It is time. The ashes have come out, parish missions have begun. It is time for the “glory of these 40 days” and “hearts renewed by living faith.”
It is a time for prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Are we ready to give Our Lord what He is asking from us and to receive what He wants to show us?
Perhaps it is not so uncommon to face Lent with a cringe or a deep breath of uncertainty. Who wants to be reminded of one’s sins, to give up an attachment, to embrace a tighter discipline of prayer that calls one out of a comfortable bed earlier in the morning? Who eagerly runs to the dryness and barrenness of the desert? And if in brutal honesty we answer these questions in the negative, what will change our minds so that we will bow our heads and humble our hearts under this penitential season?
Sometimes Our Lord is incredibly merciful in that He puts us in a place or situation before we have time to “give Him permission” or catch our breath, or understand how we arrived there. This month I found myself in such a position. A few weeks ago my family experienced trauma when my sister escaped from an abduction and began a long road to healing. A few days later another sister was in a car accident, and shortly thereafter, I found myself in a stressful situation that left me wondering how best to practically provide for my religious community. In the midst of all of this, I was on pilgrimage to Fatima, a holy site where the message calls for prayer and penance. A week before Ash Wednesday, I felt that my Lent had already begun.
If Lent means more prayer – I never prayed so hard in my life. If Lent means almsgiving, there were ample opportunities to reach out to those in need – either materially, spiritually or emotionally. If Lent means fasting and penance, I was revisiting the paths of three little shepherd seers who so generously embraced a life of sacrifice for the conversion of poor sinners. My Lent had begun, but it began with a question: “Why?”
I wondered why such evil is permitted that victims live through nightmares. Why do we face so much uncertainty; and when stability in our lives flounders, why do we find ourselves drowning in a sense of helplessness? Why is it that suffering is necessary to work out our salvation and to soften our hearts towards the working of grace?
My last night in Fatima, a stranger approached me and asked, “Sister, we were told as children and adolescents that our God is a God of love. Why do we have punishment and have to do penance?”
She was genuine in her questions and her “why” joined my own litany. It was not a flailing or doubting, but rather the raw realization that we live in a vale of tears and we have to do something about that – namely, prayer and penance.
While my stranger friend did not understand the fullness of our God of love, she brought up a foundational point. Yes, God loves us. He is Love and out of love created the world and sustains it in being. Yet, through original sin, Adam and Eve severed that relationship of love with their Creator, handed on a sinful inheritance to us, and now we continue to wound that relationship through our own sins. What is the remedy?
The first part of Lent we hone in on the reality of this severed relationship – that we have sinned, that we desperately yearn for the love and security we have lost, and that we need a Savior. The last couple weeks of Lent the Scripture readings turn toward the answer that our God of Love did in fact love us so much as to give us the remedy: His own Son’s sacrifice on the cross.
We are loved, loved even to the point of a flesh-and-blood sacrifice. When darkness enters into our lives and the effects of sin pierce our hearts, our good God is reminding us that we still live in the vale of tears, but that He has stooped down to save us. Through our suffering, prayer and penance, He allows us to participate in healing the relationship between God and man, so that one day we will enter into eternal life and joy with Him.
St. Gregory the Great wrote, “For though outwardly these scourges create the darkness of anguish, inwardly knowledge enkindles the light in the mind…Peace with God is restored to us when those things which were rightly created for us, but are not ordinarily desired, are turned into scourges and become evil for us. It is through sin that we become opposed to God; therefore, it is fitting that we should return to His peace by way of scourges. In this manner, when everything created for good is turned into a source of pain for us, the mind of the chastened man may be humbly renewed and restored to peace with his Creator.”
Lent is a beautiful opportunity to generously respond to Him, to love in return the God who loves us to the point of death and resurrection.
Sister Mary Raphael is a member of the Daughters of the Virgin Mother, a community dedicated to serving the spiritual and practical needs of the sacred priesthood and of seminarians in the Diocese of Charlotte.