In a memorable section of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Daedalus comes upon a relatively large sum of money and squanders it, prodigal son style. Daedalus shifts several times in the novel from extreme penitence and self-denial to full-on pursuit of his sinful desires. This tension between reverence for accepted teachings and the rebellious grandiosity of youth is fertile ground in literature, and well-traveled mental territory for an angsty young man. But groping after a higher plateau, an intimation of immortality, comes at a price. Whether it’s listening to upbeat music in a packed concert hall or reading the book that names what’s in my heart or watching the movie that currently defines ‘cool,’ these ecstatic waking dreams lead to hangovers. In the morning, all that’s left is an absence.

After spending his last penny, Stephen Daedalus wakes up to the futility of his actions. Like Daedalus, we know that these insights into ourselves are painful, even when they offer clarity. The Lenten season provides time to reflect on these little private deaths wrought by our sin. To acknowledge where we’ve come from and where we’re destined to go. This is a project of the gospel: to show the fruitlessness of trying to get a grip on it all, that when we are convinced of our own self-sufficiency, we are in fact at our most deluded. One must only look to the cross to see what our projects of perfectibility and control have wrought. This passage from Joyce helped me to see that a sudden change of heart shouldn’t be taken as a cue to set out boldly in a new direction, but rather as a sign of my powerlessness over sin.

His household returned to its usual way of life. His mother had no further occasion to upbraid him for squandering his money. He too returned to his old life at school and all his novel enterprises fell to pieces. The commonwealth fell, the loan bank closed its coffers and its books on a sensible loss, the rules of life which he had drawn about himself fell into desuetude.

How foolish his aim had been! He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interests and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the waters had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbled mole.

He saw clearly too his own futile isolation. He had not gone one step nearer the lives he had sought to approach nor bridged the restless shame and rancor that divided him from mother and brother and sister. He felt that he was hardly of the one blood with them but stood to them rather in the mystical kinship of fosterage, fosterchild and fosterbrother.

He turned to appease the fierce longings of his heart before which everything else was idle and alien. He cared little that he was in mortal sin, that his life had grown to be a tissue of subterfuge and falsehood. Beside the savage desire within him to realise the enormities which he brooded on nothing was sacred. He bore cynically the shameful details of his secret riots in which he exulted to defile with patience whatever image had attracted his eyes. By day and by night he moved among distorted images of the outer world. A figure that had seemed to him by day demure and innocent came towards him by night through the winding darkness of sleep, her face transfigured by a lecherous cunning, her eyes bright with brutish joy. Only the morning pained him with its dim memory of dark orgiastic riot, its keen and humiliating sense of transgression.

Those ecstatic heights of mind and body that color youth will inevitably fade and fall away. Our hopes and dreams, our cathedrals and odysseys, our Ulysses, even, will return to the dust. But that’s no reason to cover up in shame, or, like Daedalus, to lament our “futile isolation,” for God has searched us and knows us. He knows our waking up and lying down, our “orgiastic riots” and tranquil reflections. We can’t hide our sin from Him. The only thing left for us to do is humbly resign. Robert Farrar Capon put it so well in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment when he paraphrased Kierkegaard: “The opposite of sin is not virtue, it is faith.”