In The Great Divorce, a short allegorical short novel dealing with the soul’s entry into eternity, C. S. Lewis describes an extraordinary scene. Approaching in a procession, a woman is preceded by luminous spirits who scatter flowers, and she is surrounded by boys and girls. The narrator explains that if only he could write down the notes of the musical setting that accompany their song, “no man who ever read that score would ever grow sick or old.” As the woman comes closer, he realizes that she seems to be clothed “in the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces […] the illusion of a great and shining train that accompanied her across the happy grass.” Dazzled by her “unbearable beauty”, and awe-struck by the thousand liveried angels who accompany her, the narrator asks his guide: “Is it? … is it?”
Reading thus far the Provost assumed, perhaps with the narrator, that this magnificent woman could surely only be one person: the Queen of Heaven. But the response that the narrator receives from his guide reveals an even more wonderful truth: on earth, this regal figure was in fact one Sarah Smith, who lived in Golders Green. Extraordinary in Heaven, her earthly life could not have been more ordinary, at least as far as outward appearances went. The young men and women who accompany her are the children whose lives were enhanced by her kindness, including the butcher’s boy who carried meat to her back door. She had become a mother to them in such a way that “they went back to their natural parents loving them more.” Taking in the scene, the narrator is then taken aback when he realizes the retinue includes scores of animals. “Did she keep a sort of zoo?” he asks. The answer: “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them […] there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe to life.”
Lewis illustrates a truth which provides rich material for meditation: that behind the veneer of everyday appearances, there exists the vast and extraordinary universe of the spiritual and the supernatural. Because this realm remains invisible to the naked eye, it is quite possible that our vision never extends beyond the world of shadows and semi-blindness that presents itself to our senses. To penetrate the surface and to begin to see reality in its fullness, we need Faith.
As part of His sacred mission to redeem mankind, Our Lord laid aside His glory. He did this so successfully that many thought that the carpenter’s son from Nazareth must be mad to believe that anyone would accept Him as the Son of God. On the Gospel appointed for the Second Sunday of Lent, however, we see how He revealed a glimpse of His true glory to Peter, James and John, in His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. This vision of the Messiah radiating brilliant light and talking with Moses and Elias while the Father’s voice declares from Heaven “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye Him” (Mt 17:5), was perhaps given to encourage and sustain these three chosen disciples through the terrible trials that will follow during in His Passion. It also serves the purpose of sustaining us in Lent, reminding us that the end of our Lenten observances is glory – both in beholding the glory of the Beatific Vision in Heaven, and in participating in that glory now.
The season of Lent provides us with the practical means to readjust our vision. In fasting, we temper the tyranny of our appetites, which so easily blind us to the spiritual realities that lie beyond the reach of our senses. In self-denial, we unite ourselves with Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, and we die to ourselves, so that the supernatural life of the Resurrection which was poured into us in Baptism might take ever greater possession of our hearts and souls. In almsgiving and works of charity, we remind ourselves that our neighbour bears the image of God on his soul, so that in ministering to the needy we pay great honour to God Himself. In deepening our prayer life, we widen the channels of communication, so that God is able to communicate His Divine Life to us in abundance.
If we are not careful, our vision can become permanently fixed on what is happening in front of us, so that the more significant background becomes so blurred that it disappears, and we end up living in a world of unreality or half-reality. Lent is the perfect opportunity to adjust the focus. If we make the most of this holy season then, with God’s grace, we shall be able to participate in a marvellous way in the glory of Our Lord’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Fr Julian Large