(Ash Wednesday-Year C;This homily was given 21 February, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Matthew 6:1-18)
One of the most popular and sought after saints in the Church today is the young Carmelite nun named St. Therese of Lisieux (also known as “The Little Flower”). She is often depicted holding a bouquet of roses and a wooden cross, but she is probably best known for her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. That book, published after her death, has touched millions of lives in the 100 or so years since its publication. It has been translated into almost every language.
In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church, a distinction given to only three other women in the history of the Church (St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila were named Doctors by Pope Paul VI in 1970). She has had a profound impact on the life of the Church, although she was only in the cloister as a nun for 9 years. After entering the Carmelite order at the age of 15, she died of tuberculosis when she was only 24.
There is an interesting story about the final days of her life, when she was on her deathbed. Some of the sisters were nearby in the kitchen, talking, and they did not know that Therese could hear them. One of them said:
“Sister Therese of the Child Jesus will die soon, and I really wonder what our mother will be able to say about her after her death. She will certainly be at a loss, for this little sister, lovable as she is, has certainly done nothing worth the trouble to recount.”
They knew that Therese was a very lovable and special person, but they had no idea just how completely holy she was, how deeply rooted she was in Christ. They knew nothing of the sacrifices she was offering up daily for all of them, and for the entire world. These things would come out in time, especially after the publication of The Story of a Soul. Then the entire world would know of the profound hidden life of St. Therese of Lisieux. She truly lived what St. Paul, in the New Testament, described as a life “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
Today we begin the holy season of Lent, a time that Christ invites us to enter more deeply into the spiritual life, and to take on more concretely the practices of repentance and renewal. We are called, in a very intentional way, to do what we have already been doing in our life of faith: turning away from sin and being faithful to the Gospel.
Jesus challenges us to do that in St. Matthew’s Gospel through the traditional observances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We are to embrace these practices in a powerful and profound way, but also in a quiet and even secret way. Jesus exhorts us today: Give alms. Give generously to those in need. Give freely from what you have …but give in secret. He says:
Do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
Christ challenges us to pray more, and more intently, during this season of Lent…but in secret:
But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
He tells us to fast, to make sacrifices, to offer ourselves—body and soul—to our heavenly Father …but not to make a show of it:
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
The point Christ makes is that our outward spiritual practices will mean nothing if we do not experience an internal conversion of heart. Like St. Therese of Lisieux, we are called to live intensely our hidden life, with Christ, in God.
And while the people around us will not see our practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, our Lenten journey and closeness to Christ should be as plain to them as the crosses we receive on our foreheads this Ash Wednesday. They should be able to read the story of our souls—by the way we live and the way we love—and know that we belong to Jesus Christ.
Quite simply, we must ask ourselves today: Who are the people that God will touch, and bless, and guide these next forty days of Lent, through our hidden life with Him?