Remember the old fairy tales? They are told, or retold, by great storytellers like the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and my favorite, Andrew Lang — who, back in the 19th century, gathered stories from around the world into “The Red Fairy Book,” “The Green Fairy Book” and plenty of other colors.
Perhaps one reason I liked them is that it was nearly always the youngest of three sisters, or three brothers, who did best when they went out to seek their fortunes. As the youngest of three sisters, I felt the satisfaction for us little ones.
But the point of those folk stories was not about sibling order. It was that it takes us more than one try to learn what we really need to learn. We have to set out over and over again, to the third try or the 33rd.
That’s because we need not only “head” learning but the kind of real inner change that comes as we work through adversity and discover what’s inside us. We also become better able to receive things from others: The third sibling is given gifts the others aren’t offered or refuse.
All of us are plunging once again into the hunger and desolation of the desert with Jesus, and we’re going to be tempted with Him. This year, the world’s second COVID-19 Lent, our desolation and thirst may be more palpable.
Like the third sister or brother in the fairy tales, we’ve already been tested and tried, and will have to dig deep to find our real resources. When Jesus was offered bread by Satan, He was famished, exhausted and alone.
We may find as we get further into the journey, wearier and more tested, we are able to find more inside us than we knew we had. “The world offers you comfort,” says Pope Benedict XVI, “but we were made for greatness.”
When we’ve become less comfortable and have spent much, thinking our stores are empty or fearing having nothing in reserve, we have to go into inner chambers of our treasure house and draw out something else entirely. That’s when we can start to get somewhere.
At this poignant moment in our collective journey, Pope Francis asks us a simple question: “What time is it?” His encyclical “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship” wrestles with this question. Only a prophet knows what time it is, says Abraham Heschel.
But Pope Francis doesn’t just answer the question for us. He wants to hear from us, too: What time is it? We need to reach inside, speak and hear our responses. Each answer is needed because we need to discover not only what’s within us but also what’s among us.
Pope Francis offers assistance in delving into our spirits, minds and experiences to formulate our responses. Many people have told me they participate in reflection groups to read his text and take it further in shared discussions.
He tells us it’s a time of ecstasy, which might seem surprising at first blush. Etymologically, “ekstasis” means the mysterious and wonderful condition of springing out of oneself to reach out toward the other.
Think of the child toddling on unsteady but eager feet toward her radiant parent. Or a young man bursting to share with the world a new and exciting discovery.
It’s a time, not to stay hunkered down inside ourselves, but to emerge from within like Old Faithful gushing forth water from the earth to reach high into the sky. For us it might not be a physical going forth, but it’s real nonetheless. How can our spirits go out — perhaps to someone quite different from us or even hostile to what we think and want?
Pope Francis encourages us to go out, not to the known and friendly but to the unknown and not-so-friendly, the “abyss” where the “barbarians” live, according to our perceptions. The unknown and unfriendly might be right beside us. Or inside us.
Reflecting on his question — What time is it? — touches a theme that’s central in the letters of St. Paul: It’s time to put off the old self and be renewed and strengthened in the inner self.
Even for our fairy-tale siblings, this was the real purpose of setting forth to find their fortunes — though it was practical need that sent them out in the first place. Concrete physical needs often give us the impetus to move from where we are (not an easy thing for us humans, breakable and naturally cautious) to where we never have been but really belong.
Out to the peripheries — that hold a secret. We can’t discover this secret if we stay where and as we are. But we can recognize it when we get there.
Marrocco is a columnist for Catholic News Service.