Lent is here. That time for going deeper, diving into the infinite sea of God’s heart where we will find our lasting happiness, tasting it day by day, and then forever with those who have already, through faith and perseverance, embraced death to see Him as he is in glory.
Lent is that time of beginning again with the universal church, with all our brothers and sisters who gather around the Eucharistic table on Ash Wednesday to begin again. Catherine Doherty gave us a word on the nature of beginning again: “With God, every moment is the moment of beginning again.” We have arrived at this premier moment together, today, receiving the Eucharist with ashes on our foreheads to begin again.
Lord, help us stay on the trail that starts with Mass then winds through stunning vistas of your presence, ascends the steep mountain slopes of fasting, crosses deep river valleys on the long silent bridges of prayer, and enters the streets of need where we can comfort you when you are old, speak a consoling word, or offer a smile to you in the distressing disguise as Mother Teresa once said of those who are the poorest of the poor.
What is Jesus and his Church asking as we set out on this trail? During my years as a Catholic teacher, I heard the sound of Lent, “I’m giving up this, I’m going to do that.” We would post the three pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, followed with a how-to on these essential practices. Lent’s purpose can get buried in a program or a routine of practical exercises. What is God whispering within us? Let’s look at the Church’s Lenten Launch to discover its features.
You Overlook People’s Sins
The launch is Ash Wednesday and the first Word comes from the Book of Wisdom: “ You overlook people’s sins to bring them to repentance, and you spare them, for you are the Lord our God.” The Collect calls us to “holy fasting”. Why? “…so that as we take up the battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.”
What a stunning start to get us ready for the prophet Joel: “…return to me with all your heart.” How Lord? “…with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
Joel’s heart is beating with a solemn, joyful urgency. He points to a bright dawn, a brilliant new morning sky. He continues: “ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
Do I feel the weariness of doing battle against my sins; am I reaching for “weapons of self-restraint”?
Joel builds to a crescendo: “Sound the trumpet…Order a fast…call the people together, assemble the elders, gather the children, even infants at the breast.”
He announces the Good News: The Lord showed his mercy to his people. Remember the angel’s “good news of great joy” given to the shepherds at Christmas: “For today in the city of David a saviour has been for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2: 11)
Good News means I can throw away the crippling garments of guilt, despondency, and discouragement. St. John Vianney: “You do not need to wallow in guilt. Wallow in the mercy of God.” With contrite trust I can sing the Psalm for Ash Wednesday”:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offence.
Wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin…
A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your holy spirit…
(Psalm 51: 3,4, 12,13)
Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, names the three pillars of sacrificial action: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He tells us to hide our sacrifices, not parade them around for others tell us how wonderful we are. He says: “…when you fast…when you pray…when you give alms…” They are not options.
How do we take on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving with great gusto, so that we bare plentiful fruit? The first resource is our intrinsic poverty described perfectly by Jesus when he said to his disciples, “Without me, you can do nothing.” We all have unique experiences with this truth. In fact, we are nothing without Christ and owe our existence to Him who created us. Further, our existence has been tainted by Original Sin. Each of us should have a profound awareness that without Christ what we do and say sometimes or often causes chaos and misery to others and ourselves. Even when I’m clinging to him I’m astounded at how often I do and say the very things I hate. Our poverty, then, is the first resource to help us respond immediately to God’s call voiced by his prophet to “…return to me with all your heart…with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;…”
The second resource is related. We live every minute of the day with a relentless thirst for love, happiness, and meaning best described in Chapter one of the Catholic Catechism paragraph 27:
The desire for God is written in the human heart because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.”
This is truly great news because all the hard work is God’s. He does it all. We just have to stop resisting, surrender, and let him win the victory over our pursuit of everything that fails to quench this desire. He is so good at winning battles for us.
St John Paul II in his encyclical, The Redeemer of Man, gives us a beautiful description of our nature:
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself; his life is senseless if love is not revealed to him if he does not encounter love if he does not experience it and make it his own if he does not participate in it…” John Paul II completes this truth about man’s deepest need: “…he must with his unrest, uncertainty, and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into Him with all his own self.” He concludes: “How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator, if …God ‘gave his only Son’ in order that man ‘should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
So, these are the premier Lenten resources: Our poverty and an insatiable thirst for God who is love tied to his unfailing desire to draw us to himself. All we have to do is allow these forces to operate. The only thing hindering this from happening is our capacity to be slow in belief, sluggish in trust, or even resistant to God’s pursuit. However, these things are eventually conquered if we head out along the Lenten trail of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The Lord helps us along the trail to keep going. He inspires us to go the distance.
Prayer is the beginning, the middle, and the end. It is the womb from which all life and goodness are born. Our nature drives us toward prayer, even causes the heart to pray. The fruit of a prayerful, contrite heart is God’s intervention who like St. Paul assures us “…can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3: 20) Prayer united to fasting becomes a powerful weapon against our selfish desires and satan’s tricks.
Prayer requires time and silence. St Francis de Sales: “ Everyone of us needs a half hour a day in prayer, except when we are busy then we need one hour.”
John Paul II told young people that prayer is the “key to the vitality of your life in Christ. Without prayer, your faith and your love will die.”
Referring to time he stressed “…Prayer must come before everything else. People who do not take this view, who do not put this into practice, cannot plead the excuse of being short of time. What they are short of is love.”
We learn to pray on the fly, but prayer becomes deep and fertile in silence. It’s in silence that we are forced to listen. The ‘ears’ of a silent mind and heart begins to hear God speaking. He does speak.
Mother Teresa: When it is difficult to pray we must help ourselves to do so. The first means to use is silence, for souls of prayer are souls of great silence. We cannot put ourselves directly in the presence of God if we do not practice internal and external silence.”
The best place to be silent is where Jesus, in the Holy Eucharist, waits for us silently in the monstrance. We go to Him there to place ourselves in His presence. It’s usually for an hour, but a friend told me he likes two, because it takes the first hour for all the noise in him to subside, then prayer starts.
It takes effort, but we are always being helped along, nudged in the direction of prayer. We must never resist that nudge. Mother Teresa:
“ Jesus is always waiting for us in silence’; there he will listen to us; there he will speak to our soul, and there we will hear his voice…In silence, we will find new energy and true unity. The energy of God will be ours to do all things well.”
Through prayer, we will receive inspiration, insight, and perseverance in trials, bodily strength in our fasts, and we will have something to give to others in need. We will belong more and more to the One who is taking greater possession of our hearts making them less course and stony. He does it. We just have to place ourselves in his presence. What’s amazingly grand is that he will send others to us. No long range plans or programs needed here. St Basil: “When you have become God’s in the measure he desires, then he himself will bestow you on others; unless, to your greater glory, he chooses to keep you all to himself.”
This happens to me often, especially as I give him and his mother permission to use me in whatever way he sees best. I’ve been astounded at the variety of people he brings, the variety of needs, and how I sense what he is doing for them. Never do I see how clever my plan was–it doesn’t even exist. However, I am fascinated with how God is pursuing someone, and how much love someone has for Him. I never have a plan for discovering this, though. It just happens. He is so good at what he does best. I just try to give him permission to send who he wants me to meet.
Through Prayer, We Meet Him
One of my favourite encounters happened at St. Joseph’s on the Opeongo Church where I stop regularly to pray for the souls buried there, pray for my family before the statue of St. Joseph, and just pray in silence there. The groundskeeper was mowing the cemetery lawn during this visit. Following my time of prayer, I was walking to my car when I spotted a massive hornet’s nest hanging above one of the front doors. I went to take a closer look. As I did, the groundskeeper came over. Chit chat eventually moved without effort to deeper things like life’s trials, hope, prayer, etc. Eventually, he shared with me his dilemma regarding a very troubling family situation. We talked for an hour about it. God’s presence was tangible. He went further saying that my advice was the very answer to what he had been praying for. I was incredibly grateful for simply being the one Jesus used. I knew it was the fruit of prayer and belonging to Him, but it was His work of helping this good man in need. I was simply interested in getting to know him. Our conversation starter was the huge hornet nest which drew me away from hopping in the car. Rather, it was the Lord who used it to draw me there to meet the groundskeeper.
So, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is the way through lent and life which leads us straight to Jesus who wants to give us everything, and everything needed to give. As we make our way along the Lenten trail described at the beginning of this article we will encounter the Lord and discover what St. Catherine of Siena experienced: “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”