This is an excellent time to become more conscious of discerning God’s desires for us. During Lent, we look more deeply into our habits so that we may affect a sort of spiritual tune-up. The aim is to get back on track with our growth in holiness, to try to clean up areas of sin, and to become better disciples. It is also a good time to reflect upon the sacrifices Jesus made for us, done purely out of love and of His desire that we be saved so that we might spend eternity with Him. Therefore, reading and praying with the Passion narratives is an excellent Lenten practice. Our reflection upon what He suffered can help us to consider our own behaviors so that we might see more clearly if we are growing closer to Jesus or if we have been spiritually lazy and are moving away from Him, even if unwittingly. Another way to put this is that we need to examine whether or not we are living in line with God’s will. All people of faith grapple with what that might be, but for many the phrase ‘God’s will’ strikes fear. The saints, and Jesus Himself, teach us that there is never anything to fear when it comes to approaching God or to discovering His will because the desire of God’s heart is always for our best interests, and of course, that we would know His love more clearly.
One of the most discussed concepts in all of spirituality is that of ‘knowing God’s will.’ Even so, many folks think that God’s will means He would have some kind of tyrannical control over us if we acquiesce to Him, that is, that we would suffer some sort of loss of freedom. Many others think that God’s will is some esoteric plan which only the holiest of the holy could ever figure out. These thoughts could not be further from the truth. In Old Testament terms God’s will is that we “do the right, act justly, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8) In New Testament terms God’s will is that we “love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves.” (Matthew 22:37-39) Both are essentially saying the same thing. But how we do those things, in the details of our lives, is left up to us. Life is filled with great complexity, but there are ways to discern the presence of God in order to move closer to Him and thus to grow in holiness. The most important thing to know is that it is not about knowing God’s mind, but rather it is about experiencing His heart and our home within it.
To learn discernment, we must first dispel the root of our fear. The enemy wants us far from God, so he wants us to believe that God will ask something loathsome of us and that it will bring us unhappiness. Of course, this is untrue; fear is not of God, but is an attempt by the evil one at deception. Next, we need to understand that God knows the depths of our hearts. Thus, God would never ask us to do something which is outside of the gifts with which He uniquely endowed us. God loves us more deeply that we could ever fathom, and therefore He does not play guessing games as if to make our lives more difficult. He has provided the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, to help us know how to act; but because He knows where our ultimate happiness lies, God also ‘speaks through’ the people and events of our lives to help in making the choices which ultimately lead us closer to Him. That is, in response to our experiences, we need to become attentive to the movements of our heart which indicate a direction we should go. To identify these movements we can ask ourselves questions such as the following. "What moves me to greater joy? What makes me the most fulfilled? What interests me or draws me? What leads me closer to God?" Our responses, the feelings and attractions we experience, are what we pray with. If they are in line with the gospel and with coming to a greater love for God and therefore, a greater freedom, then we have discerned what God is calling us to do, in other words, His will. Remember, His will is always grounded in our own freedom. We choose freely because that is the nature of His love for us.
An example of a person who learned how to follow God’s call quite vividly is that of Servant of God, Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. Born in 1904, Walter Ciszek grew up in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and entered the Jesuits at 18. While a novice he heard about the need for missionaries to Russia. Strongly feeling this was what he was called to do, he asked permission to go. Therefore, he was sent to Rome to study the Byzantine Rite and to learn Russian. After ordination, however, he was sent not to Russia, but rather to Poland. In 1939 when Poland was invaded by the Russians, he ended up on a jammed cattle car in horrific conditions, traveling into the Soviet Union. Once there, he could not tell anyone he was a priest because of the communist regime, a reality which kept him from doing any ministry. He struggled with God’s will for him at this point. But through prayer he learned that “God does not expect men single-handedly to change the world or overthrow all evil or cure all ills. He does expect him, though, to act in these circumstances ordained by His will and His providence. Nor will God’s grace be lacking to help him act.” In other words, Ciszek learned that even if he could not do the ministry to which he was ordained, he could act in love, caring for others, listening to them and sharing in their suffering. Thus, relying on grace, he saw that everything was truly in God’s hands.*
Unexpectedly, Ciszek was arrested by the Soviets who somehow discovered he was a priest. They sent him to Lubianka, the most dreaded prison in Moscow. For five years he was in solitary confinement in a tiny, nearly windowless room, enduring interrogation and torture, accused of being a Vatican spy. He was then transferred to the gulag system, ending up in Siberia where he somehow survived 15 years of hard labor in the mines, managing to bring the sacraments and to minister to those imprisoned with him. After those years, he was freed from the gulag but forced to remain in Siberia. Abruptly, in 1963 he was taken into government custody, sent back to Moscow, and put on a plane to America: a letter he had written his sister had gotten through and so the government traded Ciszek for some Russian spies. He returned to America where he spent the rest of his life ministering and teaching until his death in 1984.
Throughout his ordeal Ciszek had many moments of despair, especially at the beginning. But through his prayer and reliance on God he learned to forget about himself and to act as another Christ. He wrote, “God does not ask the impossible of any man. He was not asking more of me, really, than He asks of every man, every Christian, each day of his life. But He was asking only that I learn to see these suffering men around me, these circumstances in the prison, as sent from His hand and ordained by His providence. He was asking me to do something, as another Christ; to forget about self and feeling sorry for myself, and to act in the situation after the example of Christ himself.”* This is a remarkable insight borne of prayer in the midst of unimaginable suffering.
Like Fr. Ciszek we can learn to do the will of God if we attempt to do everything with a bit more love than we might at first think we can offer. With practice, we can learn to take self out of the middle of that which is being asked, letting God replace it with the graces needed to get through painful or difficult situations. Fr. Ciszek’s example teaches that our very presence is more important than anything we can or cannot do: it is about being present to God in our prayer, opening ourselves to that which comes our way, asking for the grace to act in love, and accepting the path which is before us. If we fail along the way, we can turn to God for help, but what is most important is that we keep trying. Similarly, if all we can do is share our presence with others, be assured that it is the best gift to be offered. We can learn how to be as other Christs, knowing that even the smallest deed done with love is a great gift to God. This is what Fr. Ciszek came to understand. He learned to let go of getting stuck in self-pity and found freedom in embracing the presence of God in the midst of horrific conditions. In this, he became holy, and so too, can we.
May we confidently put ourselves in God’s hands! May we persevere on our Lenten journey that we might come to know, love, and serve God better! May we learn how to discern the will of God so that we might come to greater freedom! May we be inspired by the life of Servant of God Walter Ciszek and turn to him for intercession! May we trust in the love of God and that He will give us the graces needed to be strong in difficulty and suffering! May we bring God’s love to others by forgetting self and trusting that our presence is enough! And may we come to experience God’s heart and our place within it! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The quotes are all from He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. The specific quotes here can be found on pages 48-50. ~ Fr. Ciszek wrote a number of books. The first was called With God in Russia (written with the assistance of Daniel J. Flaherty, S.J.) and was intended as a memoir, written at the behest of his Jesuit superiors. However, about 10 years later he wrote He Leadth Me (again with the help of Fr. Flaherty) and said it was the book he wanted to write in order to say all that he was not able to write earlier. Later he wrote With God in America: The Spiritual Legacy of an Unlikely Jesuit.
For more on the life and experience of Fr. Ciszek here are two short, but excellent biographies:
1. I chose to use my photo of bluebonnets in the Texas Hill Country because they are a sure sign that Spring is here. Lent happens as winter turns into spring, and so I also think of these flowers as a symbol of new life. They bring joy to the hearts of the many who view them. Viewing a carpet of them in a field is definitely life-giving.
2. This painting is St. Francis Giving His Cloak to a Poor Man by Giotto. It is the second of the 28 panels in his fresco on the walls of the Upper Church in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, Italy. I chose this because St. Francis of Assisi is another outstanding example of someone who made a radical transformation from entitled rich kid to one of the truest disciples of Jesus who ever lived. He learned to become totally selfless in everything he did, even when he had to overcome his fear and utter distaste for lepers and the poor. https://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/giotto/assisi/upper/legend/franc02.html
3. This is another of my photos, taken on the Big Island of Hawaii. These small yellow birds were relatively prevalent, a sight that continued to grab my attention because of their vivid color. I chose them with the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in mind: "Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they?... So do not worry...." (Matthew 6:25-34)
4. Photo of Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, S.J.: This is the one the Jesuits have used on his prayer card. You can find it at one of the sites listed above.
5. Russian Arctic, East Siberian Coast, n.1, painted by David McEown: I chose this water color because it seemed to convey the bleak Siberian winter. It contains a bit of beauty which is present even in the bleakest places, as seen in the colors which seem to be reflected from sky and snow.
6. Icon, Nuestro Salvador De Las Sandias by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I chose this icon because it conveys a sense of peace and healing. Jesus is holding a symbol of peace which is also a symbol of the life which comes with interior freedom. You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/nuestro-salvador-de-las-sandias-012-william-hart-mcnichols.html
7. This is one of my favorite images of all. It is a sculpture of The Creation of Adam by God which is found in Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France. It is one of the most tender, and thus consoling, images I have ever seen. It speaks of the love with which God created us: the breath of His breath and the clay fashioned just right so that we might have life as described in Genesis 1 & 2.
Finally, a thank you to the dear friend who inspired this entry: In gratitude that you are such an inspiration to me and to so many others, Fr. Richard.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
By all appearances the beginning of the season of Lent seems to be rather comforting. Even though we often enter into it not quite sure where we are going concerning our prayer, abstinence, and almsgiving, with that “uh-oh, it’s Lent-what am I going to do?” feeling, we flock to get ashes as if we can hardly wait to begin the process. It is a fascinating phenomenon, observable every year, when people crowd their churches on Ash Wednesday as if it is the most important day of the year. Actually, in a way, it is. The Scriptures tell us, and our Christian faith informs us, that redirecting our lives is necessary since we tend to go a bit off course throughout the year given our imperfection and proneness to sin. We hear phrases such as “return to God with all your heart” and similar exhortations for us to redirect, reconnect, and rebuild areas which may have fallen into decay or have gone slightly astray from the path to holiness we truly desire. Our behavior displays an eagerness to do this, even though we may say the opposite, because deep down we know Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect and then act upon where we have been in our journey, where we are now, and where we hope to be as we do the work of becoming more intentional as disciples of Jesus Christ. Lent is not only about looking at our faults and failures, though it is important to work on these areas; it is also about being drawn more deeply into the depths of God’s love and the response we would like to make to Him. And that is rather comforting.
The beauty of our relationship with God, highlighted in the season of Lent, is most profoundly expressed in the gift of salvation offered through Jesus’ unfathomable act of forgiveness, that is, His suffering, death, and resurrection. With that in mind, something said by Pope Francis during a press conference seems appropriate for reflection as we begin this season. * He said, “God always forgives, human beings sometimes forgive, but when nature is mistreated, she never forgives.” We know the struggle of trying to forgive and we know the burden of being held hostage to a grudge borne by another toward us. From time to time we probably have been the bearer of a grudge, our choice to carry the great weight of our own lack of mercy. Therefore, Lent is a reminder that we can ask God for the graces needed to let go of our burden of unforgiveness or to have the grace to approach the other, difficult as that may be, to ask pardon. And best of all, we can always, always approach God for forgiveness both in our personal prayer and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
But as Pope Francis points out, when it comes to the environment it does not seem to work that way. Perhaps it is because the world is tangible and finite, so it lacks the flexibility built into the formlessness, complexity, mystery, and capacity for life eternal built into our heart and soul. Whatever it is, the fact remains that we are meant to be stewards of our finite world. The first few chapters of the Book of Genesis reaffirm this reality multiple times. First we have Adam and Eve learning that they cannot abuse their relationship with the things of the earth, including each other. They are described as being lovingly made from the clay of the earth, brought to life by the very breath of God. (Genesis 2:7; 21-23). And in both Genesis 1 and 2, the authors describe in great detail how God created the environment (and “saw how good it was!”) for the usage and enjoyment of His first children. After their sin, Adam and Eve may have lost Paradise, but their choice to disobey did not mean they had lost the garden; instead, they now had to take care of it with hard work. The first two covenants, that is, the one with Adam and Eve, and the one with Noah, make it abundantly clear (pun definitely intended) that the environment is a gift to humanity, but that it is also our responsibility to take care of it. Although subsequent covenants did not mention this, each successive covenant is built on the one before, culminating with Jesus who is the embodiment of God’s mercy, compassion, love, and beauty.
A recent experience brought vivid awareness to the Pope's words concerning the environment. My husband and I hiked to a remote area in the Big Island of Hawaii referred to as “The Green Sand Beach.” ** It is called this because the sand is made up of pulverized olivine, (the gemstone also called peridot), one of only four such beaches in the world. It is something we have dreamed of for years, so when we finally arrived on the cliff which overlooks the green sand, a sight one cannot mistake, I was filled with great joy. We were the first people there that morning: the sand was pristine in all its amazing olive-ness, and for a half hour we were alone in that spot. I felt I was in the presence of Love as expressed through the vivid colors of sky, water, and sea. How great is the love of God that He would create such a magnificent place for His people to enjoy!
But the point of describing this, unfortunately, is about something quite different. As thrilling as it was, during our hike we found some trash along the path. Seeing used water bottles, abandoned ‘slippers’ (how Hawaiians refer to flip-flops), and all sorts of non-biodegradable junk, truly saddened me. Additionally, there were groups of people who opted to get to the beach (illegally) in four-wheel drive vehicles, trampling the land roughshod, and creating a fair amount of noise in the process. Though I did not let it ruin our adventure, it was utterly disappointing. Let me be clear: given situations like this worldwide, it is important that as a people we actively reflect upon and change our behaviors. While most of us do not ordinarily think of ourselves as activists, we must understand that all disciples of Christ are, in fact, called to be activists when it comes to issues of respect, dignity, and mercy. We need to acknowledge that as those in a covenant with God we have committed to trying our best to be good stewards in our relationships with others and also as caretakers of the environment which cannot be repaired once we lose it. Respect and mercy should be the attitude of our hearts encompassing everything we do.
Lent is an opportunity to become more mindful through our acts of sacrifice, that is, our choice to ‘give something up’ for the duration of the season. A suggestion is to perhaps make an effort to simplify so that we might be more conscious of God, less distracted by things, and more attuned to our stewardship. We do not have to go overboard: all we need are small steps because the point is to form new habits (or reform old ones) which will continue after Lent ends. Perhaps we might choose to do without plastic bags and wraps in all forms, (more difficult than it sounds), or to participate in a community project to clean up a neighborhood area. We might be more conscious of our usage of water, or consider that which we possess, cleaning out and donating (rather than throwing away) some of our excess. As we fast and practice abstinence perhaps we might take the money we saved on what we did not eat and buy groceries for donation in a weekly basis, or we can sort through our pantries and bring what may be there in excess to our local church or food pantry. This can help with awareness concerning the wasting of food, part of our overall attitude of caring for the environment. Finally, we should work on cleaning up our ‘inner environment’ as well, asking for graces needed to keep us from gossip and judgmentalism, or any area in which we recognize the need for growth. Perhaps we can use our time differently, deleting a bit from our social media usage and adding it to our prayer in order to become more attuned to God’s mercy and love, which of course is the goal of Lent in the first place.
We can challenge ourselves to apply the same fervor we put into our effort to get ashes to the entire season of Lent. While it is not required during the week, it would be wonderful to commit to one extra Mass on a weekday, again with the same enthusiasm with which we began the season. After all, more powerful than the ashes, (sacramental reminders of our mortality), are the Word and the Eucharist which are the very presence of God. Lent provides a great opportunity to ask the Lord for the graces we need to grow as stewards of our relationships, the environment, and of the individual gifts He has given. It is an opportune time to work at growing in holiness simply for the love of God.
May we live the season of Lent as obvious witnesses, ‘marked’ with faith, just as we spent Ash Wednesday marked with ashes! May we spend time assessing our gifts and discovering our excess, so we will be moved to share what we can with those in need! May we have respect for the dignity of others and for the environment, becoming better stewards as disciples of Jesus Christ! May we find comfort in the presence of God, knowing we can always turn to Him for forgiveness and mercy! And may we share the mercy and love of God with others through our expressions of sacrifice, abstinence, prayer, and almsgiving! Let us continue to meet in the merciful heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Next post: March 25.
* A good Lenten reflection on care for the environment might be to read the encyclical written by Pope Francis, Laudato si’ found at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
Here is a link to the Pope's statement concerning Lent for this year:
** The true name of this area is Papakolea which in Hawaiian means “plover flats,” for the bird species called the golden plover which was prevalent there at one time. The sand is green because hundreds of thousands of years ago the combination of volcanic action and the pounding waves of the Pacific Ocean combined to create this amazing beach. There are only four such beaches in the world, one in each of these places: Guam, Norway, the Galapagos Islands, and the Big Island of Hawaii.
1. The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise by Vincent van Gogh (1890): While it does not show many people 'flocking' into the church, I loved the simplicity of the woman on the walkway near the front of the church, seeming to indicate that she came from inside. Perhaps she just received her ashes.... You can find a bit more on this painting at https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/artwork/vincent-van-gogh-final-paintings17.htm
2. This is a photo I took on my recent trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, mentioned in the entry. I chose this shot because it captures the vivid colors and beauty which are often seen in our fragile, yet incredible, world.
3. This piece, called Viriditas Triptych, was painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is part of a larger work, Viriditas Finding God In All Things. Obviously it can stand alone, but is also an integral part of the larger work. I chose this triptych because it embodies the beauty of the Earth as a precious creation; in the center we see the Earth surrounded by the love of God and also filled with His presence. It is a gift from God to His beloved children. If you are interested in purchasing this or any other works by Fr. Bill, (they can be purchased in multiple mediums), you can find the triptych at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/viriditas-triptych-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. & 5. These are my photos of the Green Sand Beach, located near the southernmost part of the Big Island of Hawaii. The first of the pair is what the beach looks like as one approaches from the southern coastline path. The dirt on the path does have a greenish hue to it, but the beach is far below. The second photo is to show how very green the sand truly is. (The 'hand model' is my husband.)
6. Again, this is one of my photos. These are spinner dolphins playing in the bay near where we were staying in Kailua-Kona. I chose this photo for two reasons: first, they represent the sea life which is sadly being effected by the plastics we discard. And second, dolphins are communal animals, that is, their activities are almost always in groups (pods). They are fiercely loyal to one another, and love to play with each other as well as with humans as they were doing at the time of this photo. I cropped the photo, but there were people on paddle boards and in kayaks with whom the dolphins were interacting.
7. This artistic rendering of ashes seemed an appropriate way to end a post about the start of Lent. Perhaps it is a reminder that we all come from the same 'beginnings' created by God, and it is also a reminder of what Genesis tells us about Adam and Eve being created from the dirt.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart