“Return without fear to those outstretched, eager arms of your Father, who is rich in mercy, who awaits you. Return without fear, for this is the favorable time to come home”. These were the words Pope Francis proclaimed during his homily on Ash Wednesday Mass of February 14 2018 at the Church of Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino in Rome.
Already the phrase which Pope Francis is using to explain the essence of Lent, which this year starts on Wednesday 26 February, namely to return to the Father of Mercies, is gently reminding me of what St Augustine wrote in his commentary on the Gospel of John: “Return to your heart: why go from yourselves, and perish from yourselves? Why go the ways of solitude? You go astray by wandering: return you. Where? To the Lord. ’Tis quickly done: first return to your own heart; you have wandered abroad an exile from yourself; you know not yourself, and yet you are asking by whom you were made! Return, return to your heart, lift yourself away from the body: your body is your place of abode; your heart perceives even by your body. But your body is not what your heart is; leave even your body, return to your heart” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 18:5:10).
This powerful insistence by the Bishop of Hippo to return to our true selves, where God surely lives, is, indeed, a strong reminder of what Psalm 80 thricely tells us: Restore us, O God of hosts; let thy face shine, that we may be saved! (Ps 80:3.7.19). If Lent is the period of our restoration by going to our Father’s Abode, which is His loving and most tender Heart, then one of the most valid aids to help us appreciate this returning must undoubtedly be the Confessions by St Augustine. This journey back home to the Father’s House, which Augustine did some 1600 years ago, still offers us some points of reflection which make our journey to God much fruitful.
To begin with, Augustine upholds the view that our human obduracy can never stop God from loving us. In Book 5 of his Confessions this Doctor of the Church writes: “Accept the sacrifice of my confessions offered to you by the power of this tongue of mine which you have fashioned and aroused to confess to your name; bring healing to all my bones and let them exclaim, Lord, who is like you? A person who confesses to you is not informing you about what goes on within him, for a closed heart does not shut you out, nor is your hand pushed away by human obduracy; you melt it when you choose, whether by showing mercy or by enforcing your claim, and from your fiery heat no one can hide” (Confessions 5.1.1). Throughout this Lent how much am I going to open my soul so as to let God open my own heart for his redeeming Word?
God’s initiative to save us, through grace, stirs our heart and renders it an unquiet one. In fact, God’s grandest, most magnificient, mightest, sweetest and wisest love by far exceeds our meaness, weakeness, fear and hubris. The Father’s love for us acts like the sun which, by its very shining rays, warms us from the coldness of evil. That very coldness which, according to Dante Alighieri, makes up the devil’s throne in hell on which he is seated (La Divina Commedia, Inferno XXXIV, 28-29). Thus, Augustine initiates his long account of the beginnings of his own conversion by confessing to God:
“Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we humans, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you—we who carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. Yet these humans, due part of your creation as they are, still do long to praise you. You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (Confessions 1.1.1).
As I make my own spiritual journey throughout this Lent am I really interested in asking, more than verbally, existentially, who is God for me? Who are my fellow brothers and sisters? Above all, have I ever bothered asking myself this very basic question: Who am I? What do the lyrics of the praise song Who am I? by Casting Crowns: “Not because of who I am/But because of what you’ve done/Not because of what I’ve done/But because of who you are,” say to me?
Lent reminds us the reality of temptation. Even Augustine’s experience informs us of the very presence of temptation in our lives. Hence, he writes in his Confessions:
“Beset by . . . temptations I struggle every day against gluttony, for eating and drinking are not something I can decide to cut away once and for all, and never touch again, as I have been able to do with sexual indulgence. The reins that control the throat must therefore be relaxed or tightened judiciously; and is there anyone, Lord, who is not sometimes dragged a little beyond the bounds of what is needful? If there is such a person, he is a great man, so let him tell out the greatness of your name. I am not he, for I am a sinful man, yet I will tell out the greatness of your name nonetheless; and may he who has overcome the world intercede for my sins, and count me among the frailer members of his body, because your eyes rest upon my imperfections and in your book everyone will find a place” (Confessions 10.31.47).
Since all of us, like Jesus, we are subjected to temptations, are we ready in this Lent to return to fasting? Do I realise that when I am fasting, even if I am attempting minor sacrifices, I am truly letting God beautify my soul and better armour it to fight temptations?
In his Confessions Augustine offers to God the most honest and deepest prayers so as to express his acknowledgement for the helping hand he received from the Father during his conversion journey. The more he tries to comprehend, at least partly, how God was there for him the more he rejoices in Him. Augustine writes:
“O God, who are so good, what is it in the human heart that makes us rejoice more intensely over the salvation of a soul which is despaired of but then freed from grave danger, than we would if there had always been good prospects for it and its peril slighter? You too, merciful Father, yes, even you are more joyful over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. And we likewise listen with overflowing gladness when we hear how the shepherd carries back on exultant shoulders the sheep that had strayed, and how the coin is returned to your treasury as neighbors share the glee of the woman who found it” (Confessions 8.3.6).
Do I want to really encounter the Lord, hear his sweet voice and leave that which appears cool for the fallible human eyes in order to embrace that authentic happiness of Jesus which, in reality, liberates me? Do I realise that if in this Lent I repent from my sins the Father will joyfully welcome me?
In his Angelus address of September 11 2016 Pope Francis said: “I ask you: have you ever thought that every time we go to the confessional, there is joy and celebration in heaven? Have you ever thought about that? It is beautiful … and fills us with great hope, because there is no sin to which we have stooped from which, by the grace of God, we cannot rise up again. There is no person who is beyond recovery, no-one is beyond recovery. Because God never ceases to want what is good for us, even when we sin!”
Accompanied by St Augustine’s teaching am I ready to live this Lent meaningfully by resorting to, at least once a month, the sacrament of confession?
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap