It’s Lent I’m a priest and everyday my email is filled with lots of Lenten meditations. I can’t read them all but I ran across one on Friday that made me pause. It was written by St. Anselm. He lived in the middle Ages. In this meditation St. Anselm was in a way referring to the Fall of Adam. As we read in our first reading from Genesis, “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” God exalts in our physicality, it is good. Our physical body is good. But we are more than just physical matter we are enlivened by the very breath of God. We are body and soul.
But then, in our God-given freedom, we gave into temptation and sinned. We mucked it up. St. Anselm referring to this wrote, “We sinners are like diamonds that have fallen into the muck. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not have solved the problem. It wouldn’t have restored the diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to reestablish the beauty of creation, God came down into the muck of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and then polished them off.” “God became man so that men might be made God.” But in doing so God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt-this divine solidarity with the lost-is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It’s a sacrifice of compassion.
I have a story about a man who once sank into the muck. But he did eventually let himself be raised and polished by our Lord. He let himself be breathed upon once again by the breath of God. His name is Jacques Fesch born in France in 1930. He was born into a very famous wealthy banking family. He had it easy. His father gave him everything. But he didn’t appreciate it. He didn’t appreciate his Catholic faith and he abandoned it by the age of 17. Jacques was not a good student, he put no effort into his studies, and he coasted. He was more interested in parties and the adventures he could buy with his dad’s money. After high school he spent a few years in the army. At 21 he was back home working for his dad who had given him a very high paying job. He married his pregnant girlfriend who soon gave birth to their daughter. Jacques was soon bored with domesticity and left his wife and his job. He was a playboy. He sailed boats, rode horses, drove fast cars, and hung out with musicians. The money soon ran out and his dad wouldn’t give him any more. So in order to fund his lifestyle to which he was accustomed, he came up with the scheme to rob the Paris Stock Exchange. In the process of this poorly executed robbery he shot and killed a police officer. He was quickly apprehended, he was 24.
He showed no remorse. He said he was only sorry that he hadn’t carried a machine gun. He could have killed more people. He told the prison chaplain to get lost and he mocked his devout Catholic lawyer who showed concern for his soul. Fesch was convicted and sentenced to the guillotine. He was to be beheaded. He remained faithless and hostile for about a year. Until one night he experienced a sudden and dramatic conversion. “I was in bed, eyes open, really suffering for the first time in my life It was then that a cry burst from my breast, an appeal for help – My God – and instantly, like a violent wind which passes over without anyone knowing where it comes from, the spirit of the Lord seized me by the throat.” Reminding us of Genesis where God blew into his nostrils the breath of life. Jacques would later write, “I had an impression of infinite power and kindness and, from that moment onward, I believed with an unshakeable conviction that has never left me.”
After his reversion to the faith of his childhood Jacques became a model prisoner. In his cell he lived the life of a monk. And he expressed profound remorse for the murder he had committed. During his time in prison Jacques wrote many letters and kept a journal. These writings and his profound conversion made an impression on many people and it has put him on the path to beatification and possible canonization. He was executed at the age of 27. At the scaffold before the blade fell Jacques asked the priest standing beside him for the crucifix so that he could kiss it. After kissing the crucifix his last words were, “Holy Virgin, have pity on me.”
God came down into the muck of sin and death, brought the diamond up, and then polished him off. Jacques lived at both ends of the spectrum first at the extreme disobedience of Adam and then later after repenting he lived at the extreme obedience of Christ. He went back to living within the breath of God, to living within the life of the Trinity. In scripture we read that after the resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples and he said to them, “Peace be with you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Today is Quadragesima Sunday which means it’s exactly forty days until Good Friday. We have forty days to sit with our Lord in prayer, we have forty days to go to him in the sacraments, we have forty days to give of our self in charity, and we have forty days to fast from whatever distracts us from our Lord. We are given these forty days to live more and more within the Breath of God, to be filled with God’s own life, to live more and more in the peace of our Lord. We are given these forty days of preparation so that we can rejoice with a whole heart on Easter Sunday, and every Sunday.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley