Recently someone was telling me about a new activity he had taken up, rock climbing. Being a novice at this sport, he went to a good athletic supply store to buy climbing shoes only to find out that the shoes needed had to be about two sizes smaller than his regular size, or at least they fit that way. The shoes curve the toes inward, apparently, so that one’s feet can grab the rocks better. Apparently, the first few days he wore the shoes to begin to break them in - or to break his feet in, I am not sure which - he was in agony. He said it was very painful until little by little he could wear them and even walk in them without too much difficulty. Once he gets fully adjusted to the shoes, he can begin learning the art of climbing and hopefully begin to get some experience.
I am not overly fond of heights so I would not be one to attempt rock climbing. But in thinking about what he said I began to see a connection to the season of Lent, which begins in a few days. During Lent we are asked to make a sacrifice of some sort and we often hear people say they are giving this or that up. The sacrifice usually involves some sort of pinch, like those climbing shoes. But there needs to be a purpose behind our efforts. For example, one Lent many years ago I attempted to give up coffee. It was very difficult, especially at work every day when I would pass the coffee pot and smell the aroma. Difficult as that was, however, this was not my most memorable Lent. I only gained the ‘pride’ in having accomplished something hard to do. Because my focus was in the wrong place, it really did not make me think about Jesus more, nor did it do anything for my spiritual life. That is because my focus was more on my self-imposed coffee deprivation than on Jesus. Living without coffee was a pinch, but for me, it did not have the value I thought it might. Like my friend and his climbing shoes, our sacrifice should have a bit of a pinch, but the purpose behind it is more important than the action itself. He did not buy the shoes simply to make his own feet hurt, but he bought them so that he could learn to climb. That is, the action we choose for Lent should lead us to deeper relationship with Jesus, rather than be an exercise in discipline for the sake of discipline.
The point to our Lenten sacrifice is to grow in love. Whatever we chose to do, it should be because we love Jesus enough to want to become closer to Him, to gain insights into Him, and to have that love move us outward in action. While I often suggest adding something rather than giving something up, (such as 15 extra minutes of prayer or daily Mass), there is a way we can give things up which can be the most meaningful sacrifices of all. I am referring to an attempt to give up sinful attitudes such as selfishness, impatience, anger, gossiping, laziness in prayer, materialism, negative comments we make to others, or whatever else it may be. These are the areas that are hardest to curb. But like all sacrifices it takes work to make these things habitual. And in order to tackle these goals, we need to beg for the graces we will need through prayer.
During Lent we are encouraged to pray more and to receive Eucharist. We are also urged to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There is a reason for this. It is not because we need to focus on our sinfulness, but rather it is so we can receive graces to strengthen us. Lent is referred to as a season of joy, not of mourning and negative glances at ourselves! We go to Reconciliation in order to remove all that comes between God and us, to have the barrier of sin broken down. Subsequently, we also receive the graces to grow holier by sincerely having sorrow for our sin, and asking God to help us to do better. It is about His mercy and desire for us to be closer to Him, not about being judged as a terrible sinner. Remember, we are loved sinners, oh so deeply loved.
Lenten sacrifices are not easy. And we need to remember that there is no sin in trying and falling down once or twice. If we have promised to do something and a few days into it we fall, there is no reason to give up. No one is expecting perfection. Just as no one can go rock climbing for the first time and scale a huge mountain, we have to build our stamina. This is why we need to carefully discern what it is we are going to do. If we make the goal too lofty, we are setting ourselves up to fall. It is not about the size of our Lenten actions, it is about coming to know Jesus in a new way, and about growing in love.
Therefore if we have not already done so, we need to spend the next few days reflecting on what area is our weakest area in loving. That is, what is the area in which we are least loving when push comes to shove. It might be a tendency to selfishness or a tendency toward self-punishment, or it could be a propensity for gossip; it could be in not sharing some gifts we have, material or otherwise. Whatever it is, the point would be to try to find an appropriate way to combat that urge through our sacrifice. For example, maybe I might be suffering from a lack of sharing, whether it is with friends and family, or in not sharing my resources with strangers in need such as the poor. I might choose to give up something material, in order to recognize that I have many luxuries, and so I learn to give from my surplus to those who have nothing. Then the giving up of something has value because it moves me outward to others. Remember, it is not about what one gives up, it is about focusing on Jesus, growing in love and therefore in holiness.
Our practices in Lent should include all three of these: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Lent is a good time to make it a priority to spend more time in prayer every day. It will help us get in the habit of spending time with the One who gives us everything we have and who loves us with an amazing love. Almsgiving is about giving from our financial coffers, but I also think we can give in non-financial ways, such as taking someone to church with us, doing chores for neighbors, or whatever we can for those less fortunate than we are. Fasting is about abstaining from food at certain times, but there are other ways to fast. We can fast from a behavior, or by limiting usage of technologies that swallow our time before we know it. Instead, we can use that time for prayer, spiritual reading, or service. If we are truly creative and reflective about what is the best way to personally grow in love and therefore in holiness, there is no limit to what we can meaningfully do.
Remember, what is most important is the motivation behind what we are choosing to do, not the act itself. I am reminded of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, one of my favorite saints. He loved the discipline of rock and mountain climbing because he said it brought him closer to God; it was as prayer to him. But he spent long hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament, too. The fruit of his prayer and love for God spilled out in love for the many poor people to whom he was devoted. Just as he wanted to grow to the heights of holiness using the phrase, “verso l’alto" which means ‘to the heights,’ we should desire to grow through our Lenten discipline in order to share our love with others.
What we chose to do for Lent should help us become more like Jesus; it should be a school of love, teaching us about the depths of His love for us. We should be joyous throughout this season because we have such an opportunity to grow closer to the One who gave all for us. And in the end we should emerge at Easter with the gratitude of deeper understanding of what Jesus did for us, and what He continues to do for us, which is to invite us into resurrected joy with Him forever.
Let us spend time the next few days in discerning what choices we will make in our desire to grow in love and holiness through Lent. May we have the desire to grow in self-discipline to the end of growing in love! May we turn to God through the sacraments in order to have the graces we need to grow in our relationship with Him! May we have the motivation to imitate Him more clearly! And may we have the joy of the season of Lent in knowing how great was the sacrifice by Jesus because of mercy and love, and how deeply He continues to love us. During this Lent let us meet in the Eucharist! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The top photo is one I took when in northern Italy while climbing Mt. Mucrone, not far from the villa owned by the Frassati family. Next is a photo of a print which is at my house: Chalice and Host Surrounded By Garlands Of Flowers, 1648, by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1683). The third photo is of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati rock climbing, unknown photographer.
Heart Speaks to Heart