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.
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Heart Speaks to Heart