Today we begin the holy and penitential season of Lent, a time of preparation for Easter. Traditionally, Lent has often been seen as journey. On that journey we focus—in a particular way—on the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Yet in the Gospel, Christ challenges us to look at our motives and attitudes toward these spiritual practices. How are we following them, and for what end? When we fast, when we pray or give alms, are we doing it for God or only for ourselves?
St. Augustine has a unique way of looking at the reality of sin. He says that it is actually love “turned in on itself.” We tend sometimes to take the focus of love off God or away from others, and try to turn that focus back on ourselves. The glory that God should be receiving through my prayer or fasting or whatever it might be, is instead used to glorify myself.
The point of our Lenten journey is to recognize this tendency and to ask God for the grace to change it. For that reason, the theme that runs all throughout Lent is that of repentance, a turning away from sin and selfishness and a turning back again to God.
Cistercian monk and spiritual author Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., in one of his Lenten reflection books, talks about this recognition of our tendency to sometimes turn love back in on itself. Far from being discouraged by this recognition, he says that it can become the true beginning and very turning point of our Lenten Journey. Keating writes:
Now we experience the full force of the spiritual combat, the struggle with what we want to do and feel we should do, and our incredible inability to carry it out . . . Such insight is the beginning of the real spiritual journey.
—Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., Journey to the Center
Why is that the beginning? Because finally we begin to see, more and more clearly, that we need God in order to live and to love the way that we are called to. We need the grace that only He can give, in order to live out the Gospel and live in full communion with God and with each other.
God offers us today a vision of Easter; it is a picture of ourselves in a whole new light, living out a love directed more completely towards Him and towards those around us.
Are we willing to be taken by Him towards that vision? Will we walk that path on our Lenten journey towards Easter? The invitation could not be any clearer than we find it in the second reading for this Ash Wednesday:
In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.