Just about now liturgical ministers and clergy everywhere are scrambling to get ready for the upcoming season of Lent which is arguably the busiest of the year. Lent is certainly a time of fullness, yet we often think of it as a season of deprivation, associating Lent with fasting and having to give up something. In actuality the emphasis is not at all on what we lose, but rather on what we gain. While giving up something is good and can be a challenge, it is important to remember that we are adding to our prayer, almsgiving, and penance. And for some, it can be about adding behaviors, such as trying to be kinder or more merciful, rather than giving something up. Indeed we do fast and give up meat on certain days, but this is to help us turn our attention more toward God. We also hope to empty ourselves of our sins by going to reconciliation so we can make space for graces to fill us up. Yes, it is not about giving up so much as it is about being filled. New life given through the self-emptying of Jesus, an act of love overflowing, is what God intends to offer us to fill the empty space we create during the next 40 days.
In reflecting upon what Lent might offer this year, two people who embraced self-emptying with a purpose come to mind. The first of these is St. Padre Pio. What stands out about him is his suffering, or rather, his willingness to suffer as a way of offering himself for others as prayer. I am not sure any other saint (who was not a martyr) suffered as much as St. Pio of Pietrelcina, born Francesco Forgione (1887-1968). He had a myriad of health issues, suffering with tuberculosis as a young man, but also with a chronic gastrointestinal issue that could never be accurately diagnosed. He could hardly eat: it was said that for his entire adult life he only ate about 300-400 calories a day, yet no one could explain why he was rotund. He also was given the gift of the stigmata, that is, he bore the wounds of Christ. Not only was this exceedingly painful, but it also caused him great emotional suffering because he was embarrassed by them, thinking he was not worthy of such a thing. And of course, there was the spiritual suffering he endured. Many did not trust that the wounds were real and said that they were self-inflicted. Between the jealousy and misunderstanding leveled at him, he suffered greatly, especially when he was forbidden from hearing confessions or saying Mass publicly for a time.
What is most extraordinary, however, is that in all of this, Padre Pio never complained, nor did he do anything but be entirely obedient to his superiors and to God. This is because of his act of self-emptying, an act of love overflowing. Feeling a call to do so, and with the approval of his spiritual director, Pio had actually asked God to allow him to suffer for those who were far from God or in some great need. He offered himself in a monumental act of mercy, and in 1918 God accepted his offer, giving him the stigmata while he was praying in the chapel. In addition to the suffering, though, he received many spiritual gifts which few saints have had in such great abundance. It seemed that the more he let go of his own comfort and the more he suffered, the more powerful and effective were the gifts of God which he was able to use for the good of others. And if this was not extraordinary enough, it said that in the later years of his life he was often heard to say, “After my death I will do more. My real mission will begin after my death.” With all he went through, he had such a heart for doing works of mercy for the Lord that even in death he was not ready to stop working.
The second example is St. Thérèse of Lisieux who said something similar when she was nearing death. She said, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon the earth.” Like Padre Pio, St. Thérèse also suffered greatly throughout her brief 24 years of life. At the age of 3 she suffered the death of her mother, as a child she suffered from an ailment so mysterious that no doctor could help her, though she survived miraculously through the intercession of Mary. She suffered in having to let go of her emotional dependency on her sisters and her father, and of having to recognize and then let go of her rather immature, almost neurotic behaviors in order to grow up. She entered Carmel only to come down with tuberculosis, suffering horrifically over the course of three years until her death. But she did all of this gladly for her dear Jesus, her King. And remarkably just as she promised, she has had a ‘reputation’ after her death of showering favors like roses from heaven.
Padre Pio and Thérèse could not have had personalities or temperaments that were more different from one another. Additionally, she was from a more well-to-do family, and he was from peasant stock; she lived a short life and he lived a long one. The only outward similarity is that they both lived in an enclosure in religious life, he as a Franciscan and she as a Carmelite, though even in that they were different: Padre Pio had much contact with the outside world through his sacramental ministry, and in contrast she had little outside contact. But in terms of their desire to be totally emptied in service of Christ they could not be more alike. Both Padre Pio and Thérèse emptied themselves in order to be filled with God’s mercy so that they could share in love overflowing, even after death.
Both St. Padre Pio and St. Thérèse of Lisieux teach us about the true importance of Lent and its place in our spiritual life. Lent calls us to remember that we are so greatly loved by God that He would send His Son into the world to suffer and die for us so we could have salvation. It calls us to participate more deeply in Jesus’ death and resurrection; that is, we are invited to join in His self-emptying in order to make a space to be filled with new life and renewed love. Lent is a gift we are given every year in order to help us to get back on track and to walk ever closer with Jesus. Having the example of Sts. Pio and Thérèse, we can see that the suffering we may undergo in recognizing our personal faults and failings is actually an opportunity in which we can receive the boundless mercy of God. In being emptied it allows us to become more obedient, more humble, and more merciful; we become more able to see those who are materially, emotionally, or spiritually impoverished and need our love and attention. In other words, Lent is an opportunity to not only make our own relationship with God more intimate, but to reach outward to the world in prayer for reparation of sin as well as sharing from our abundance as we give alms or do charitable works. Lent is an invitation which allows us to empty ourselves of distractions, especially the distraction of self, in order to be filled with the graces we need to be a better disciple. And if we can attain a heart such as that of Padre Pio or Thérèse, we can grow in our desire to continue to do good works after our lives are over.
Ironically, we are used to hearing that we go to our eternal rest when we die. But I am not sure that our understanding of this is often wide enough. While we will have rest from all our earthly toil and suffering, ‘eternal rest’ does not infer that we will be devoid of things to do. This is because it is not in the nature of love to be idle. The nature of Love, with whom we would then be united, is to share. Love overflows. And so we are right back where we began: Lent, in short, is love overflowing. It is a time in which we are invited into the self-emptying of Jesus Christ our Lord and therefore it is a time of fullness as we, too, let go in order to be re-filled.
May we ask God to reveal what areas within us need to be emptied so they can be re-filled! May we embrace the gift of this Lenten season with joy and gratitude! May we ask St. Pio and St. Thérèse to pray for us that we will have the courage to persevere in our Lenten commitment! May we allow ourselves more time to find Jesus in prayer and that it may move us outward in charitable works and almsgiving! And may we enter more deeply into Lent this year so that our efforts at self-emptying may lead us to be filled with love overflowing anew! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus our Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first photo is one of mine, taken in New Mexico. The cross on the hill reminds me of the goals we set during Lent which require some work, but are not impossible to reach.
The icon is St. Padre Pio Mother Pelican by Fr. William Hart McNichols. The reference is to the female pelican which chooses to suffer in order to feed her children. The pelican is a frequent image in Catholic symbolism. You can find the icon at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/2-st-padre-pio-mother-pelican-047-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
The rest of the images are my photos. First is a photo of a photo: there is a display of original photos of St. Thérèse of Lisieux at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris which were taken during her lifetime. When I was visiting there a few years ago, I was able to take pictures of quite a few. This one is Thérèse standing with a medallion which represented her chosen religious name, Sr. Thérèse of The Child Jesus and the Holy Face.
Next is the tabernacle at St. Joseph on the Rio Grande Catholic Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The icon under the tabernacle is the original of San Jose en el Rio Grande by Fr. William Hart McNichols. If you are interested in buying a copy of the icon, (not the tabernacle) you can go to http://fineartamerica.com/featured/san-jose-en-el-rio-grande-268-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
The final photo was also taken in New Mexico on a gorgeous day.
Finally, a link which you might find helpful is this one about what Pope Francis suggests we fast from this Lent: http://time.com/3714056/pope-francis-lent-2015-fasting/?xid=fbshare
Heart Speaks to Heart