Best wishes and prayers for all my readers as we begin the Church's longest penitential period: Lent. A title out a number of years ago described Lent as "The Tough 40!" Sometimes I think Lent gets a bad rap, looked upon with dread and annoyance, a yearly time of spiritual and physical belt tightening. As Christians we aim to follow Jesus. He told us: "Come follow me...Take up your cross daily and follow after me....Learn of me, for I am gentle and humble of heart...". In a world that encourages us to say "yes" to every urge, and to retaliate every big or little challenge to our opinions or our preferences, Jesus' words offer us a challenge. He tells us, "Without me, you can do nothing." He metes out straight unadulterated truth. Anyone who has tried to imitate Christ in his meekness and self control, or who has tried to refrain from indulging in some favorite food may attest to what I have experienced. My will at times is as weak as a wet kitty!
When we receive the ashes on our foreheads we will hear one of these two formulas spoken to us: "Repent and believe in the Gospel." Or, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Personally I think that the first word: Repent gives me a key to what to do and to be this Lent.
Repent! I can remember hearing a street evangelist in Buffalo many years ago. In the heart of downtown on Main Street he shouted: "Repent! You are on the way to Hell if you don't repent right now!" A few blocks away, people who were ready to repent could slip into a confessional in St. Michael's Church and receive forgiveness and grace to do better. They could stay for the noon Mass and have a real encounter with Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. They would receive the spiritual nourishment that would fortify them against temptations. The church is not alwys standing on street corners and bellowing the Gospel to us. Yet the Church is appealing to us to take this precious season of Lent as a gift from God who loves us. It is an invitation to open our hearts to God who is knocking on our inner doors and asking to come in. If you ever visit a Pauline Family chapel you will see the words in the sanctuary: "Do not fear. I am with you. From here (the Tabernacle) I will cast light. Be sorry for sin." Or, "Live with a penitent heart." Back in 1924 Blessed James Alberione Founder of the Pauline Family experienced grave difficulties as he worked with his three new religious orders: the Society of St. Paul, the Daughters of St. Paul, and the Sisters, Disciples of the Divine Master. In a dream or a vision, Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life appeared to Alberione. The Master stood near the tabernacle in a Catholic Church. Pointing towards the tabernacle, Christ Jesus said: "Do not fear! I am with you! From here I will cast light. Live with a penitent heart." Some translations say "Be sorry for sin."
Soon after the vision, Father James Alberione renewed his efforts to organize his new Pauline Family. Always tenacious in following his inspirations, Alberione found even more courage after that encounter with Jesus. Since the words Blessed Alberione heard were in Latin, there can be slight variations in their English translations. This is the way I like to see the final phrase, "Live with a penitent heart." As we begin Lent, I want to ask for the grace to live with a penitent heart. Does this mean going around all day saying "mea culpa", "I'm sorry," or wearing ashes on my forehead for all of 40 days of Lent? No. We can hold our head high because we trust in a God who promises help.
A penitent heart is one aware of its weaknesses and tendencies to stray from our good resolutions. Our pentitent hearts know that our strength lies not in us, but in Jesus. He says in the 11th Chapter of Matthew: "Come to me all of you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28) Besides burdens of a job, of family duties, of personal health issues, or financial worries, we can be carrying heavy burdens of sinful behavior, or bad habits that keep us from letting Christ shine through us.
A penitent heart wants to truly be sorry for sin and desires wholeheartedly to be Christ-like. As one spiritual director told me: "We know well that the one thing that counts is always and everywhere to remember that it is Jesus who wants to live in you; he wants to think in you; he desires to will in you; he wants to love in you; and to give of himself through you." This advice echoes what St. Paul told the Galatians: "It is now no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." (Gal. 2:20)
Somebody might say, "All that sounds too goody goody, too "holy" for my place in life." Yet, if we strive to do our best in studies, work and at home, why not make the effort to do the same for God in our spiritual life? Father Ron Rolhiser in his book "The Holy Longing" tells us that there are certain non-negotiables in the spiritual life. One of these is the daily spiritual check-point, the examination of conscience. This practice is a sure fire way to acquire a "penitent heart."
Father James Martin, SJ, has printed a handy post card size outline of what to do. He lists five steps to making an exam that could last as long as 20 minutes or less. First, the exam time usually begins with placing ourselves intentionally in the presence of God. Then we express gratitude for "two or three things for which you are especially grateful. Savor them....thank God for them." Then we look back or review our "day from start to finish, noticing where we experienced God's presence. Notice everything from large to small: from an enjoyable interaction with a friend to the feel of the sun on your face. When did you love? When were you loved?" As we look over the past day we can see that we "may have sinned today or done something you regret. Express your sorrow to God and ask for forgiveness. If it's a grave sin, pray about seeking forgiveness from the person offended, or (in) the sacrament of reconciliation." Grace is what we ask as we conclude the Daily Examen: "You may want to turn to a meaningful part of your prayer and speak to God about how you felt. At the close of the prayer, ask for God's grace for the following day."
It may be that your night hours are taken up with infant care, or other obligations. You may even use your daily commute to work as exam time. Or, you might do the exam while taking a coffee or tea break between laundry loads, or between clients at your office... Soon enough the daily exam becomes part and parcel of your spiritual life. After awhile you can recognize a pattern in your actions, your omissions, your habitual failings. Having a penitent heart is being very honest when it's time to make an examination of conscience.
A good way to steer ourselves into a "Lenten State of Mind" is to do some daily spiritual reading. Pauline Books & Media offers a compact edition called "Lent with Pope Francis" for folks with limited time to read.
Another title from Pauline is "When the Lord Speaks to the Heart" by the French priest Father Courtois. Our website offers many other titles to help you follow Jesus in this season. The Lenten/Easter volume of "Everyday Grace" offers reflections on the Gospel of each day in the Lenten season. Check our website wwww.pauline.org for details on how to purchase these titles.
Let us pray for one another that this time we are given to draw closer to Christ by having penitent hearts will be truly a Springtime for our spiritual lives!
I am a Catholic Sister, a Daughter of St. Paul. I grew up in the USA Midwest. I have lived in several states--from Boston to Hawaii, to Alaska, to Texas. I was blessed to have studied in Rome, Italy for almost a year. I have been several times to Guam, once to Samoa, once to the island of Chuk, which was once called Truk.
I was stationed in Toronto, Canada. Now I am in the USA. For now I am assigned to Boston. I work in our Pauline Books and Media sales dept. and I write regularly for our digital, on-line newsletters. I also serve in our Dedham, Mass. Pauline Book and Media Center.I am also available for retreats and public speaking.
"The Media can be used to proclaim the Gospel, or reduce it to silence in the human heart." From Aetatis Novae, Pontifical Council for Communications, 1992 The Pauline Family is to be St. Paul living today. Blessed James Alberione, Founder