For some people it is difficult to be positive about Lent, to be enthusiastic about what we can perceive to be a time of hardship, of giving up what we enjoy, of putting others before ourselves and generally being rather sombre. It can begin the very moment we receive the ashes and hear the words “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”. We become aware that this time perhaps we will do better!
Yet, this call to conversion, to repent, to take up our cross each day, is surely meant to be part and parcel of our everyday lives as Christians, not just something we focus on during Lent. Often on Ash Wednesday or the first Sunday of Lent we will sing the hymn known as the Song of Hosea
“ Come back to me with all your heart, don’t let fear keep us apart. Trees may bend, grow straight and tall, so must we to others call. Long have I waited for your coming back to me and living deeply our new life” (Hosea 14)
How can these beautiful words fail to move our hearts to turn back to the Lord in a life of intimacy with Him?
Perhaps some of us struggle because we recall the extremes of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that used to be fashionable but although the focus is the same, the emphasis is now more positive – yes, these things can be an important way to show our love for God but they are also meant to show our love for our neighbour and it is not all about what we do together but what we do as individuals. Our neighbour might literally live next door or they might be someone who lives far away who is in need but they might also be the Sister in my community who hurts me, ignores or criticises me or just simply gets on my nerves!
Fasting is a traditional way of doing penance as Jesus did in the desert because when we are hungry perhaps our minds are sharper and we can focus more on the Lord and what He might be saying to us but He can speak in other ways too and there are many other ways of fasting. We might try fasting from our mobiles, from writing on Facebook or watching our favourite TV soap and use the time we gain to talk to people around us or to visit the sick, to write someone a letter and that way someone else will benefit from our fasting. We might also “fast” from gossip or making criticism which for some of us will probably be harder than eating less and will lead to a greater peace around us.
Prayer might mean that we spend more time with the Lord and try to deepen our relationship with Him but it also might mean that we use our talents to lead others in prayer or reflection on the Scriptures. As Religious we have received so much and it is good for us to share with others. We do not have much money to share but we can still buy a cup of coffee for a homeless person or give of our time to listen to someone who is troubled or afraid.
The Scriptures speak to us so much during Lent and explain to us what the Lord wants from us. For example in Isaiah (58:3-5) we read “Fasting like yours today will never make your voice heard on high – Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me – to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe those you see to be naked and not turn from your own kin?
On a number of occasions during Lent we use Psalm 51 – A clean heart create for me O God and put a steadfast spirit within me (51:12) Part of this is “to cease to do evil and learn to do good (Is.1:17) but when we fail we have a loving God who awaits us “Come now, let us talk this over” says the Lord, “ though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow” (Is.1:18-20)
We have a lot to remember and a lot to live up to and alone it can seem too much but we are assured by Isaiah (58: 11) “ then the Lord will guide you and give you plenty even in the parched land.” This gentle God listens to our prayer and gives us what we need “Ask and it will be given to you” (Mt:7:7) As the prophet Joel urges us (Joel: 2:13) “ Turn to the Lord your God again for he is tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness and ready to relent” and there we will find our peace.
The daily liturgy is rich and for some will be enough to help keep us on the right path but I urge you also to use other resources like the weekly papers from Sister Joan Kerley and other online free resources available on the websites for CAFOD, the Jesuits, Joan Chittister and Richard Rohr.
I will be in the Netherlands with our Sisters for the Feast of St Joseph and will remember you all there and I am also looking forward to a new experience of celebrating Holy week and Easter in Kenya. Above all let us not “ put on a gloomy look like the pagans” and try to “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” for “this is the will of Christ Jesus for us” (1 Thess.5:16-18)
May the Lord give you peace.
Love and prayers
Sister Maureen, FMSJ