Over 100 years ago the great Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a famous book titled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The main character of the novel was Dr. Henry Jekyll, a distinguished physician and a leading citizen in his community. The good doctor had some secret vices which he kept carefully hidden; rather than trying to overcome them, however, he actually wished to be able to practice them without paying the consequences for his sins. He managed to create a magic potion which transformed his physical features, so that no one could recognize him, and another potion which would restore his original appearance. This allowed him to take on a new identity, known as Mr. Hyde, and go about town indulging in his worst desires without anyone being the wiser. However, something happened he hadn’t expected: his new evil identity began gaining greater dominance in his life, to the point where finally Dr. Jekyll was no longer in control of himself. The inevitable end of the story was a tragic one: Dr. Jekyll brought about his own destruction (Emphasis, Feb. 1993, p. 64).
Robert Louis Stevenson was making an important moral point: we must fight the evil within us, rather than giving into it and eventually letting it take control over us. This is also the message the Church urges us to reflect upon very carefully during this Lenten season. Love, holiness, and happiness are not automatic or guaranteed, and we can very easily lose these things if we’re not careful. Lent reminds us that we are all engaged in an inner struggle—a struggle of the spirit which we can only win with God’s help.
All of us are subject to temptation and sin—but, as today’s readings show, God is quite willing to help us overcome these dangers. The Book of Genesis tells the story of the original human sin; the man and woman disobeyed God, unleashing a host of evils and upsetting the beauty and perfection of the Lord’s creation. As St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, “through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death. . . .” All of us are affected by this reality. Our humanity, created to be perfect, is now marred, meaning we can easily be led astray, and on our own can never find or achieve salvation. However, St. Paul tells us that Jesus’ sacrifice restored the order which Adam’s sin had upset; he says, “just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of one man, the many will be made righteous.” Jesus has the authority not only to welcome us into His Kingdom when we die, but also to help us grow in grace and begin experiencing that Kingdom here on earth. This means, of course, that we must face and overcome temptation—something which Our Lord Himself did. Satan tried to lead Him astray, but Jesus stood firm, saying, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship, and Him alone shall you serve.” This sort of service means choosing God’s will above everything else, and rejecting anything contrary to it. This can be very difficult to do—but Jesus is always ready to help us achieve it.
A wise old American Indian was telling his grandson about human nature and his personal experience of the ongoing struggle between good and evil, and said, “It is like there are two tigers inside me—a good one and a bad one—fighting for control of my soul.” “Which one will win, Grandfather?” asked the boy, and the tribal elder responded, “It all depends which one I feed.” Lent is a time for us to reflect on which of our own natures we’re nourishing or exercising—our noble one, or our sinful one.
None of us is perfect; in addition to our virtues, we all have faults, which we probably try to hide. That’s natural—but we mustn’t try to hide the truth from ourselves. We have to recognize our vices and use God’s grace to overcome them. Lent is a time for inner honesty and struggle. It’s possible our greatest fault is pride, in which we automatically assume we know best or we’re superior to other others. If so, we need to work on humility during these coming six weeks, learning to admit it when we make a mistake, and consciously looking for the good in others and praising them whenever we can. Perhaps our inner struggle is against complacency or laxness, in which we don’t take our faith seriously enough, or see religion only as a set of obligations or rules, or pray only when we need something. If so, we have the chance to renew our relationship with the Lord by understanding life as our loving response to His call; we can spend regular time in prayer, reflect on all that God has done for us, and take the time to prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually before coming to Mass each weekend, instead of merely showing up as usual. Maybe the inner demon trying to take over our lives is fear; we know what’s right, but are afraid to do it because of what people might say, or we hesitate to respond wholeheartedly to God because of what it might cost us. If so, Lent is a time to pray for courage, to ask for God’s strength, and to reflect that even though Jesus was terribly frightened in the Garden of Gethsemani and begged to be spared of His coming Passion, He was given the strength and courage needed to do His Father’s will.
These are several possible weaknesses, and some ideas on how to respond to them during Lent. Our call to holiness might instead involve overcoming some other vice or weakness, such as greed, selfishness, gluttony, lust, stubbornness, laziness, a lack of charity, an unwillingness to help others, gossiping, or various other faults or sinful tendencies. It’s been said that virtues and good habits are like beautiful flowers and plants, while vices and bad habits are like weeds—ugly plants that steal away water and nourishment from the worthwhile ones, and in the end choke or smother them. We can’t leave our spiritual garden untended; we can’t assume the noble side of our character will ultimately prevail. If we want to be truly successful in our preparations for eternal life, we must freely and deliberately use God’s grace to put our spiritual lives in order. Lent is the Lord’s gift to us, an opportunity to face temptation and overcome it through honesty, humility, and faith. Jesus Himself faced this inner struggle and completed it successfully; Lent is our chance, with His help, to do the same.