Ash Wednesday | Fr John O'Connor reflects on what God intends as the effects of Lent.
St Teresa of Avila wrote in her autobiography: “when the Lord speaks, the words are accompanied by effects… they prepare the soul and make it ready and move it to tenderness, give it light and make it happy and tranquil.”
People rarely think of tenderness, happiness and tranquillity when they think of Lent. Instead, they generally think of it in stricter and more difficult terms: taking ourselves by the scruff of the neck, and giving our moral and spiritual lives a much needed spring clean, principally by almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
Of course, there’s a great deal to be said in favour of giving our moral and spiritual lives a decent spring clean in this way. Indeed, in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Jesus speaks about almsgiving, prayer and fasting, and he does so with approval.
But if St Teresa of Avila is correct, then we should keep in mind that Jesus’s words prepare our souls, make them ready and move them to tenderness, give them light and make them happy and tranquil. And since Jesus speaks to us in this Gospel passage about almsgiving, prayer and fasting, then these practices should move our hearts and minds in the same way that St Teresa speaks of. So how we carry out our Lenten practices ought to be understood in the light of this.
Almsgiving, prayer and fasting can all involve at least some degree of sacrifice, inconvenience or discomfort. Giving to those in need means not having those resources for our own pleasures; prayer can sometimes involve giving time to God when we might desire to do other things; and fasting involves at least some discomfort, doing without food and experiencing hunger. All these practices can certainly help instil discipline in us, so that we are not dominated by our desires and thereby move in the direction of freedom.
But these practices should also help prepare our souls, make them ready, move them to tenderness, give them light and make them happy and tranquil. After all, the Christian understanding of holiness is not about seeking a cold perfection. It is about allowing our hearts and our minds to be transformed by the tender love of God, and allowing that tender love to radiate to our world. We therefore need to have a big and rich vision of what holiness is, and how the various practices we can engage in play their role in this.
Perhaps the danger of a narrow way of thinking of the Lenten practices is most obvious in the case of fasting. It is certainly easy to present fasting in a negative light. Indeed, it is common to hear people say something along the lines of: “This Lent I am not going to do negative things. Instead, I will focus on doing something positive, like giving to charity or doing volunteer work.”
It’s surely correct to value giving to charity and doing voluntary work. These are wonderful ways to show, and to grow in, tenderness and love towards God and neighbour. But we also need to remember that Jesus’s words, words that ought to move us towards tenderness, are positive about fasting: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites for they disfigure their faces…When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Penitential acts can certainly be carried out in ways that are negative. They can be self-regarding, driven by ulterior motive, and even harsh and oppressive: discomfort without true growth. But, understood in a healthy and balanced fashion, penitential acts are at root deeply positive. They give us an opportunity to express our sorrow to God for our wrongs, and to do so in a spirit of joyful confidence in the tender mercy of God. They help us to move us away from our addictions big and small, and so journey towards the glorious freedom of the children of God. They help to shift us from our self-centredness, by helping us to grow in solidarity with those who are in need.
They can even help us to enjoy the good things of life more, to experience pleasure in a deeper way. Giving up, say, chocolate for Lent should help us to be able to enjoy chocolate more, to enjoy it in a way not tainted by greediness or by ingratitude.
Lent is a season orientated towards growth in tenderness, happiness and tranquillity. To experience this we need our hearts and our minds to be transformed: purified and expanded. This involves work on our part, which can involve sacrifice, inconvenience or discomfort.
Yet, despite all this, the transformation of our hearts and minds that we seek depends ultimately on God, who wants us to be tender-hearted and to enjoy true happiness and tranquillity. So this Lent, let us do our bit, and let us do so with confidence. And after we have made our contribution, let us leave the rest to God.
Joel 2:12-18 | 2 Cor 5:20–6:2 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.