“What does it mean for [the Church] to be disciples of Jesus, the Lamb of God? It means replacing malice with innocence, replacing power with love, replacing pride with humility, replacing status with service.”
-Pope Francis, Angelus, January 19, 2014
As we begin the Lenten season in this Jubilee of Mercy, we should pay special attention to the kind of experience we anticipate. Often we view Lent solely as a time of sparseness, a period of somber reflection and of whittling down the excess in our lives. And that is certainly an important part of it. The solemnity of the season pulls us up short in order to reform our habits and reorient our minds toward God. But though characterized by sackcloth and ashes, it would be a mistake to think of the next six weeks as merely dour and desiccated. Pope Francis has described the Christian spiritual life as like breathing: the inhalation of prayer, and the exhalation of mission. When approached with sincerity and cheer, Lent can help us to breathe more deeply. In this year of special connection with God’s healing grace, Pope Francis’ words can help us discern the true vibrancy of Lent.
“In intimacy with God and in listening to His word, little by little we put aside our own way of thinking – which is most often dictated by our closures, by our prejudice, and by our ambitions – and we learn instead to ask the Lord: what is your desire? What is your will? What pleases you?”
-Audience, May 7, 2014
Francis reminds us that when we reduce our prayer life to a mere wish list, we lose the richness of communication and relationship with God, and of course of actually listening to Him. Petitionary prayer, though valuable, can become so stale in the absence of contemplation, gratitude, and apology that it puts us in a Catch-22: if we receive what we ask for, we move on to the next thing, learning nothing about God; if we don’t, it feels as though God has abandoned us. The Lenten season enriches our prayer life by forcing us to quiet down and listen. Once we do this, we not only gain the warmth of a grateful, humble heart, but we can learn to build a more personal relationship with the Lord by our attention to His presence.
“We must be careful not to practice a formal fast, or one which in truth ‘satisfies’ us because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Fasting makes sense if it questions our security, and if it also leads to some benefit for others… Fasting involves choosing a sober lifestyle; a way of life that does not waste, a way of life that does not “throw away”… it is a sign of the trust we place in God and His providence.”
-Homily on March 5th, 2014
The pontiff here stresses that the changes fasting makes to our mindset come into fruition only when they affect our actions in the real world. The constant, irritating hunger we feel on our Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasts is the daily experience of a very large section of humanity. Fasting reminds us of our own fragility, our dependence on God’s providence. It can keep us from deluding ourselves that the homeless, lost, and deprived somehow deserve to be that way. When we no longer accept global poverty as a foregone conclusion, we let our fasting inspire us to do more for the poor in our midst – but more than that, we learn to respect them. A true fast helps connect us to our neighbor in humility and affection, drawing us closer to God by loving the people He loves as well.
“Today gratuitousness is often not part of daily life where everything is bought and sold. Everything is calculated and measured. Almsgiving helps us to experience giving freely, which leads to freedom from the obsession with possessing, from the fear of losing what we have, from the sadness of one who does not wish to share his wealth with others.”
-Homily on March 5th, 2014
This statement is characteristic of Francis’ concern for the stinginess, both spiritual and material, of modern life. If we become exactingly concerned with getting every ounce we are owed, our mental image of God becomes a miser as well: quick to accuse, punishingly hard to please, and slow to forgive. The Jubilee of Mercy was declared precisely to cure us of this delusion. As Evangelii Gaudium reminds us, God never tires of showing us mercy. It is we who tire of asking His forgiveness. In practicing generous, joyful, bountiful giving, we model ourselves after God as He truly is. Wealth should of course be useful to us and others. But Lenten giving cuts its ties to our heart, before it turns into an anchor.
This season of Lent, let us tap into the lively spirit at the heart of our discipline and repentance. Any practice which draws us closer to God, after all, could never be called barren. Over the next few weeks, we will attempt in some small way to walk with Jesus on His path to Calvary – but we do so in order that we also may rise with Him.