In the gospel for Ash Wednesday we heard that we need to be humble in our prayer as well as in performing deeds of righteousness. Jesus emphasized that the good works we do are to come from the heart without seeking reward. (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18) We received ashes, but not to make a show of it; rather we received them as a mark of our humble repentance and of commitment to growth in the spiritual life. As Jesus said, when we fast and abstain we should not have long faces so as to garner the admiration of others, nor should we blow a horn as we drop our donation in the basket, so to speak. We give and we pray “in secret” in order to grow in the virtue of humility. In short, what we are really trying to do during the season of Lent is to learn how to give and how to receive, both of which require a measure of humility. It is a time to be more reflective so that we might learn to grow in gratitude for our salvation, and to open our hearts to what God is offering. We learn to better recognize the great gifts we have been given, and also how to receive them with humility and gratitude; offering a simple “thank you” to God for all He has done.
What is most remarkable in the passage from Matthew’s gospel is that three times Jesus repeated, “And your Father who sees in secret [or what is hidden] will repay you.” So often the point that is stressed concerning this passage is doing things in secret. Indeed humility is essential to a life of holiness. But there is something else emphasized by Jesus: God will repay us for our good deeds. This thought is astounding, even shocking. We, who are totally indebted to God and who so often let Him down because of our sinfulness, are repaid by God? God does repay us, but it is not in the sense that He owes us something; rather, He wants to acknowledge and respond to us in gratitude and even humility. The Father ‘repays’ us by offering us many graces and gifts, most especially our salvation. He offers grace which builds upon grace, enabling our growth in holiness. (John 1:16) The more we do for God without needing the acclaim of people, the more we grow in the humility and gratitude which are graces from God. Therefore, He gives us what we need to progress in our life of faith so that we may grow closer to Him. That is the reward He offers and it is the one we should seek. Thus, Jesus is essentially teaching us that good works lead to more good works, giving leads to an appreciation of gratitude, humility leads to holiness, and so ultimately, love begets more love.
Learning to give is actually easier than learning to receive. In giving, we make a sacrifice, which if done sincerely from the heart, should pinch a bit. Though a true sacrifice can be difficult, we generally think more about how or what we are to give than how we are to receive. During Lent this giving is underscored: with more intentionality we give alms, increase our works of mercy, add to our prayer and acts of repentance, and abstain or fast on certain days. We often talk about ‘giving something up’ so that we are making a personal sacrifice. Of course, if it is to be meaningful, we must do something that has lasting results. We might sacrifice time by volunteering one day a week in a soup kitchen, adding to our daily prayer, or by choosing to add more corporal works of mercy to what we normally do. The point of offering that extra time is to open ourselves up to recognizing and then receiving what God wants to offer, such as a deeper understanding of who He is, the greatness of His mercy, deeper love for our brothers and sisters, or what might be holding us back from our growth in relationship with Him. In other words, the point of all our Lenten activity is to acknowledge our sinfulness, to receive graces we need to let God help us overcome those tendencies, and therefore grow in an awareness of just how deeply God loves us.
Unfortunately, many of us are not very good at the art of receiving. When someone gives us a gift for no discernible reason, it may make us uncomfortable. Perhaps we feel that accepting a gift is a sign of weakness or that we are unworthy. Perhaps it is that we do not know how to say thank you. And worse still, we might have developed a false humility, such as the habit of rejecting the gift of a simple complement, deflecting it by indicating that we did not deserve it and thus insulting those who honestly meant it. When we are falsely humble what we have inadvertently done is to imply that the other has no sense of taste! If we decline a gift for one of these reasons, what we are actually doing is not allowing the other the pleasure of giving something which is simply intended to say that they appreciate us. We do not have to do all the giving in our relationships, nor should we. And we should not deprive others of the ability to share their gifts in ministering to us by acting as if we have to do all the ministering. Whether we realize it or not, it is a gift to the other if we let them give to us! In other words, to give a gift is an act of humility and graciousness, and like the Father we repay the giver with love and gratitude when we accept their gift with a humble, sincere ‘thank you.’
God’s nature (love) is that of perpetual giving. The entire Bible is a continual story of God giving something to His people in a dramatic way in different times and situations. At creation we received the gift of life and enjoyment of all that God created. Later God gave the Promised Land to His people, and also the gift of the Law, not meant as restrictive, but as a life-giving aid to help them know the best way to remain close to Him. He also sent help in the form of leadership, prophecy, and wisdom. Even in the face of rejection, God went so far as to send Jesus, His only Son, to offer us salvation. This is the way love is: love continually gives without reserve. Therefore, during this Lenten season it would be good to keep in mind that what God wants most is to give to us. In Hosea, we read: “It is loyalty that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) God wants our hearts to be turned toward Him, which means He does not so much desire that we give Him something, but rather that we let Him give to us. He alone knows what we most need. Along with St. Ignatius of Loyola we need to be able to say, “Your love and your grace, O Lord, are enough for me.” Indeed if we can receive His grace and His love into our hearts, that is, if we can allow His glory to enter into us in a new way, we can learn to share what we have received with others.
During this Lent we can grow in holiness through our humility in both giving and in receiving. If we receive from Him, we will then have something to offer our brothers and sisters. We can enter into the mercy and love of God by giving as a gift that which we have received, glorifying Him through acts of sincere giving. We can (and should) pray more deeply for ourselves: for forgiveness from our sins, including our contribution to the sin of the world, for the ability to forgive in return, to grow in whatever area of weakness we struggle with. We can pray for others: for those who reject God, do not know Him or who are indifferent to Him, and for forgiveness of the things they may do which tear down rather than build up. And we can pray also for the neglected, suffering, poor, marginalized, and unwelcomed. We can (and should) respond by putting our prayer into action, opening our arms and our hearts to those who are in need in our communities, churches, and even in our own homes. Our fitting return to Jesus, then, is to seek Him with sincere hearts and to accept the gifts He knows we need by responding in word and deed with a humble, sincere ‘thank you.’
May we respond to God’s gifts of grace and mercy with a humble, sincere word of thanks! May we learn how to be better at receiving so that we might grow in graciousness, humility, and gratitude! May the example of our ability to receive and then to make a return be our evangelization to our brothers and sisters in the way of the Gospel! May we open our hearts to giving to others such that we might receive their gratitude in joy, and may we give others the gift of ministering to us, too! May we have the courage to stay committed to our Lenten works of repentance, prayer, mercy, and generosity! And may we receive God’s love and His grace acknowledging that these are indeed enough for us! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next entry March 27.
1. I found this image at a page posted by the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee and there is permission to use it. I chose it because this simple cross in ashes is what we receive on Ash Wednesday, and it corresponded to the content of the first paragraph. http://www.dioet.org/ashes-to-go.html
2. This is Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount to his followers, painted by Blessed Fra Angelico. I chose it because it captures the humility of the setting and of those who are receiving the message. It is set on what seem to be bare rocks; there seems to be nothing there except Jesus and the disciples. This emphasizes the message that all we need is offered to us by God and that we should not worry about anything, but instead trust in God for all that we need.
3. This image caught my attention because it depicts a woman feeding someone who is apparently ill, while another is assisting in holding the man, who seems to be Jesus since the halo around His head has the symbol for Christ. One woman is holding Him upright so that He might take in the nourishment. I was not able to find out where the picture is from, but I believe the woman with the halo is St. Elizabeth of Hungary. She was known for her works among the poor and the sick. It seems to be a depiction of Matthew 25 in which Jesus indicates that when feeding the poor, among other things, we are doing it for Him. I found the image at the following site which is about the Corporal Works of Mercy, therefore it is a good resource for that, too: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=1017
4. This next image is a mosaic of Jesus healing a leper which is found at the spectacular Cathedral in Monreale, Sicily. I chose this because it speaks of gratitude and humility. Jesus offered healing to 10 lepers and only one had the humility to return and offer his profound thanksgiving. Of the ten who were healed only one was a gracious receiver, willing and able to return to the Giver of the gift before he went about the rest of his life. I suspect that he became a witness, evangelizing others by telling what God had done for him and thereby glorifying God with his life.
5. This is an icon called St. Ignatius In Prayer Beneath the Stars by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose it because it shows what St. Ignatius taught about learning to know, serve, and love God more by following the movements of the Holy Spirit. His experience taught him that God gives us all that we need and that God knows what this is better than we do. Therefore it is important to learn how to discern the difference between what we think we want and what God knows we need. Ignatius came to the conclusion that all we need is God’s grace and love and that is indeed enough. Through the gift of The Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius provided the tools for people to come to understand this by immersing in prayer and reflection. (The Spiritual Exercises are a 30 day retreat in which we meet with a spiritual director daily and pray daily in silence at a retreat center; or the retreat can be done in 30 weeks with a once weekly meeting with a spiritual director while we live our normal, everyday life.) You can purchase a copy of this, or other icons of St. Ignatius, or other subjects, at http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/william-hart-mcnichols.html?tab=artwork. This specific icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-ignatius-in-prayer-beneath-the-stars-137-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
6. This painting is called Kitchen Table (Still Life with Basket) by Paul Cezanne (1888-1890). It is at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I chose it because it reminded me of the bounty with which we have received. The fruits in the basket, the tea pot, and the rest of the items on the table are in a kitchen setting, and to me the kitchen is the heart of a home. It is in the kitchen that we prepare the food which we share and in which we are nourished by those we love through the gift of family and friends. It seemed like the kitchen is a great place to be inspired to offer a humble, sincere ‘thank you’ to God. For a closer look see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_paintings_by_Paul_C%C3%A9zanne#/media/File:Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_188.jpg
7. This is one of my photos. I took this in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, while strolling the grounds at the hotel where we were staying. I chose this photo because the flowers reminded me of simple gifts given us by God. Quite often, like the buds of flowers, we have to cultivate those gifts. This means we have to let the bud unfurl, so that we can find the beauty which is hidden within.
Heart Speaks to Heart