In his apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness in today’s world, Gaudete et Exsulate, Pope Francis shares the following remark regarding saintly people: “The saints are distinguished by a spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God. They find an exclusive concern with this world to be narrow and stifling, and, amid their own concerns and commitments, they long for God, losing themselves in praise and contemplation of the Lord” (no.147).
It is interesting that what these people say is the result of God’s Spirit action which is at work in and through them. Thus, their reflections are said to start, being processed and finally made available to be generously shared by the same Holy Spirit of holiness who finds His delight in them. A case in point would be the different view points that various saints nurture about Lent.
In St Theresa of Calcutta’s perspective, Lent is about letting Jesus Christ becoming our number one love. Lent is about giving Jesus the opportunity to love us and then to love Him in the poor we come across in our daily life. She says: As Lent is the time for greater love, listen to Jesus’ thirst… ‘Repent and believe’ Jesus tells us. What are we to repent? Our indifference, our hardness of heart. What are we to believe? Jesus thirsts even now, in your heart and in the poor – He knows your weakness. He wants only your love, wants only the chance to love you.
Lent is also a time wherein we give ourselves the chance to pray unceasingly. And, for prayer to be strong it needs also fasting and other mortifications so as nothing will obstruct our spirit from praying without stopping. Thus, St Teresa of Avila advises us: Our primitive rule states that we must pray without ceasing. If we do this with all the care possible – for unceasing prayer is the most important aspect of the rule – the fasts, the disciplines, and the silence the order commands will not be wanting. For you already know that if prayer is to be genuine, it must be helped by these other things; prayer and comfortable living are incompatible.
Regarding this point I cannot ignore what Pope Francis tells us in this year’s Lenten message when he states:
It is good to contemplate more deeply the paschal mystery through which God’s mercy has been bestowed upon us. Indeed, the experience of mercy is only possible in a “face to face” relationship with the crucified and risen Lord “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20), in a heartfelt dialogue between friends. That is why prayer is so important in Lent. Even more than a duty, prayer is an expression of our need to respond to God’s love which always precedes and sustains us. Christians pray in the knowledge that, although unworthy, we are still loved. Prayer can take any number of different forms, but what truly matters in God’s eyes is that it penetrates deep within us and chips away at our hardness of heart, in order to convert us ever more fully to God and to his will (no.2).
Moreover, prayer necessarily leads us to the Word of God and the Eucharist. Hence, the essence of Lent resides in participating from both tables of the Mass, that of God’s Word and that of the Body and Blood of Christ. St Francis of Assisi put it so well when he said: Let everyone know and hold for certain that we cannot be saved except through the sacred Words and the Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which priests preach, announce, and distribute, and of which they are the sole ministers.
On the other hand, Pope Francis, in his message, supports what his patron saint had said some eight centuries ago when he wrote: In this favourable season, then, may we allow ourselves to be led like Israel into the desert (cf. Hos 2:14), so that we can at last hear our Spouse’s voice and allow it to resound ever more deeply within us. The more fully we are engaged with his word, the more we will experience the mercy he freely gives us (no.2).
Fully motivated by the patristic tradition St John Paul II saw Lent as a great moment for inner purification to, gradually, cleanse us from the sinful I. He wrote: In fact, the external aspects of fasting, though important, do not convey the full measure of the practice. Joined to the practice should be a sincere desire for inner purification, readiness to obey the divine will and thoughtful solidarity with our brothers and sisters, especially the poor. The current Pontiff, Pope Francis, put it succinctly when he said: To experience Holy Week is to enter more and more into God’s logic of love and self-giving.
In front of such a beautiful and enriching nature of Lent we are to do everything possible to keep it faithfully. Perhaps the warning of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI against growing lax in observing Lent as we should proves to be a salutary detriment against sidelining it all together. Thus, he said: The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should men grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.
Having said that, rather than being discouraged for the fear of not faithfully observing Lent let us put this special time of grace in God’s own Hands. And, with St Augustine, let us wisely turn our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit, and invoke Him to come to our aid. We are sure that under His divine leadership our hearts will be opened to, as Pope Francis told us in his Lenten message, hear God’s call to be reconciled to himself, to fix our gaze on the paschal mystery, and to be converted to an open and sincere dialogue with him (no.4). Let us fervently pray with St Augustine not only during this Lent but also at the beginning of each single day of our lives, here on earth, by this life-changing prayer to the Holy Spirit:
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap