How the hotel staff managed to miss the signs of decay is anybody’s guess. Perhaps because they used the employee entrance in the rear they simply never noticed. Meanwhile, the obvious stared at every incoming guest. Some must not have cared and registered anyway, while others saw it as fair warning and walked on by.
What was the issue? Through the ravages of time the Princesa Sofia Hotel had morphed into the Princesa So. Worse, its treasured fifth star had begun to plummet comet-like down the facade, and two others had definitely lost their luster. Most definitely this was not good advertising, but it certainly was truth in advertising. It suggested to guests that what they saw on the outside was what they should expect to find on the inside. Caveat emptor!
This may be an odd segue into Lent, but it does point out a seldom-appreciated reality that we all face as we make adjustments in our lives. The view we have of ourselves by its very nature is going to differ from the perspectives others have of us. From the inside looking out, we see ourselves as people of good intentions, highly principled, hard-working, and wonderful to be around day or night.
That said, no one should be surprised to discover that many of the people around us do not share that view. From their position on the outside looking in at us, they see someone with gifts and foibles, with strengths and weaknesses. For better and for worse, our wiser friends hesitate to share these insights with us, while we wave off the views of our harsher critics as gratuitous and mean-spirited. That explains why so many of us conclude that there’s no need for us to change. We’re fine, just the way we are.
Once such an attitude is entrenched, growth and improvement are much harder to come by. We slip into ruts from which we cannot escape so easily, and we end up missing so much that life has to offer.
Ash Wednesday has its somber side with the reminder that we came from the dust of the earth and to dust we shall return. But that’s not meant to depress or paralyze us. Rather, it’s meant to be a clarion call to make the most of what God gives us — be it years, talents, and the capacity for growth. That sometimes can involve the need to step back and appreciate what others might see in us. But above all, it requires us to pause and inventory what God has invested in us and how well we are or are not using it.
In his chapter on Lent in the monastery Saint Benedict wrote that the life of a monk should be a Lenten observance. Of course monks in the 6th century had no patience for that, nor can modern monks be convinced of that either. But Benedict anticipated this, and so he prescribed some minor and distinctly non-showy things that monks could add as a Lenten supplement. On a general level he suggested “refusing to indulge evil habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.” He offered this not so that he could make life in the monastery drudgery, but so that monks could begin to anticipate the joys of Easter.
It occurs to me that one point of all this is the need to avoid the ruts that so easily stifle our personal growth. Tweaking a schedule or shaking up a day can be disruptive, but it’s also a way to get a fresh perspective on our lives. That in turn can give us the insight to change and to grow and to experience Easter — not just once a year — but every day.
My thoughts return to the staff of the Princesa Sofia. In their use of the employee entrance they never had to confront the most obvious signal of the slow decay that was happening inside the hotel. They got used to what was inside and learned to live with it. Perhaps it never dawned on them that it didn’t have to go on like that. It could be different, and both the hotel and they could flourish.
Lent invites us to break free from our customary ways of doing things. As a time of renewal Lent encourages us to discover the possibilities in life that we’ve ignored all too often. It’s a reminder that the point of Christian life is not the sobering reality of the cross on Good Friday. Rather, we look beyond the cross to the resurrrection on Easter Sunday. That resurrection is something we can celebrate every day of our lives.
+This was not the best of weeks for me. Last weekend I pulled something in my back, which made getting around extremely difficult. Then on Ash Wednesday I woke up, got out of bed, stood, took a step and fell down. That had to be a fluke, I thought, but after another try I fell again. Thankfully it is a pinched nerve that’s causing this, and I will recover, but only after six weeks of therapy. The doctor advised me to eliminate airports and travel from my immediate plans, and that’s led to a complete rewrite of my calendar for the next two months. (Actually, I have torn it up.). In the meantime, it is a little strange to have to rely on a walker to get around the monastery. This too will pass, however. So that is my Lenten observance.
+Readers of my notes are accustomed to seeing weekly travel reports, but there’ll be none of that for a while. Thankfully I do other stuff too, including reading. A couple of weeks ago I finished a book by Cambridge professor Mary Beard, on the history of the Roman Empire. Entitled SPQR, it is easily accessible to the non-history reader, and it lingered on The New York Times Best Sellers list for weeks. She gives an insightful overview while at the same time pointing out the cultural legacy of the Romans 2,000 years later. For example, the political and social boundaries that the Romans set in Europe largely endure to this day. We observe the month of July in honor of Julius Caesar, and August in memory of Augustus Caesar. On something as benign as the moment when a new day begins we still follow the Roman custom of midnight. Does it have to be that way? In Jewish tradition the new day begins at sunset of the evening before. This is a book I highly recommend.
+On March 2nd our confrere Fr. Bryan Hayes passed away at the age of 97. To say the least, he led a varied life, and it’s worth noting a few bits. He was born in Clarksville, TN, and he grew up with a fondness for music. Before coming to the monastery he already was an accomplished composer, with some of his works played at Carnegie Hall. Later he studied under Aaron Copeland, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and while studying in Italy he met and kissed the hands of the mystic Padre Pio. That sparked his conversion to Catholicism. At Saint John’s he taught French, but we will best remember him for the hundreds of hymns he composed. We sing many of them, and they are among our favorites. But there are hundreds yet to learn. I would be remiss were I not to mention that we all considered him to be a “character.”
+I discovered the Princesa Sofia as I walked the streets of Barcelona one afternoon. As the photo at bottom indicates, eventually someone told the manager about the sign, and he must have gone out and taken a look. The place seems to be going through a complete overhaul. One of the favorite Lenten disciplines in former centuries was the giving of alms, and Saint Martin of Tour was venerated for cutting his cloak in half to share with a beggar. The next three images come from the cathedral of Utrecht in Holland.