Lenten dentistry: Filling the void

by Erik Lenhart

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Dentists are not among my usual sources for homily material or spiritual reflection, but I recently heard a wonderfully sermon while I was getting a cavity filled. I was grateful for my dentist's spiritual nugget, because it gave me both an insight and a distraction from the sound of the drill spraying shards of my enamel. This was not the first time that this tooth needed a filling. A "discount" dentist had filled the cavity, but it never really healed. Eventually after wincing through meals for several weeks, I went to my tried-and-true dentist to relieve my suffering.

He removed and replaced the dolorous filling, and while my tooth was being repaired, I learned why the first filling "didn't take."

He explained, "We use a chemical to make the tooth porous at the microscopic level. The chemical makes the tooth like a sponge so it can soak up the filling compound. For the cavity to be repaired, the tooth must in small ways hollow itself to let in the filing. This way the tooth and the composite can truly bond."

After the new filling, the improvement was immediate. In less than 48 hours, I was chomping at full strength, destroying almonds and carrots with confidence, and biting into apples with reckless abandon.

The ad hoc lesson in modern dentistry reminded me of John the Baptist's humble saying, "He must increase; I must decrease." In our spiritual and emotional lives, there are things that decay us. Addictions, bad relationships, selfishness, and anything prevents us from forming strong bonds with others. We know from divorces and fractured relationships between family and friends that everyone develops little cracks in their bonds over time that, if left untreated, can become large gulfs that separate us from each other.

Human religion is an attempt to bind (from religare,"to bind") ourselves to God. For that bonding to be complete, we must empty out all the decay of our lives, which causes us pain and prevents the fullness of human flourishing. Like the decayed tooth, there is pain in our lives that we do not have the power to heal ourselves. A humble spirit like that of John the Baptist can be a catalyst for healing. In a dental filling, the two substances, the enamel and the composite, move and grow together. Human beings have the capacity to receive and communicate with God, who through the Covenant bonds human and divine life.

Holy Week, the climax of Lent, is a time for a close examination of some of our "bad fillings" that we need to scrape out and of the decay that needs healing -- sometimes from bad habits of consumption. Hollowing out space in our lives allows for the hallowed message of Easter to fill our painful void with God's healing presence.

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