perhaps with numb shoulders or hands burning from our Lenten sacrifices. We carry all of this to Calvary. With the faith of the paralytic’s friends, we carry those we are called to love and serve. We may not be the one to experience the miracle, like the paralytic, but we look with “slight lightheadedness and incredulity” and gaze upon the Cross.
As these 40 days continue and we carry on, as we hear the same stories again and commemorate the Passion of our Lord, we ask God to bless what we carry. Grant us an ache in our backs and bless our burning hands, Lord. Grant us the faith and love of the paralytic’s friends so that we too might witness the surprises and miracles of Christ.
I have distinct memories from childhood of listening to the soundtrack to “Godspell” during Lent. I can hear the timbre of the voice of the actor playing John the Baptist as he sings, “Pre-e-e-pare ye the way of the Lord!” In recent years, the Hillbilly Thomists’ albums were the background for my Lenten prayer, fasting and almsgiving in the midst of quarantine. Their stripped-down bluegrass music cut through the chaos to deliver the Gospel with a twang.
This year, though, I find myself seeking something softer, something quieter. I attended an Augustinian college and have been rereading Augustine’s “Confessions,” so perhaps it is for these reasons that I’m listening to “O Beauty Ever Ancient.” (I recommend the version sung by the Saint Louis Jesuits!).
The song begins with Augustine’s prayer (a lament, in a way, but also a prayer of thanksgiving): “Oh, late have I loved you, / oh, late have I turned / turned from seeking you in creatures, / fleeing grief and pain within.” And isn’t this what we are doing in Lent? The Latin root of the word “conversion” means “to turn.” And it is in this season when we give up the idols with which we have replaced God in order to turn our hearts back to him, to be converted anew. We don’t just turn from these vices but we turn toward God.
Augustine recognizes that for more than 30 years of his life, he sought happiness in the world, like a prodigal son. In the song, Augustine says he “turned to seek [God] in all things,” but he lost himself in them. In one of the later stanzas in the song, the lyrics say, “This created world is glorious, / yet I could not see within, / see your loveliness behind all, / find the Giver in the gift.” When he finally recognizes the Giver and sees God in all things – God who has always been there, who humbles himself to take the form of bread and wine, he is converted. His restless heart, as ours, has found its home.
Let us pray – O, Beauty ever ancient, ever new: This Lent, let us find our life in you.
Mary Grace Mangano is a writer and high school English teacher currently living in Philadelphia. She received her BA in English from Villanova University and then continued her education at the University of Notre Dame where she earned a master’s in management and a master’s in education through the Alliance for Catholic Education. Mary Grace is currently working on her MFA in creative writing at the University of St. Thomas in Houston as an inaugural Gioia Family Fellowship recipient. Her writing has been published in America magazine, Dappled Things, Fare Forward and others. You can find more of her work at marygracemangano.wordpress.com.