Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Lent Hath Come: Getting to the Heart of It

 With Ash Wednesday the focal point, the following article outlines the 'letter' of Lent and explores what is involved in order to live out the 'spirit' of Lent, involving the concept of a 'broken heart'.

'The Fight Between Carnival and Lent', Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559.


 Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent which ends on Easter. The ‘Daily Missal’ provides a neat little introduction:

Today we commence the season of Lent, a time of preparation for the great feast of Easter. During Lent, we give special attention to prayer (attending to quality more so than quantity), fasting (emptying ourselves that we may be filled with the life and love of Christ) and good deeds (not to win admiration for ourselves but to help others). Though it has a penitential character, Lent is a joyful season as we anticipate the resurrection of the Lord.

Penitential Requirements

For Roman Catholics the binding minimal penitential requirements of Ash Wednesday involves abstinence from meat (mammal, fowl, and soups/gravies/broth made from them), and fasting – defined as no more than one full meal, and two small snacks the combination of which would amount to less than one ordinary full meal. Catholics are encouraged to follow stricter fasting according to their capacity, but it is not morally binding. Seafood such as fish, shellfish etc. is permitted to be eaten, but it ought to be simple if it is eaten.

In Australia and the United States those who have completed their fourteenth year are bound to abstain; and those who have completed their eighteenth year and not yet commenced their sixtieth year are bound to abstain and fast. Of course due to illness or some other suitable condition where nourishment is sorely needed, one is made exempt from the obligation to fast. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation in Australia or the United States, but it is highly recommended to attend Mass – there will be numerous times made available in your local parishes.

All of the above requirements are the same for Good Friday. Throughout Lent (universal exemption for solemnities occurring during Lent, i.e. St. Joseph, 19th March, and St. Patrick, 17th March in Australia) there are three practical pillars which ought to especially mark the season: prayer, alms giving (charity) and penance.

Living the Spirit of Lent

The above falls under what we might call ‘the letter of Lent’ (i.e. the outward rules and practice) which is important to follow insofar as we are able. Yet to fulfill ‘the letter of Lent’ is vain and pointless unless it is accompanied by an interior motive arising from the heart. To carry out our Lent in this manner – from the heart, and not just outwardly ‘ticking the boxes’ – is to live ‘the Spirit of Lent’.

We use a capital ‘S’ for ‘Spirit’ since this Spirit is none other than the Holy Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness after His baptism, where He fasted for forty days and nights.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights (Mt 4:1-2a).

These forty days which Jesus spent in the wilderness served as the inspiration for the annual practice of Lent which the Church has practiced in varying ways since the beginning – over two thousand years ago.

'Christ in the Desert', Ivan Kramskoi, 1872.
On Ash Wednesday, in imitation of Jesus, we are called to especially surrender to the Holy Spirit so that He might drive us into the spiritual desert of repentance – which involves ‘a turning towards God’ in trusting joy, and a ‘turning away from sin’ out of sorrowful love. This dual aspect of repentance, involving a turning away from sin and a turning toward the good, is expressed in the words that may be said during the application of the ashes on the forehead: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Jesus was sinless, and so He spent His forty days and nights – His Lent as it were – in penance in reparation for our sins, and in preparation for His public ministry. We are not sinless, for as St. John says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn 1:8). The Christian then, is not one who is without sin, but one who is a sinner who acknowledges this fact and who yet believes in the unconditional love and forgiveness of God. Yet not only must we reform ourselves and allow the Lord to renovate our souls through His secret outpouring of grace in prayer, during Lent we ought to make reparation for the sins of others, praying especially for the deceased souls in purgatory, all for the end of preparing ourselves in this Lenten desert atmosphere for our ‘public ministry’ just like Jesus, and in Jesus. A ‘public ministry’ which will vary for all of us, but which is ultimately our vocation and lifestyle. Lent then is a time to beg the Holy Spirit to renew our spiritual fervour to establish the Kingdom of God – which is simply the reign of truth, peace and love – in our midst. Endeavouring to truly be aflame with love for God and neighbour alike – with a love which imparts joy and expresses goodwill to others, not misery, harsh judgment and slanderous gossip.

We must desire to allow Christ to live in us, praying that His joyful love would flow through us in our reaching out to those we meet in the streets, at the shops, at our parish, school, university, and hardest of all – at our very own home, and among those who are the most familiar – since it is often easier to love a stranger, but harder to love those we know well. For it is the latter against whom familiarity often weighs our hearts down with little stones of indifference or resentment.

“I Desire Love not Sacrifice”

Summarising what living out Lent in the Spirit consists, we read in the first reading from the Mass of the day in the Book of Joel: “Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn” (2:13). What is meant by garments torn? Allegorically it refers to all of those things which Catholics commonly give up for Lent – chocolate, desert, facebook, alcohol, video games, ‘eating out’ etc. These acts of penance are good, but Lent does not consist in such acts alone, for God says elsewhere: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6a). In other words, God only wants our sacrifices insofar as they are a sign of our love for Him, and insofar as such metaphorical Lenten ‘garment tearing’ is a mere accompaniment to our desire and motive to love God and our neighbour more intensely and more perfectly.

Our hearts are so hard because through our pride and selfishness we harden it. We find it so easy to snarl at people behind their backs, perhaps under the guise of ‘harmless chatter’ or ‘letting others know so that we can pray for them’. We find it so easy to bear a grudge for years on end. We find it so easy to refrain from greeting and smiling at those in our own household, or at those we meet. We find it easy to find time for ourselves to do what we want, but find so little time to visit elderly or sick relatives, or needy ones in our community. We’re imperfect people and thus even without knowing it we bear countless stones of indifference and resentment – against both God and neighbour alike, for the two cannot be divorced. If we are to give up anything this Lent these must be the things we take priority ‘to get rid of’.

Getting to the Heart of It

Let us search our hearts for the many stones that weight us down, the many weeds which sap our spiritual strength, the many good seedlings of inspirations we’ve failed to plant, to carry out; and the many chains of unhealthy attachment that tie us down.

Who do we still hold a grudge against? We must cast away such stones of resentment through forgiving them in our heart. We may not feel like we’ve forgiven them, but forgiveness consists in the free will’s choice to forgive, and that is what forgiveness actually is. Thus by saying out loud: “I forgive this person for that, that persons for that etc.” with the intent of meaning what one says – even if one doesn’t feel like one means it – then that is forgiveness. It is only in time through God’s hidden love that inner healing takes place so that we may arrive at feeling we’ve forgiven those who’ve wittingly or unwittingly wounded us. How free and light is a heart which holds no resentments! By holding unto such stones of grudges we do not harm our offenders, we only harm ourselves.

Do we have a terrible habit of being ‘nasty people’ who speak ill of others? Let us pray to God to be delivered from this evil, for He alone can uproot such a noxious weed of harshness. To do so God only needs us to 1) ask for this grace, and 2) to bear the firm resolve to speak positively of others, and to never uncover our neighbour’s sins in our conversations. As St. Peter writes: “Above all, love one another deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).

Have we been neglecting certain needy people whom our conscience whispers we should visit or assist? Perhaps there’s been such a pot plant sitting on the shelf of our heart, waiting and calling out to be planted and brought to the soil of reality. When we die we will be judged not on how wealthy we are, nor how popular, intellectual, artistic, or financially or socially savvy we are, but we will be judged solely based on our fidelity to the truth that resounds in our conscience, a conscience we are obliged to bring to maturity through the pursuit of finding moral and existential truth. And how do we remain faithful to our conscience in the simplest sense? By loving, and one way we accomplish this is by reaching out to those whom God has placed in or around our lives with hospitality, friendship, charity, and a helping hand. We can only assist those on the other side of the globe with prayer and alms giving, but we can do much more for those around us.

'Holding Stone Heart', St. Takla (web).
Are we looking to be served and understood by others, or to serve and to understand others? Many times we complain about how misunderstood we are and how under appreciated and how much in need of being catered to we are; but all of this negative kind of thinking does naught but host oneself a pity party which invites the few yet overbearing guests of melancholy, bitterness, resentment, discouragement, and egoism into one’s heart. Our remedy must lie in nourishing ourselves with the example of the Crucified Christ (which we literally do by consuming and adoring our Lord in the Eucharist), who whilst dying amid atrocious spasms and unspeakable pains thought only of us, and our welfare – giving us His life, His honour, and His Mother as our own. Thus if we throw away the stones of selfish thoughts – many of which society applauds as necessary and beneficial – and instead think of how we can ‘serve’ others, then we will find instead of a miserable pity party that leads to avoidable melancholy, we will be hosting a banquet in our heart to which God, and Jesus through all of our neighbours will be invited to feast at. Feasting upon its rich foods of kind words, wholesome laughter, generosity, gentleness, and helpfulness; accompanied with the fine wines of sincerity and selflessness. Who among us can resist the company of people who at least somewhat manage to host such banquets, by which they offer every kind of good thing to those they meet? Ah we must beg God to let us be such people, and unless we turn to prayer our efforts at hosting such interior banquets that provide tangible delicacies will be vain – for God alone is Perfect, and His Virtues alone can meet the appetite of the human soul – an appetite which craves to be loved with an eternal love, and to be happy forever after.

Are there certain habits which are sapping our spiritual strength? All such unhealthy habits are noxious weeds that grow in the soil of our soul, sapping the grace of God from our hearts so that we're left feeling deep inside our hearts either wholly or partly 'hollow', 'discontent' and 'restless' - for God is the very Meaning, Happiness and Peace for which the human heart craves. Are there certain things we’re doing which we know are sinful, or at least imperfect, and yet still we persist in acting thus? Are we Catholic yet fail to follow Church teaching on topics such as contraception, chastity before marriage, yearly confession, and so forth? If so, we already know that we must give such bad things up. And if whenever we pull up such weeds they seem to regrow, then it is a sign that we are relying on our own strength instead of God’s strength through a daily and constant prayer life. And if we are doing our best, praying, attending Mass at least on Sunday and perhaps even daily, frequenting the sacrament of confession, and helping those we can, and still certain weeds seem to reappear whenever we pull them up, then we must simply persevere, persist in surrendering to God, confident that He will help us in His own time – in the meantime such a habit we want to shake can be our cross to offer up. We must learn to allow God to do the weep pulling, for whilst we can pull up certain obvious and large weeds, only God can successfully pull up their roots, and He alone can pull up weeds which are entangled with the good plants without doing them any harm, as well as those weeds which are either so small we cannot see, or that we don't even recognise as weeds, but mistake for good plants.

Are there certain people we keep company with who are tying us down or certain relationships dragging us down into sin? Perhaps we need to distance ourselves from certain people, or moderate our relationships with others. Maybe we need to break off a certain romantic relationship or introduce certain reforms of behaviour. Perhaps we have to stop hanging around a certain place which feeds our vices. Friends are good if they build us up and help us grow into better people. If the people we hang around with tear us down and only bring out the worst in us – then as far as we are able to we need to find ourselves different people to associate with. For a man who associates with someone infected with rabies, although he be healthy, will sooner or later become infected. Yet a fit man who associates with robust individuals who love to exercise, will become even more fit, since they will all encourage him and even ask him to join them in exercise. Likewise, kindness and nastiness alike, good and bad habits alike, are caught from those we choose to befriend ourselves with. We’re all imperfect, and God alone is our Perfect companion – thus this doesn’t mean we must shun everyone on the face of the earth, nor avoid helping those who have bad habits through either their own fault or no fault of their own – it simply means we should choose who we associate with as friends – avoiding frequent and voluntary communion with those who are an excessively bad influence.

Do we even have a relationship with God our Creator? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Perhaps we do not believe in Him, or we have lost faith in His existence, or are simply unsure. There’s a simple method involving two things that can be done on the part of the atheist, agnostic or wavering believer; the only prerequisite is that one must simply have a desire to know and believe in God under the condition "if He does exist".

 1) Shut yourself away in a quiet place by yourself, and pray, perhaps by saying to God: “If you exist God give me the faith to believe you exist and open my heart to the truth of your Presence” or “I don’t know if you exist, but I surrender myself to you, and ask you to help me, to establish a relationship with me if you exist.” Or, “I don’t know about this Catholic faith, but if it’s the true faith teach me and bring me into it.” 

2) Act according to what your conscience tells you, you are in need of changing and doing in your life, and be ruthlessly honest with yourself.

If someone is sincere I doubt a single person will fail by such a method to find God, and God willing, the beauty of the Catholic faith in which He is found most fully and richly. For we may decry that we don’t or can’t know God, but few of us sincerely invite Him into our lives or make room for Him by following our conscience and sound morality. We may also hold a false idea of God, hating not God Himself but hating ‘our concept of God’ or the concept others have implanted in us of God – thinking that He is evil, a harsh judge etc. Don’t we hate it when someone judges us without even meeting us? Poor God, almost everyone has put a label on Him without first having met Him in the silent cavern of their soul!

Do we have any attachments to anything or anyone other than God? Attachments to anything or anyone other than God are like chains that tie us down to the world and prevent us from rising up in freedom of spirit to God above who dwells within. To be attached to people - relatives, friends, spouses, girl friends, boy friends etc. - is acclaimed as a virtue by the world since it is confused with authentic love. To be detached from people requires us to not remain indifferent to them, not at all, but rather to put God first if ever such decisions must be made, and to love all people not for their own sake or for one's own sake, but for the sake of God - and this heavenly love is selfless and self-forgetful. If we are attached to certain people, and we are all bound to be, and even if we aren't, such attachments can easily return, we must pray that God would detach us from them, for only then can we begin to be truly free to love them selflessly without being dependent or expectant on their loving us in return. Perhaps we are attached to temporal goods, such as food, wine, money, concerts, movies; or to natural goods, such as our own knowledge, skills, 'good looks', personality; or even to spiritual goods, such as to consolations in prayer, religious objects, a certain church, certain ways of praying, insights in prayer. All of these temporal, natural and spiritual goods are good and harmless in and of themselves, and can be used, if used correctly and in moderation, for the glory of God. But if we find ourselves delighting in any of these things for their own sake, and not for God's sake; or if any of these things is taken away from us and we become inordinately upset and interiorly disturbed,  then we are most certainly attached to them, and thus some form of chain, rope or thread is holding us down, restricting us in that freedom and joy of the Spirit to which we are called. We must desire to break these attachments, begging God each and every day to cut us free. We must rejoice in all things, whether temporal, natural or spiritual, for God's sake alone. It sounds like we're setting the bar too high, but we're all called to be saints, and the saints didn't start out perfect, they were simply sinners like all of us who reached perfection by never saying no to God, but always yes, even when it hurt - seeking only His Will and dying to their own.

Have we failed to cultivate the bonsai plant of a daily and constant prayer life? Thus maybe we do believe in God, but our relationship with God is like those marriages that are dry, stagnant, and where routine and frankness rather than romantic warmth has become the norm. Such marriages do not need divorce, they are simply in desperate need of a new flare and awakening – a holiday, a couple’s marriage retreat, the giving up of a joint sin etc. Likewise the solution to make a dry and bland relationship with God, which is built on routine (i.e. going to Mass) or intellectual musings (i.e. theological study), rather than a personal love for God that diffuses into all the sectors of one’s life -  and which involves Mass and study as an expression of such love - is to establish a daily and constant prayer life.

How can someone expect a marriage to keep aflame if the couple don’t spend time together, go out together, give gifts to one another, serve one another etc.? How long would a marriage last if the husband came home and literally ignored every word their wife said? Of if he refused to eat the meal made for him, and ate instead some potato chips? Or if he rejected he’s wife’s tokens of love, all for no apparent reason whatsoever? Or simply because he wanted to play some video game or watch the sport? Such behaviour for moments at a time or for a few hours isn’t ideal, but it wouldn’t rupture the bond; although it would chip away at it. But what if such behaviour continued for a whole day, or for days on end, or weeks; with at the most a little conversation once per week? It would be a miracle if such a marriage lasted, and would take a saint of a wife to persevere with such a loafer. Perhaps such a wife might say: “Whatever his faults, and despite the fact he shows me no love, I love him and will stick by my man”. 

Perhaps the world would advise such a woman to drop such a man like a hot potato (remember we’re not talking here of a husband who assaults his wife, but who is emotionally and romantically despondent). But no one can deny that there is something noble in a love which is so devoted to the other and which perseveres despite the despondency of the other. God is like such a wife, since He sticks by us no matter what. He has joined us to Himself in His Son Jesus Christ and thus "If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself" (2 Tim 2:13). It is only us who turn away from Him, either never proposing to Him (inviting Him into our lives), or kicking Him out of our lives through serious and habitual sin. Some poor souls haven't even been told about Him - and if they have, they were not told in the right and passionate manner - but in a dull, arrogant or ignorant way. But for most practicing Catholics the situation is like this: we live with Him, but without even been aware of this, and without ever turning to Him or only when we want something, spending days at a time without communing with Him. 

We are therefore often like such a despondent husband, and the way to remedy this, is to ask the Holy Spirit to shake up our relationship with God, and to ask for the grace to persevere in prayer every day, and acting on it with the resolve to never forgo a day without prayer – to spend time with God to not only ask for favours, but to praise, thank, love and rest in Him, through words, silence, and reflecting on holy things. Maybe he’s calling us to commit to a daily Rosary, to attend Mass more often – daily even, to read the Scriptures more frequently, and/or to commit to a weekly Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration. Whatever ‘extra’ prayer He’s calling us to is one thing, but whatever the case, He’s calling us to daily prayer and to love Him with His own love in so doing. Maybe we do pray daily, and some of the 'extra' things we could do resonate within us. Among the most important tenants of daily prayer is some form of prayer in the morning, even if it's just a Hail Mary and a request for God to be with us in the day ahead; and some form of night prayer before we sleep; choosing a set time or period (otherwise we can easily miss it) during anytime of the day, where we (applying to those who aren't in a religious order) might carry out our prayer session (ideally 30 minutes at minimum, which might include a Rosary). Possibly by carrying out our daily prayer session when we can in a Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration.

Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes

On Ash Wednesday one of the phrases that may be used when the ashes are applied to the forehead are: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Why would the Church, based on Scripture, ask us to remember our lowly state and our pending death? In order to realise the preciousness of the gift of time which consists of moments which will come and go, never to be had again. Whilst serving as an inspiration to use this time, namely in this season of Lent to prepare ourselves for death, and not only this, but to begin our process of dying here and now to what is evil, imperfect and which doesn’t matter, so that we might begin, and grow, in our process of living here and now to what is good, perfect and which does matter – Love, and God is Love. For who among us wants to lie on one’s death bed with a slate half clean? Or with several resentments up our sleeve, or the regret that we didn’t store up treasure in heaven through prayer, charity and penance, but storing only treasure on earth? It is possible in Jesus, through our Lady, to lie to sleep each night, with a clean slate, free of every worry and guilt – thus we need not even wait till the unknown time of our death. Our Lord only says: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7).

This little reminder of death placed on our forehead isn’t depressing, since yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return – for our bodies will fade away. But firstly, our souls are immortal, and shall go to the one whom we lived for in this life. And secondly, as Christians we believe that on that Last Day our bodies will be raised from the dead – fresh, remade, and youthful; clothed in the light of God’s glory – in order to be reunited with our souls for all eternity. An eternity which shall not be tedious, but a series of ever new and bewildering ecstasies of joy and love. Lent is therefore a time of joyful preparation to receive this mystery into our hearts, and to rekindle our faith in the meaning of the resurrection. The liturgical preparatory anticipation of Lent preceding Easter Sunday reflects our anticipation for our bodily resurrection and its spiritual fruition in our souls with God’s divinising grace.

Conclusion: The Beauty and Power of a Broken Heart

We recall the Scripture cited earlier which encapsulates the Spirit of Lent: “Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn” (Joel 2:13a). For our hearts are like jars of perfume which we must smash in passionate love against the Rock who is Christ our Lord. The Father pines for this fragrance of unique worship, and the Holy Spirit becomes Himself the fragrant sweetness we offer to God above. What good is perfume if it remains sealed? Why moderate our use and pour out little droplets at a time? Lent is a time to remind us to moderate ourselves in all good things, in all things, that is, except love. Since we must love to excess, we must love wildly and without measure. God doesn’t care about our giving up chocolate or the internet, or even deeds of charity and prayerful devotion (note) for their own sake– for these are ‘torn garments’. Nor does God ask for our hearts, but for our broken hearts – broken out of love for His Holy Face and Holy Name. A heart broken with sorrow for sin and passionate desire for intimacy with God. He only wants our love, and our sacrifices are pleasing to Him, only to the degree that they are smeared with the perfume of His heavenly love.

The smashing of the jar of ointment implied in the Gospel account where Mary Magdalene (Lk 7:37-38, 44-50)  anointed the feet of Jesus and wept over them and dried them with her hair, was a favourite theme of St. Therese of the Child Jesus (‘The Little Flower’). A theme which she understood to refer to the shattering of one’s heart out of unbridled love for God. She writes in her poem, ‘Living on Love’:

Living on Love is imitating Mary,
Bathing your divine feet that she kisses, transported.
With tears, with precious perfume,
She dries them with her long hair…
Then standing up, she shatters the vase,
And in turn she anoints your Sweet Face.
As for me, the perfume with which I anoint your Face
Is my Love!....

On this same very theme and in regards to the beauty and desperate need of a broken heart, Oscar Wilde, after his imprisonment, and in an expression of gladness following his repentance, writes in ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ (1898):

And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
It’s treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

Indeed God will delight in anything and everything we do and give up for Him –including all those little sacrifices, prayers and alms giving – if indeed all such things are thickly doused in the perfume of God’s Divine Love, gushing forth from our broken heart made one and united with the broken Hearts of Jesus, Mary and Joseph – heart’s which pleased God infinitely, since they loved infinitely.

“Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord again” – that is, never tire of turning back to Him, do so always and especially in this Lenten season – “for He is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness.” (Joel 2:13).

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