In 2002, I was on vacation in Spain during the first week in which the peseta was retired and the Euro introduced as the official currency. ATM machines dispensed only Euros, taxi meters displayed fares in Euros, restaurant menus listed prices in Euros – everyone was using Euros, but it was far too soon for anyone to be at ease with them.
I saw a woman who’d been walking briskly down the street suddenly stop short, take a handful of coins out of her purse, stare at them for a while, move them around on her palm, arrange them in different ways –by size or value – trying to get a literal feel for the new tender.
I saw grown men huddled over pocket calculators at kiosks and in bars talking themselves through simple transactions aloud, like children learning to count.
Whenever it was time to pay for something, the world slowed down, and everyone became a learner. What had been a reflex the week before, when pesetas were the common coin, had suddenly to be practiced as a deliberate act.
When people in the ancient world asked to be baptized into the church, they were not marched straight to the font. They first underwent a lengthy period of instruction and moral reorientation. The human life they thought they had mastered had to be re-learned in the light of the Gospel.
Like people with a new currency, neophytes practiced – they turned over coins of grace in their palms day after day, took time to count aloud each transaction of mercy, attended to the tasks of being a new kind of human with purpose, and approached the ordinary with discipline, with an intention of excellence.
Only thus, over time, did the disorienting shock of Gospel living became second-nature. Only thus did the faith they had received root deeply, and their witness flower in the world.
The season of Lent originated in these preparations for baptism, a ritual that signaled the end of one life and the start of another. For us, Lent is a holy opportunity to adopt and undergo a similar converting discipline, to learn anew what some of us thought we’d already mastered – a fully human life in Christ, facility with the new coinage of grace.
Perhaps this year, with the world as grimly attached to a currency of violence and exclusion as ever, we might use these forty days to practice some of the things required for a successful introduction of a new tender — slowing down, cultivating a learner’s pose, taking deliberate care with mundane transactions, paying attention to the sacred potential of the ordinary, maintaining an intention of excellence, practicing the faith.
The example of the saints, living and dead, declares that if we practice gratefully over time, by God’s help we will eventually come to transact life with ease and poise, and with such graceful mastery that the dying world will know a resurrection and a life beyond its wildest dreams.