Bishop: Dogged days of Lent

by Bishop Joensen | March 13, 2023

Bishop William Joensen

In her poem, "March," Louise Glűck paints a word picture that is easy for us Iowans to imagine:

My neighbor stares out the window,
talking to her dog.  He’s sniffing the garden,
trying to reach a decision about the dead flowers.
It’s a little early for all this.
Everything’s still very bare—
nevertheless, something’s different today from yesterday. . . . 
My neighbor’s calling the dog, making her unconvincing doglike sounds.
The dog’s polite; he raises his head when she calls,
but he doesn’t move.  So she goes on calling,
her failed bark slowly deteriorating into a human voice.

As we press into the latter weeks of March and of Lent, maybe we feel a little bit like the neighbor’s dog: sniffing around the tangled debris of death and incipient life, poised to move on to new turf yet chilled and inert in our tracks, hearing but not obeying a voice that beckons to us.

At least, that’s a little bit how I feel these days, with all the firmness of intent to practice my Lenten disciplines having been snarled by life events beyond my control, the clock of darkness and light adjusted by human fiat while the darkness and light within me still seem to defy my will to let the light prevail, and the voice I seek to hear in prayer bracketed by other competing voices that offer only a transient escape into “madness.”

One is tempted to throw in the towel on this spiritual project of conversion and renewal and say, “better luck next year,” but the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the resolve and constancy of some around us who seem to be more dogged in their devotion can keep us from despairing that real change and growth are possible in God’s plan and time.

That’s the unflagging hope represented by our Diocese’s designation of the weekend of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 18-19, as “Safe Haven Sunday.”  This is an initiative of our Marriage and Family Life office coordinated by Adam Storey, with the cooperation of our parish priests and deacons who will engage the readings and address matters of internet safety for children and persons of all ages.  In the course of their homilies and parish bulletins and other messaging, they will refer and provide access to resources that can both prevent and help persons proceed on the path of healing and liberation from the scourge of internet pornography and related addictions.  

Some of these sources will remain linked in English and Spanish on the Marriage and Family Life section of our Diocese of Des Moines website, including: Educate and Empower Kids; Brain, Heart, World (in English and Spanish); Covenant Eyes; Road to Purity; Be Broken Ministries; Bloom for Catholic Women; Clean Heart Online (English and Spanish); Integrity Restored; and several others.

In age-appropriate fashion, we seek as faith communities to raise awareness of the ways in which human beauty, the dignity and integrity of our own physical bodies, and our nearly insatiable desire for human connection and the infinite love of God can be co-opted and distorted by malicious parties. These evil actors want to pollute and enslave our minds and hearts and profit off human misery.  

In contrast, we want to assist parents, guardians, grandparents and other family members to have the awareness and the tools to protect, nurture, and help young people discover their identity as children of God and come to maturity as disciples of Christ. We aim to rebuff pornographers’ insidious redirection of screen time toward hardcore, violent pornography. First exposure occurs at the average age of eight. We want to “call things by their proper name,” restoring the appreciation for the goodness of creation and ourselves as privileged bearers of God’s image and likeness.

And for those who must humbly acknowledge that their freedom has already been compromised through persistent, immoral internet activity that directly or indirectly contributes to an industry of human trafficking and the victimization of children, women, and men, we want to invite the healing power of Christ’s blood and the liberating grace of the Holy Spirit to be enlisted in practical, therapeutic steps that help weaken and break the cycle of shame, contrition, and refractory self-indulgence. 

How often this cycle plays out like a broken record we no longer hear since we have become deadened to our own consciences or steeped in self-reproach.  Instead of poetically lingering like dogs sniffing in a garden, how many men -- and increasingly, women -- find themselves feeling like dogs returning to their vomit as the tawdry perversion of the mystery of human sexuality plays out on their mobile and other devices. 

So many individuals and married couples, young adults and seniors, are suffering the effects of internet abuse.  How frequently priest confessors, counselors and therapists, filled with compassion and not condescension or contempt, try to be the human voice of Jesus, reminding penitents and clients that despite their habitual sins and tendencies from which there is no immediate passing over to the promised land of freedom, holiness, and peace, they are not alone: God relentlessly accompanies them, embraces them, and rejoices each time we turn our face to him.  

God’s Spirit likewise calls us to form networks of support and accompaniment of one another, to pray together and to enlist accountability partners who serve not as “big brothers” watching over us like a surveillance team, but who as brothers and sisters in Christ humbly and charitably commit themselves to partner on the path that leads from darkness to light. 

In the John 9 Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Jesus replies to his disciples, “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.  Night is coming when no one can work.  While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 

Safe Haven Sunday is a moment in the Lenten pilgrimage toward the Easter Vigil, when the light of the Risen Christ conquers the darkness of sin and death. It is not meant to be a ‘one-off’ affair that touches on the topic of internet safety and puts it on the shelf, but a graced opportunity that transforms our parishes, small groups, and families into the people whom God calls us to be. May the reach of our preachers and our personal reflection extend to all the ways in which human freedom is forsaken, where we must radically cast ourselves before the only One who can remove our blindness and sin.  

We must also take refuge with one another as communities of faith who transparently call human weakness and those who prey upon it for what they are, so that we do not become ensnared in addiction and its attendant despair. We cannot “do” virtue and remain true to Christ’s call by ourselves, any more than we can “do” Lent simply by dint of our own decision and strength.  

We trust that whether we perceive conversion and change happening around and within us, in the apparent barrenness of March, “something’s different today than yesterday.” The Lord and his Church keep calling to us who are not dogs, but beloved humans seeking to abide in the garden where Resurrection light is not merely “one shining moment,” but bathes us in every month and season.       

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.