The simplicity of Lent
In the past, I have referred to Fr. Dave Callaghan’s talk Holiness is Not What We Think It Is[i]. He ‘sets the stage’ with the point that we don’t wake up in the morning saying, “I think I’ll do something really stupid today”! We have an end-goal for every choice and believe our choice will get us to that goal.
The exception of course is when it comes to our salvation! We are comfortable with our weaknesses and are accustomed to the problems or crises in life. People just don’t like change, and the call to holiness is precisely that: change.
Once the desire to change is embraced, it can be difficult to keep our eye on the prize. With the cycle of shame keeping a person convinced of their shortcomings and unworthiness, it is difficult to see themselves for anything other than their faults. We make our brokenness our identity.
Also common is to focus so much on overcoming these faults that we aren’t really paying attention to God. In his book, Passing from Self to God, Fr. Robert Thomas OCSO shares a conversation held by St. Francis of Assisi with Brother Leo. The Saint instructs us to not be over-focused on the purity of our soul, for having a pure heart [intention] is our act of thanksgiving glorifying God.
“And when you are thus turned toward God, above all do not turn back to yourself at all. Don’t ask where you stand with God. The sadness of not being perfect and finding yourself a sinner is still a human sentiment, too human. You must lift your gaze higher, much higher. There is God, the immensity of God and His unalterable splendor. The pure heart is the one which does not cease adoring the living and true Lord. It takes a profound interest in the very life of God and it is capable, in the midst of its miseries, of vibrating to the eternal innocence and to the eternal joy of God.” … “Holiness is not an accomplishment of the self, nor a fullness which one gives oneself. It is first of all an emptiness which one discovers and accepts as, and which God comes to filling the measure that the person opens himself to His fullness. Our nothingness, you see, if it is accepted, becomes the free space where God is still able to create.” … “But the purity is not obtained by force of arms and by being grasping…keep nothing of yourself … renounce everything heavy, even the weight of our faults. Have nothing more than the glory of God…Its desire for perfection is changed into a simple and pure desire for God.” … “God is. That is enough.”[ii]
Fr. Thomas advises to “turn away from self, as soon as you notice that you are becoming the center of your interest”.
The point is neither to ignore, and continue to wallow in, one’s attachments and self-centeredness, nor to be so overly fixated on overcoming them that you feel it necessary to be perfect. As one grows closer to God, their desire for Him grows too. The eyes of the soul open and sees its imperfections quite clearly. It is an easy trap for your efforts in overcoming imperfections to become the center of your attention. St. Ignatius, like St. Francis, saw ingratitude as the greatest sin and felt giving thanks and glory to God was always the first priority; it is the first step in the examen. The emptiness of which St. Francis speaks isn’t suppressing emotions or memories and pretending all is perfect. It is a detachment from the need to be perfect so that our efforts to reject temptation and overcome weaknesses are ordered towards loving and desiring God.
Fr. Thomas explains “It is not yourself you ought to look at while acting, but God, and while we concern ourselves with Him, He concerns Himself with us.” We must keep our destination as our focal point. This requires a true surrender of the will; rejecting temptations and especially overcoming preferences are necessary to surrendering. Too often, however, the process itself of detachment becomes the focal point. Rather than lamenting one’s unworthiness, prayer should be loving and thanking God in spite of it. This is why the other practices outside of prayer are necessary. Monitoring oneself during the day to notice when you’ve lost your peace is the first step to changing habits. Ascetical practices such as giving up unnecessary ‘treats’ (food, entertainment, knowledge gluttony) is important to getting over oneself. Also important, however, is giving up preferences for that is where the ego lies—our reaction to not having food exactly to our liking or watching the TV show we want to see is almost guaranteed to lead to unkind thoughts or words. The confession list grows!
We can also get so wrapped up in overcoming a weakness that we grasp onto it instead of God; we subconsciously keep control of it. An ugly cycle ensues of frustration at not overcoming the bad habit yet giving into it time and again. For those with scruples, the shame cycle imprisons them too. For anyone, it is like being a hamster on the wheel and unable to get off—by the way, hamsters can actually die because they are unable to stop. So can we spiritually.
“It is the cure for self that is the core of the whole thing; we require to be cured of self by being changed, as the bread and wine on the altar are changed, into Christ.” (Caryll Houselander)[iii]
Which leads to Lent. Wouldn’t change be easier if you were truly convinced of God’s love for you, that you are lovable, and that you are worthy of it? We cannot see it. Our vision is clouded. Lent serves to give us new eyes to see. Instead of planning a complicated Lenten practice of giving up, taking on, etc., the most profound change can come from simplicity. A simple practice of asking yourself throughout the day “why does this matter” is all it takes to uncover how much of what you do is focused on you and really shouldn’t matter at all. If this is taken on as the one and only endeavor for Lent, and no others, it would be sufficient to change your life profoundly and permanently.
It is written by the Holy authors that the souls of the saints on earth (you and I!) always pray even in their sleep, and their prayers at all times are more efficacious. Through our prayer, we participate in this Communion of Saints as the militant along with the church penitent and triumphant. We must continue to pray for Pope Francis, our clergy and religious who bring God to us in the sacraments and bring us to God in their prayer.
Lord Jesus, embrace me in this very moment and never let go. You are my King and Savior, and I am yours, belonging to you and called to bring people to you, their salvation. Give me respite and courage in the struggles. Teach me abandonment into your arms. May my heart forever profess “nothing matters but Jesus”. Fill me with your spirit and create in me a docile will, a clean heart, inspired speech, and a burning desire to be Love to others. Protect me from the enemy and give me intimate knowledge of you so I follow you alone. I consecrate to you and to the Blessed Virgin Mary all thoughts, speech and works that I may be your voice, your instrument, your vessel of Grace. I profess my desire that my life be a living praise of you. I thank you with all affection. Amen.
May this Lent bring all of us to a more permanent discipline of vulnerable honesty with God so that His covenant–already inscribed in our heart–becomes our lived existence.
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam 😊
Photo by Ahna Ziegler from Unsplash
[ii] Fr. Robert Thomas, Passing from Self to God: A Cistercian Retreat. Liturgical Press (2006).
[iii] Caryll Houselander from Catholic Education Resource Center https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/spiritual-life/rejoice-and-leap-for-joy.html