It is amazing to think that we are already into the third week of Lent. Though we are almost halfway through, we may find that we are struggling to keep faithful to that which we decided to do for our observance of the season. Or worse still, we may never have settled on any course of special observance at all. Because we know there is an extra emphasis on prayer and doing works of penance, it could be that we are putting a bit of pressure on ourselves to do our acts ‘perfectly.’ Truly, I do not think pressuring ourselves is a good idea. All it accomplishes is missing the point of making a sacrifice, forcing ourselves to suffer as if suffering is the end we desire. ‘Beating ourselves up’ is never a good thing. We want to focus on growth in a particular area, but we do not want to forget the point of why we are doing this in the first place. It is not about perfection. Therefore our focus should not be on the action itself: it should be on the process of our growth in holiness in solidarity with the Christian community because of our love for God.
First of all, what we do should be done in humility. Jesus instructed us to pray in secret and to not be like the Pharisees who wanted to be seen praying on the street corners (Matt 6:5), and who “widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels” (Matt 23:5) in order to appear holier than they actually were. The only public witness we need to give to what we are doing is our actions of kindness, compassion and mercy which will speak for themselves.
Therefore, our Lenten sacrifices should not be self-centered. We do whatever it is we have chosen in order to focus more on God and on other people. While it is about growing in holiness, we do not want holiness for our own sake; instead we want to be holy to glorify God and to be a witness to others so that together we can work at building up the kingdom of God. For example, when St. Thérèse of Lisieux said her vocation was love, it was not about being loved or about simply being a warm person, delightful to be around. Love is an action; therefore she was saying that she wanted to give love in any way she could to those around her, especially to the ones who were the most difficult to love. Our desire to grow in holiness during Lent should be for the same reason. It should be so that our actions prove our intentions. That means if giving something up or adding an action is going to move us to more compassion, more mercy, more generosity, and more love, then we should go for it. The point of anything we do, even if we feel like we are doing it poorly, is to become more Christ-like. So if we are struggling with whatever it is we set out to give up or add during this Lent, it is important not to judge ourselves or to focus on the perfection of carrying out that act, but to focus on growing in love so as to love God better through loving our brothers and sisters.
Finally, we need to be careful of an error which we sometimes make in working at our Lenten sacrifice. This error is to think we are to ‘go it alone.’ The entrance antiphon (alternate prayer) for the third Sunday of Lent contains this line: “I will pour clean water upon you and cleanse you from all your impurities, and I will give you a new spirit, says the Lord.” That passage of Ezekiel goes on to say: “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.” (Ez. 36:23-26) God will help us to become purified! We do not need to do all the work. The mistake we make is in thinking that the effort is all ours. It is God who gives us the grace we need and it is God who has placed the desire to grow closer to Him in our hearts. But even if we are unaware of such a desire and feel like we are doing the “Lenten thing” because we are obligated, that is a start. God can work with that, just as He can work with anything so long as we are open to Him. We cannot forget that God has to be part of this equation. Without allowing God to walk with us and to work with us, our efforts will feel as if for naught.
And that is the beauty of Lent: it is not about what we do, it is about who we do it with. We do our practices to grow in generosity and kindness. This helps us to cleanse from sin, but it also helps us to focus away from ourselves and toward those around us. We go to Reconciliation to take away all that which comes between us and God, and so we may obtain the graces we need in order to be better able to love. We do not go to Reconciliation because we fear punishment. We go so that we might love better. We do not give up meat (or whatever is equivalent for those who regularly forgo meat) simply to be healthier, to aid the environment, or to follow a 'silly rule,’ for that matter. Instead we do it to make a sacrifice which reminds us of who we are, of our desire and attempt to grow in holiness, and to refocus our priorities. Giving up meat is something we have to be intentional about and so it helps to focus our attention on our other Lenten practices, too. It is not the meat deprivation that is significant; rather, it is the process of growing in holiness as part of a community, the Body of Christ, which is deeply important.
It is who we celebrate Lent with, then, that counts the most. We celebrate the season with the Christian community, all of whom are on the same journey, struggling to grow in holiness and doing acts of generosity, healing, and prayer. We celebrate it with God, who will do much of the work in us if we let Him. He will give us a new heart and He will sprinkle clean water on us to heal us of that which has soiled our inner beauty. He will put His spirit in us, which is to say, He will give us the graces we need. And we celebrate Lent with the entire world, whether they are aware we are doing so or not. As we grow in holiness we change, and so too our relationship with the world changes, even if it is quite subtle. The more we acknowledge our sinfulness the less we can judge others for their sins because we see that we are also capable of the sinful or hurtful things which wound the world. As we grow through Lent we see that we can be more patient with the differences of others, but also we can pray for that which is destructive or evil to be thwarted by our efforts at kindness, compassion and peace, and most especially through our prayers to God.
Let us allow God to walk with us through our Lenten observance. Let us allow Him to put His heart within us, replacing our stony hearts with ‘natural hearts.’ A natural heart is the heart He originally intended for us. It is a heart that allows itself to be opened up to seeing our own flaws, not feeling guilty, but desiring for His sake to be better. It is a heart that yearns to love as He loves. It is a heart which recognizes just how much we have been given, is filled with gratitude, and in gratitude desires to share that love through good works. The good news is that we do not have to work at our observances alone. Our natural heart is a work in progress, given by God, who wants us to have the joy of knowing the depth of His love for us. Therefore Let us persevere in our Lenten practices, knowing that we do not go it alone.
May our Lenten observances take on greater meaning as we continue through this season, no matter how imperfect our attempts so far have been! May we focus not on the practices we have promised but on the Lord for whom we do them! May we have the desire and courage to face our weaknesses and to go to the sacrament of Reconciliation where all sin is wiped clean! May we be renewed in our strength as we turn to the Lord who walks with us through Lent! May we allow the Lord to give us natural hearts, hearts filled with kindness, generosity, compassion, mercy, and love! And may we trust the process, even if we see little progress, knowing that with the Lord all things are possible! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first photo is mine. It was taken in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I chose it because of the sense of solitude that I experienced at that spot. It was a spot that felt like it was "in secret" as a place of quiet prayer and reflection.
Next is a photo I took of a photo of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: it was part of a permanent display at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.
The third photo is of Fr. William Hart McNichols as he took part in Las Posadas at Nuestra Señora de San Juan de Los Lagos Capilla in Talpa, NM. While it is an Advent photo, I chose it because of the gentle leadership and relationship which is apparent between Fr. Bill and the young 'St. Joseph' seen walking with him. They are leading each other; that is, they are part of the community, together in prayer.
Next is an icon written by Fr. Bill McNichols, mentioned above. It is called San Jose en el Rio Grande. I am aware that St. Joseph's feast is next week, but I feel that one can never say enough about this wonderful saint. He is the humblest of all saints, (in my opinion), because he had the task of being the guide to manhood for Jesus, though in reality not really His father, but a type of foster father. As in the above photo of Fr. Bill and the young boy seeming to guide each other, so too are St. Joseph and Jesus guiding each other. Should you want to purchase a copy of it, the icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/san-jose-en-el-rio-grande-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The last photo is one of mine, taken in North Dakota. It is a sunset over the Badlands.
Heart Speaks to Heart