Lenten Reflections: Fifth Sunday of Lent
Reflection by John Glynn, STM'11
Reflection by John Glynn, STM'11
John Glynn, STM'11, is a campus minister at Boston College where he oversees the wildly popular Kairos Retreats for BC undergraduates. John also serves as Resident Minister to undergrads in Ignacio and Rubenstein Halls, and is actively engaged with the Contemplative Leaders in Action program through The Jesuit Collaborative in Boston.
"Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." Jn 12:24
Today's Gospel for the fifth Sunday of Lent contains arguably the crux of the Christian story: death leads to life. Our Gospels seem to contain a lot of these paradoxical truths; how strength is found through making oneself weak, "to find myself I must lose myself", "it is in giving away that I receive", and in this case, "that through death we experience life". Taken at a glance these are absurd statements, and it amazes me to consistently encounter the truth of them in my life.
We can interpret this movement of death to life in many ways – in a figurative sense of "dying" to the ways that we hold ourselves in isolation and slavery through sin in order to experience a new way of living in intimate relationship and freedom; or in the literal sense of coming to the end of our earthly life in anticipation of the resurrection. Thomas Merton, the great spiritual writer of the last century, extensively dealt with the notion of experiencing new life through death, particularly in the way we ourselves must die in order to have new life in Christ. He describes the "false self" that must pass away in order for the new life that God desires for us to begin; in other words, a movement towards holiness.
I've encountered this reality over and over again in my life, in both minor, daily experiences and large, life-shaping ones. I've experienced healing and mercy, growth and transformation. In the myriad ways I've died to my false self and grown in a new identity as a child of God, I've come to be hopeful that these figurative experiences of death leading to life is in fact a foretaste of the resurrection, when new life will literally flow from death.
Merton reminds us that this movement to holiness is never easy. We are born with the mask of our false self on our hearts, and live much of our lives compulsively directed by fear. Fear is the root of our false self, whether fear of abandonment, being powerless, losing control, being exposed, not being worthy, or in the countless other ways that it exerts influence on our lives. Overcoming fear – destroying our false self – takes a lifetime. And it's impossible on our own. Fortunately, God's Spirit never abandons us, but provides us with grace to transform death to life. And there – where the Spirit of God works to help us throw off the shackles of sin and death and calls us to new life – is the heart of our true self.
"If, then, we want to seek some way of being holy, we must first of all renounce our own way and our own wisdom. We must "empty ourselves" as He did. We must “deny ourselves" and in some sense make ourselves “nothing" in order that we may live not so much in ourselves as in Him. We must live by a power and a light that seem not to be there. We must live by the strength of an apparent emptiness that is always truly empty and yet never fails to support us every moment.
This is holiness"
-Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
I've experience this in a profound way through an experience of actual death. When I was in college, my father died unexpectedly from complications after a heart attack. Over ten years has gone by since then, and when I reflect on the journey I've traveled to be the man I am today, and that experience remains a watershed moment that irrevocably changed me. With maturity comes honesty and an ability to separate the real from the romantic (not an easy task for an Irishman). I realize now that I owe much of my false self to my father's parenting. He wasn't a perfect father – I don't know if there's even such a thing – and he failed about as much as he succeeded in loving me and my brothers.
When he died, home, family, and all sense of security was upended. But in the wake of his passing, amazing things happened. I found comfort in my community at Notre Dame. I developed unexpected new friendships who taught me about how to live with faith and hope. I honed my values, and realized new priorities for how I wanted to live my life. Most importantly, I learned how to love my father for the man he was, instead of the caricature of fatherhood I wanted him to be. And in loving him for who he authentically was, I discovered I wanted to similarly serve others as he strived to.
As I experienced his life, I developed my false self; as I experienced his death, I glimpsed my true identity as a child of God who is made for love. His life was a grain of wheat that is still producing good fruit in my life and the lives of my brothers, who are now fathers in their own right. Living into that identity as God's beloved is something I have to work on every day, but thankfully Lent gives me (and us) the reminder that God never abandons us in this effort, and that at the end of all things, new life awaits. Death leads to life. This is holiness.