Practicing Lent: Where Humility is Truly Present

Tim KenneyTimothy J. Kenney

’14 MTS Candidate 

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

So far my favorite class this semester has been a seminar on Teresa of Ávila. It’s been a great blessing for someone with interests in theology and spirituality to have the opportunity to read and discuss the writings of such a beautiful saint. This week, we are reading the first part of The Interior Castle, what the scholar and translator Kieran Kavanaugh calls her “spiritual masterpiece.” We’ve read through quite a bit of her writing so far so I was somewhat taken aback–but mostly really really excited–when I saw this in his introduction. I mean, everything so far in the course has been great, and a person who has devoted his life’s work to studying St. Teresa thinks this is the best? Bring it on.

Even though this reading is for a class and has an academic grounding, it would be pretty hard not to involve myself personally in the text. Teresa wasn’t writing treatises or grand comprehensive theologies. She was writing to the sisters under her direction who were pursuing a life of holiness. They wanted to know how best to serve God and in what ways this should be desired and lived out in their vocation as Carmelite nuns. As someone whose prayer life is in constant need of improvement, it was hard to turn a blind eye to the places Teresa’s writing was speaking directly to where I need to grow. Her books are practically bursting with how important humility is to the spiritual life and developing this virtue is the foundation upon which everything else stands.

Immediately prior to the passage quoted below, which is taken from Dwelling Place 3, Chapter 1, Teresa describes how important it is not to jealously desire spiritual favors (e.g. contemplation) from God. These favors are given to some and not others according to God’s will. It does not indicate a lacking or inferiority in one’s soul to never be granted these gifts. This life of prayer and devotion to God is never complete or fulfilled but rather necessitates constant attention and effort, so even the person who has received great favors still has much room for growth. We the reader must always desire that God lead us closer to Him. The Sisters in particular cannot assume this work is done once they renounce all possessions and things of this world. They must persevere in desiring more and more intimate union with God, always seeking greater conformity with His will. Then came the passage that really jumped off the page for me.

“This perseverance includes the condition…that you consider yourselves useless servants…and believe that you have not put our Lord under any obligation to grant you these kinds of favors. Rather, as one who has received more, you are more indebted.”

For a moment I wondered whether this last line meant this perseverance was only important for Sisters who had “received more.” It is what follows this line, however, that absolutely drove the message home and showed me how central this point is to all of us.

“What can we do for a God so generous that he died for us, created us, and gives us being? Shouldn’t we consider ourselves lucky to be able to repay something of what we owe Him for His service toward us? I say these words ‘His service toward us’ unwillingly; but the fact is that He did nothing else but serve us all the time He lived in this world. And yet we ask Him again for favors and gifts.” (Interior Castle III:1.8)

TeresaofAvilaI’m well aware that too much of my prayer is focused on myself. So much of the time I spend with God is devoted to what I need or what I’m stressed about. But here Teresa takes it a step further and asks if, in the times we think we are being the most humble or selfless, we are in fact acting for our own gain. It is well attested in the Christian tradition, and more that most in Teresa’s own life, that God grants great favors to those who serve Him. But when I do pray for others or serve them as my neighbor, it shouldn’t be so that I too can experience contemplation or receive a greater reward in heaven. We are called to serve because we must, because of the sheer immensity of God’s generosity. When we do not appreciate simply how amazing the gift of our salvation truly is we demand more from Him and, in doing so, fail to realize we are actually asking for less.

Its not that we’re wrong in desiring to receive something, its that we’re not recognizing that we’ve already been given more than we could ever think to ask for. Because of this, we ask even more of an already prodigal God. “We are fonder of consolations than we are of the cross” (III:1.9). This is where I think this passage is particularly fitting for reflection during the season of Lent. How often do we look at Lent as a time of earning our salvation? It’s already been given! We can’t earn what we don’t deserve! Don’t think of this as cause for inactivity, but rather a demand that we commit our entire lives to serving God and rejoice in the opportunity “to repay something,” no matter how insignificant that may seem. Exactly how amazing and unbelievable the Paschal Mystery is, which is too often lost because of how familiar and mundane it has become to our consciousness, is precisely what Teresa is trying to remind us of. Even if God never gives us anything else as spiritual nourishment, let what we have received be enough.

“Be convinced that where humility is truly present God will give a peace and conformity – even though He may never give consolations – by which one will walk with greater contentment than will others with their consolations. For often, as you have read, the divine Majesty gives these consolations to the weaker souls; although I think we would not exchange these consolations for the fortitude of those who walk in dryness. We are fonder of consolations than we are of the cross. Test us, Lord – for You know the truth – so that we may know ourselves.” (III:1.9)

St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us.

The Mundane Enfleshment of the Word: God Saves Through Domesticity

TimOMalley-211x300Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love (Liturgical Press, 2014).

Contact Author

In the midst of the palpable drama of the Gospel for the feast of the Annunciation, it is easy to forget the mundaneness of God’s plan of salvation for the human condition. The arrival of the angel Gabriel, Mary’s questioning, the angel’s response, and Mary’s gift of self: all of this drama has been captured brilliantly by Bernard of Clairvaux in his four homilies on the Blessed Virgin.

In your brief reply we shall be restored and so brought back to life. Doleful Adam and his unhappy offspring, exiled from Paradise, implore you, kind Virgin, to give this answer; David asks it, Abraham asks it; all the other holy patriarchs, your very own fathers beg it of you, as do those now dwelling in the region of the shadow of death. For it the whole world is waiting, bowed down at your feet..Give your answer quickly, my Virgin, My lady, say this word which earth and hell and heaven itself are waiting for (Homily IV.8).

At its root, the feast of the Annunciation declares that God has decided to save humanity through becoming one of us. What does it mean to be one of us? Well, it means that we have to be born. It means that for nine months (and in reality for the next eighteen to twenty-five years) that our very existence is dependent on the life of our mothers. We rely upon the nourishment that our mothers consume. We are influenced by the very woman whom we receive flesh from. Our bodies receive their form, their very life, the fullness of vitality, from another human being.

AnnunciationIndeed, though we are to right to marvel at the wonder of pregnancy, we would also be correct to acknowledge the mundaneness of this way of salvation. The Word did not announce that the fullness of salvation had begun through a parade, a proclamation offered from a government building, or some cosmic event like an earthquake or major storm. The Word became flesh. The Word chose to maturate in his mother’s womb. The Word was born like you or me.

The feast of the Annunciation is therefore not simply the drama of Mary. It is not simply about the answer of this one woman, full of grace, who responds with obedience to the divine Word. Rather, the feast becomes for us an interruption of our expectation that salvation must be grand. That salvation must somehow transcend the human condition, leaving the natural behind and taking us up into some supernatural state in which we have but a memory of what it means to be human. Salvation is domestic. It is local. It begins in the confinement of a womb, in a space, here and now. God’s pedagogy of divine love operates through taking up the human condition, even to the point of emptying himself into the mundaneness of domesticity. As the Te Deum states: When you became man to set us free/you did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.

It strikes me that there is a felicity to the feast of the Annunciation occurring in the midst of the half-way point of Lent. The danger of Lenten practice is that we imagine our fasting, our almsgiving, and our prayer as occasions of supernatural effort that save us. That we are striving to ascend above the human condition, to experience divine life through force of effort. In reality, salvation occurs not through the deepest movement of our affections, not through the (however worthy) grandeur of our religious practice. Salvation takes place at the local, it unfolds when we offer our wills over to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit in time and space. It occurs, like the very first moment of the Incarnation, through the mundaneness of the domestic.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Salvation for us occurs by entering ever more fully into the redeemed human condition. Divine love is not an abstract idea, an ideal expressed best through the poetic or the aesthetic alone. Rather, the gift of divine love that the feast of the Annunciation ruminates upon is the flesh itself. It is the mother and father who rise in the middle of the night, giving fully of oneself to a child who refuses to sleep. It is a teacher, who cares not simply for the intellectual development of the student but the flourishing of every aspect of the student’s being. It is the Christian who enters into the life of the neglected, the poor, caring for the bodily needs of those whose flesh has been de-valued. It is love in time and space.CatholicVigil

The transformation of the mundane is at the heart of John Donne’s poetic meditation upon this feast. The poet muses:

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

Of course, we must prepare to perceive the mundane unfolding of this immense gift of salvation. The season of Lent is an occasion for us to practice seeing anew the enfleshment of the Word. We pray not as a Lenten obligation but because the psalms form us to discern God’s presence unfolding in human history. We give alms so that we might learn to give of our very self. We fast (from food or social media) so that the entirety of our attention might be directed to the art of self-giving love. Every aspect of Lent is re-creating the heart so that it is more human (and thus more divine), more capable of perceiving God acting even now.

The feast of the Annunciation requires us to contemplate the mundaneness of the unfolding event of salvation. The drama of the account peaks our interest but the attentive reader knows that the drama still unfolds. It is no longer only through the voice of the angel that the plan of salvation is announced. Rather, this plan is proclaimed from parish to parish. The plan of salvation, the Gospel, is announced in the voice of every person who asks us for cup of cold water. In every occasion in which we can offer our will in love to the Father, in which we can resume that authentic posture of childhood that the Son came to reveal. The moments for such self-gift are as infinite as the Word itself.

MaryIconAnd we like Mary are invited to offer our fiat. Let the plan of salvation be done for me here and now. Let me recognize the scandal of the Word made flesh, the occasion to give myself away in foolish love to all those whom I encounter. Let my ears hear the divine word proclaimed in the memory of your church, and let this memory take flesh again in the lives of your lives. Let me be a disciple, one whose whole life has been re-oriented toward divine love made flesh.

We contemplate Mary precisely because she offers to us a vision of the joy of the Gospel, a way of being human that has been entirely taken up into this mystery of divine love. Into the mystery of her son, Jesus Christ. A mystery that began with the pronouncement of an angel but unfolded through the hidden years of Nazareth. Through the mundaneness of domesticity. And even now continues to unfold in the historical life of the Church, in the mundaneness of those who gather this day at the sacrificial banquet and participate in that Eucharistic self offering, which is the salvation of the world. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Practicing Lent: Sleep

HopeHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

A few years ago, while in a class in which we were reading the writings of the Desert Fathers, my class discussed the penitential and devotional practices that the monks of the desert underwent. The Desert Fathers talk about various experiences of denying themselves food, water, sleep, companionship, space, and a host of other needs and luxuries. For a beginner, it was a little shocking to hear some of the practices that the Desert Fathers willingly experienced for the sake of ordering their lives to what truly mattered.

George-IconThe Desert Fathers were, as the Church calls them, “ascetics.” The word “ascetic” is rooted in the Greek root “askesis,” meaning “to train.” Athletes with whom we are familiar train and practice various sorts of disciplines for the sake of their teams and their tournaments; they exercise and work out in specific ways that will help them in their sports; they eat more healthily and may avoid certain foods or drinks while in season (ps, fellow ND students, have you seen the fresh fruit and vegetables at the athletes’ ‘training table’??) . All of these prescribed practices have the ultimate goal of better preparing athletes so that they perform to the best of their abilities in their games, tournaments, meets, etc. In a very real way, the Desert Fathers saw themselves as athletes and soldiers for Christ, training in habits of virtues and in giving up anything that they felt would lead them away from the ultimate reality of God and desire for unity with God.

I remember reading through Benedicta Ward’s collection of the “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” and finding the section on self- control downright odd at first. The Fathers wrote about fasting from food, to remind themselves that only the Bread of Life could truly sustain them; at times they drank less water so that they would feel the discomfort of thirst and be reminded 51dTtdOgt+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_that water from this world cannot quench our deepest thirsts; they smelled dead bodies to remind themselves that death was coming, because they wanted to prepare themselves fully for the day that they met the Lord. I knew about fasting before this class, so I didn’t find that bit so hard to understand. But the smell of death along with this next one (to use very technical language) straight-up weirded me out at first.

“4.2: Daniel said about Arsenius that he used to keep vigil all night. He would stay awake all night, and about dawn when nature seemed to force him to sleep, he would say to sleep, ‘Come, you bad servant,’ and he would snatch a little sleep sitting down, but very soon he would get up again.’

Or this one:

“4.3 Arsenius said, ‘One hour’s sleep is enough for a monk if he is a fighter.”

Sleep is good! Really good! As my anthropology professor said a couple of weeks ago, “To put it simply, without sleep YOU DIE.” So, I want to think about the Desert Fathers and sleep as related to college students—but not in the way you might expect. College students are universally recognized as a sleep-deprived population of people. I remember being presented with a sort of trilemma my freshman year; a bleary-eyed, perpetually exhausted senior in my dorm who was finishing her senior thesis [at 1 am, in the dorm hallway] explained the college triangle of S’s: school, social life, and sleep. You could have two of the three consistently, she maintained, but only two; it choose2was nigh on impossible to balance all three, and the one she willingly gave up was sleep, because YOLO (“you only live once”). Sleep is for the weak, and you can sleep when you’re dead. This was my first brush with the fact that college students generally tend to wear the badge of how little they slept as a badge of honor. As we walk across the quads, it is common to hear something along the lines of: “Man, I had an exam yesterday morning and a paper due last night, so I pulled an all-nighter, took my exam, napped for an hour, and then wrote my paper.” To this sort of feat, folks generally pat each other on the back in solidarity and admiration.

And now we go back to the Desert Fathers. As college students, shouldn’t we just reconcile ourselves to four years of sleep-deprivation? Could we consider it as ascetical companionship with the Desert Fathers? Maybe since Lent this year has coincided with midterms and the busy middle part of the semester, we could consider our mid-semester sleep deprivation solidarity with the Desert Fathers…….?

But my short ansdesertwer is simply: no. I think we would be doing ourselves and the Desert Fathers a kind of disservice to assume that our sleeplessness is just like theirs. The Desert Fathers had all the opportunity in the world to sleep. To be a bit simplistic about it, the Fathers were mostly alone and in the desert. Seventeen centuries or so ago, there was not a whole lot to do in the desert except pray, study, reflect and sleep. “Fasting” from sleep in a place where there was no sound but the wind whistling through the desert caves, it probably took monumental amounts of discipline to get insufficient amounts of sleep and then offer that discomfort to the God who created sleep and who rested on the seventh day. Rather than uniting the sleeplessness of the Desert Fathers and the general college student population, my professor instead quipped, “If, for the desert monks it was an ascetical practice to avoid sleep, for college students I rather think getting sufficient sleep would be an ascetical practice!”

The point of all askesis (asceticism), including Lenten practices is to better train our hearts, minds, bodies and wills to realize what truly matters and in what ways things in this world might have too much of a hold on us. In Lent and in other spiritual disciplines that are appropriate to our station in life, we more deliberately put these things that we give up or prioritize at the service of the God who created us.

Quality sleep, of course it, is not to become a god of its own; when friends in crisis need us or other situations arise, charity comes first. But on the whole, it is just as difficult- if not more so- for us to admit our limitedness and prioritize sleep as it was for ancient monks in the desert to stay awake when the more obvious option was to go to sleep.

Actually making sleep a priority mean for undergraduates would mean some pretty intense discipline would have to be enacted in our lives. It means we would have to realize that we cannot always do everything. FOMO [fear of missing out] patients, I’m talking to you, here. Taking sleep as an ascetical practice means we would actually discipline ourselves enough to make those hours of sleep an option: we would need to start work well ahead of time, or resign ourselves to the fact that our essays might not be perfect. Maybe this means less procrastinating, Netflix binge-watching, video game playing, Buzzfeed quiz absorbing, or YouTube viewing. Pick your own procrastinating poison.

That just deals with the needless procrastinating, though. Maybe viewing sufficient sleep as a disciplined spiritual practice also means acknowledging that we cannot do everything; maybe it means we recognize that we could take on an extra club or say yes to another responsibility, but we instead say no. Maybe it means we are tempted to “just finish this oindexne last thing” before bed, but instead we get sufficient sleep and decide we won’t hit the snooze button for an hour in the morning. By being well rested, we will certainly be more efficient workers in the morning. And admitting we need sleep may mean we are humbled in realizing that the world will keep on turning even if we are not quite keeping up with the Sullivans and the Rileys  (the Notre Dame equivalent of the Joneses). The potential results are obvious.  If we are better rested students, we’ll be more productive and we are more likely to live out our vocation as students in a way that we should. It’s a quality over quantity sort of relationship;  we will produce much higher quality work, pay more attention to our reading, study more effectively for our exams than we would by trying to do too much or procrastinating too much, all while living in a state of constant sleep-deprivation.

Disordered prioritizing would have to be eliminated on the other end, too, after our work is done. At times I know that (were I perfectly reasonable,) I could go to bed early and sleep a heavenly 7.5 hours. Then through a combination of Facebook and Twitter scrolling, messaging who-knows-who-about-Lord-knows-what, I lose an entire hour. An hour is precious time, friends. That’s six snooze button hits. That’s almost a full Monday-Wednesday class period. That’s three episodes of Parks and Recreation, or definitely a completed reading assignment.

Leslie Knope, I love you, but you're on the not sleeping.
Leslie Knope, I love you, but you’re wrong on the not-ever-sleeping thing.

At their heart, all ascetical practices will enable us to better live out our call as Christians and our vocation to holiness. In a paradox that the world often finds confusing, by setting limits on ourselves we will be made more free to do what we are actually called to do and to do it well. In college, an environment where constant sleep deprivation is the norm, prioritizing healthy amounts of sleep should actually be considered a spiritual and physical discipline. It would help us to both prioritize what matters and recognize the limits of our time, strength, and abilities. Then, maybe we would offer what we do have time for as a true offering of our effort to God. Considering sleep as an ascetical practice would mean recognizing in the midst of our resumé, achievement-obsessed world that maybe we cannot do everything, all the time.

” Protect us Lord as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep, rest in His peace”

“I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4).

Practicing Lent: Netflix in the Desert

Samuel BellafioreScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.43.20 PM

Undergraduate Fellow

B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance

 

Go through a dorm on the weekend and you can find a lot of shut doors. If you could see through the doors you’d find the new trend is that students watch shows by themselves, earbuds in, in the privacy of their rooms. People have stopped watching TV together. Call it the Netflix problem.

The Netflix problem is twofold: the first is the temptation of binge watching and second is the loss of community.

For a world that’s so unaware of the infinite, contemporary society also has major problems when it deals with infinity. It’s so easy to keep scrolling down your Facebook newsfeed because it never ends. And the more people post, the more infinitely you can scroll. The same problem occurs at the end of every episode on Netflix and Hulu. You could pick up and move on to another activity. But another episode awaits. “Next episode playing in 15 seconds…14…13.”

house-of-cardsThere’s no time to consider whether to watch another episode. There isn’t even time to consider the episode you just watched. And without a steel will, you’ll almost certainly end up watching another episode.

And how couldn’t you? The cliffhanger ending, which once tried to get audiences back in seven days, now can get them back in under 15 seconds. Obviously the cliffhanger is great artistic tool, but more and more it seems to be the way of getting people to keep watching. It becomes less a part of the story and more a tool to suck people in. And four hours later, there you are.

Is there any substitute for the silent seconds after a book, a show or a sonata ends? Netflix is ironic: The shock of an ending, the thing that urges you to keep watching, is no longer real shock. It’s not primarily emotional, connected deep down to how you relate to the people or events in the show as though they were real.  Shock ceases to be shock and becomes a tool through which you can be convinced to watch some more. Into that shock comes the little corner timer: “15…14…13.”

This relatively new way of consuming media also discourages community. Without the post-show seconds of silence, Netflix and Hulu (and even DVDs) leave no time for conversing. And is there any substitute for processing a work of art? The episode ends. You ask your neighbor or even just ask yourself, “Well?” and a conversation ensues. But this is unlikely because the next episode is right there…and you don’t even have to tell it to start playing. In that case, there’s likely to be no conversation about the characters or what’s happened (let alone speculation about what might happen next…you don’t have to wait to find out). So why would you want to watch with someone else?

Normal as this might seem, I think it’s pretty dangerous. This way of watching undermines community. While the cliffhanger teaches people to relate to shock and not to characters, the immediately available next episode teaches us not to relComputer classate to these characters with each other. When we cease sharing experiences with each other, we somehow even stop experiencing each other. We stop trying to keep track of where other people stand on things. We don’t look for other people’s insights — aren’t there always ones they’d have and we wouldn’t? — and, eventually, we don’t look for other people.

We don’t find it disturbing or even odd that I’d watch House of Cards while my good friend watches the same episode down the hall. If this weren’t real, it would be dystopic.

Lent is so many things. Among them, it’s a recollection of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. In the desert I think we can find an antidote to our Netflixian negligence, both the binging and isolated viewing.

Most obviously Jesus’ fasting and our Lenten fasting should make us ask: What is really worth my effort? What is worth my time? We’re all pretty aware there are things more worth our time than House of Cards. Christ in the desert asks the sort of thing He asks at the sea, in the garden and by the tomb. “Whom are you looking for?” What are you really looking for?

Fasting asks, Have I exchanged God’s word for bread? Has my temporary satisfaction become more important to me than His eternal nourishment? And then, have I even gone so far as to exchange bread for stones? In the desert, the devil tempts Jesus to turn the stones in bread (Mt 4:3); but Jesus knows there’s something better out there. “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread?” (Mt 7:9)

The devil wants Jesus to throw Himself off the temple parapet just to see if God will save HJesusTemptedintheDesertIconim. Isn’t this like the curiosity that gets us to watch just one more episode? Curiosity for the wrong reason, just to find out or from some morbid desire to see what terrible things could happen. Satisfaction may have brought back the cat. But curiosity made Adam eat of the tree and he’s been hungry ever since.

Jesus’ time in the desert can also teach us something about loneliness and isolation. If you’re like me, you might be sick of hearing people explain the distinction between loneliness and solitude. For all my being annoyed at the hackneyed explanation, it’s completely true. The Spirit leads Jesus into the desert (Mt 4:1) because, if we are to see clearly, we really must go apart for a while. We do need to be alone, but not simply so we can be by ourselves. The fact that the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert is telling. Jesus goes alone, but He is not by Himself. He goes to the desert to wrestle with His Sonship and to meet the Father. His isolation involves relationship.

This is why solitude is different from “introvert time” or therapeutic rejuvenation. Solitude separates us, not be isolated, but to encounter a living reality. Frankly, this is not the encounter toward which Netflix tends to lead us. As much as I’d like to think looking outward toward characters’ lives and hearing other people’s voices would lead people out of themselves, the way we watch television tends to do the opposite. We stop thinking about the characters. And we stop interacting with our neighbors.

The point is not to avoid technology altogether, but to try to understand what we’re doing. This should leave us chastened. With God’s help, it leaves us with a desire for real solitude.

The opportunity for solitude is elusive. And it’s always possible. But the next episode is playing in 15…14…13…

Cultivating Community, Finding Communion

Allison D'AmbrosiaAllison D’Ambrosia
St. Mary’s College, Class of 2016

During my time at Oxford I’ve been given numerous titles: “Blackfriars Girl,” “Rower,” “The American,” “One of the Americans,” as well as being attached to certain people as “____’s Friend.” However, the most interesting title I think I’ve been given thus far has been the “Little Catholic Girl.”

A week ago I attended a dinner put on by the Christian Union of a neighboring college. There were 3 different witness talks given, which provided an interesting sense of Christianity here in England and, especially, at Oxford. At one point during the dinner a peer of mine leaned over and asked, “Has it been difficult coming from America, where the majority of the middle class is religious, to coming to England where people that would identity as practicing religious people would be around or even under 5%?” This question really struck me, and I had to think about the answer for a while. Growing up in a mostly Jewish town in New Jersey and then moving to the strongly rooted Catholic city of South Bend, Indiana, I’ve never experienced a culture that was mostly secular. My naïveté is visible in this particular upbringing of mine as whenever I meet  a new person, I do not assume them to be of no religion but rather my assumption, or projection maybe, is that they are of some Christian denomination. Being part of the Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame communities has turned this assumption into a near presumption that everyone else is Catholic. However, that is not the case here at Oxford.

Being at Oxford has forced me into a lot of first experiences: the first time I worked a laundry machine on my own, the first time I set up my bedroom by myself, the first time I didn’t have about 6 hours of required class time a day. Additionally, being at Oxford has marked the first time I’ve surrounded myself with non-religious people (seeing as how I’ve gone to Catholic school my whole life), the first time I’ve been laughed at for believing in God, the first time I’ve had to go to Mass by myself, the first time I’ve chosen to go to Mass by myself, the first time I genuinely felt that my beliefs were truly being challenged in my everyday life. The experience that has been the hardest for me, though, is that this is the first time my religious beliefs have torn down relationships, rather than fostering them and making them stronger.

After listening to the witness talks at the aforementioned dinner, I was reminded that everyone sees God in a different capacity—some through helping the poor and homeless, some through the written word of the Gospels, some through the beauty of nature. I have always seen God in my personal relationships. In hindsight I’ve realized that everyone I’ve met, whether that be for one second or 14 years, was the right person at the right time. Sometimes it’s easy to justify dissolving relationships because it was “bad timing.” But was it really bad timing, or were we just not willing to put in the effort to see the goodness of that difficult relationship? Were the difficulties bad timing or were they there to make us realize all of our other blessings? Were the troubles meant to help us confide in others, build up other relationships, and come to a deeper understanding of the people that love us?

The Collect for the First Sunday of Lent states,

“Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observances of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.”

It is in the Trinity that God is forever rooted in relationship as Father, Son, and Spirit. The mystery of the Trinity allows us insight into the mystery of our own relationships as well. During Lent we must acknowledge our discomfort in order to gain insight into understanding the richness that is to come through the Easter sacrifice. It is in my discomfort at being called the “Little Catholic Girl” that I then have to refortify myself in affirming my beliefs; it is in accepting the discomfort of not being evaluated on my own merit but on the merits of those with whom I am associated; and it is in the discomfort of relationships not working out that I have to evaluate my perspective and realize the goodness of others around me who are willing and able to provide love and support.

So, yes, it has been difficult to move from a very religious upbringing and community my whole life to one that is very secular. However, the difficulty provides insight into the lifestyle and person I want to grow into. In a recent blog post for OnBeing, Courtney E. Martin posted about this same problem: failing friendships. She articulates the problem and feeling incredibly well, writing,

I think I’m so bad at letting friendships go—either suddenly or gradually—because it feels injurious to me to stop loving someone once I have started, like I’m cutting off a limb, and yet blood will just keep flowing in that direction. I’ve never stopped loving any of the friends I’ve lost. At times, I’ve felt misunderstood and projected upon, and as a result, angry. But the anger can co-exist next to the love. I wonder what they’re eating for breakfast. I wonder what they’re reading. I wonder if there was anything redemptive about our parting: Have I become a better person? A better friend? Do I see myself accurately? Do I expect too much? Have I learned to say sorry in a way that someone can hear? Do I understand how to nurture a friendship through transition with more grace?

I am not an out of sight, out of mind type of person, but rather an in sight, out of mind or an out of sight, in mind person. When I’m with someone I no longer wonder what they are up to, how they are doing, or if they are having a nice day, because I’m able to live in the moment in the company of that person. However, at the same time, I’m also wondering those questions about the people I’m not with. I often find myself answering the phone “Hello, I was just thinking about you!” Which actually frightens people most of the time, but it is true. My brain is constantly focused on my relationships. Why? It seems like I could/should be focusing on other things like the 11,000 words I have to write this week or the stroke I’m taking while rowing, but no. I’m thinking about my relationships. But my perpetual focus on others is not a distraction; rather, it is acknowledging the beauty and love of communion with others that is a reflection of the Trinity. And the difficulties I face in learning to live with the discomfort of letting go of or working through  relationships is part of making that trinitarian communion a reality in my daily life.

The essence of the Trinity lies in God’s relationship with himself as a community, a communion of Persons. Because we are made in the imago dei, because of the love in which we are created, we are also meant to live in loving relationships with others.  Lent teaches us to recognize this love and beauty in the darkness and to find the light, and, with God’s help, we are here to guide each other in that recognition of that gift and that grace—even if it is uncomfortable.

Joseph, Husband of Mary: Model of Fidelity

Tim KenneyTimothy J. Kenney
’14 MTS Candidate 

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

What do you get when a high school theology teacher marries theology grad student?

What?

A ton of religious art.

Get it? If not, a quick look around my apartment would show you that this isn’t just a bad joke, it’s the reality of what your friends think to buy when you major in theology. Outside of the dishware and bed sets that you register for at the domestic wonderland that is Bed, Bath and Beyond, unwrapping wedding presents can be a fun indicator of what your guests really think of you (I’m pretty rotten at giving original gifts and as such truly appreciate someone who possesses the skill). My wife Rylee and I soon discovered just how lucky we were in the company we keep. The general theme of gifts seemed to be religious art and wine and, lest our apartment resemble a bachelor pad, Rylee has insisted our décor emphasize the former rather than the latter. As such the holy statues, icons, nativity sets, and crosses that our friends and family sent our way have filled our little apartment with an intentionally Catholic décor, provided us with the opportunity to grow spiritually as we settle in domestically, and has made what were at first blank white walls radiate the comfort of home and Christ.

Throughout this time one image has begun to stand out above the rest. A particularly common theme, very appropriate as a wedding present for a young married couple, were images depicting the Holy Family. I have long had a love for Our Lady and Talladega Nights taught me the theological magnitude of the Baby Jesus. But as I’ve sat reading or writing on our couch, something else, or rather someone else, has increasingly drawn my attention from the icon hung on our wall. A figure generally relegated to the background has increasingly pressed forward and become the focal point of the image in my mind. More and more I have found myself drifting off in thought, eyes transfixed on the tall bearded figure of St. Joseph, lovingly embracing his wife and adopted son.

I can’t really claim to be unacquainted with St. Joseph. Having attended St. Joseph Grade School and St. Joseph High School, both of which are located in St. Joseph County and situated on the St. Joseph River, its safe to say I’ve heard of him once or twice. Even one of my favorite saints (evidence of 9 years of Holy Cross education), St. André Bessette, C.S.C.,  was known for his remarkable devotion to St. Joseph. And yet despite my best efforts and the cards being stacked completely in his favor, I’ve never really been able to connect with the world’s most famous carpenter.

This all began to change following our relocation to Massachusetts this August. The day after we were married, Rylee and I loaded everything we owned into a U-Haul truck. Romantic, I know. Then the next morning at 5 AM we rolled out of South Bend and headed for Boston. Before we had been married a month we had moved 1,000 miles across the country, settled in a new apartment, Rylee had started a new job, and I was knee deep in Karl Rahner, at work on my master’s degree. Talk about a whirlwind.

To say the process was at times disorienting would be a dramatic understatement. Trying to find any semblance of stability seemed impossible because everything about our new life together had to be handled in the short term, as temporary. Rylee and I were living in Boston, for now. I was working toward my MTS, for now. We were just starting out as a family of two, for now. But in what felt like less than a week the conversations among friends shifted from why we came to BC to where we wanted to do PhDs. I was just beginning the marathon that is grad school and had no real answer to the question, “What are you doing after this?” We had no idea where we would be in two years, let alone what I’d be doing at that point. But whatever the future held, it seemed impossible to see the MTS as anything but transitory, a waiting room for the real world that lay beyond.

On top of all this was the reality that I wasn’t just a student and this wasn’t just a continuation of my 4 years of college. I was a family man now and had as much of a responsibility to another person as I did to myself. This was one of the hardest places for me to find firm ground precisely because we were trying to figure out just what it meant to be a family when there are only two of us. I had so many wonderful examples in my life of what it meant to be a great father, but what I had failed to prepare for was how to be a great husband.

And so I sat, eyes locked on the image of Joseph. I didn’t seek him out, I didn’t know why my prayers turned to him. All I knew was that one night long after my wife went to bed exhausted from a day of teaching high schoolers, I sat up willing myself to read, increasingly aware that not only did academic success determine my livelihood, but also that of my family. My attention drifted upward, past the pages of the book in my hands to the far wall, and came to rest on Joseph, holding his wife with a strong, stable, and determined love that I knew was never overcome and never defeated by any adversity that came his way.

I finished my reading and went to bed. After I turned out my light, a lone image stood silhouetted against the white walls of our bedroom. Another image of the Holy Family, this one a beautiful wood carving, it sits atop our dresser and is the last thing I see every night before I shut my eyes. Carved from a single piece of wood, Joseph isn’t just the background; he is the canvas on which his family is grounded. Mary is carved from his side and the two are united as one. I paused for a moment as I looked at the statue, turned and put my arms around my wife. She is my stability. “This one at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Together with her, I will build my family. My vows to her, made before God, are the commitment of a lifetime and the focal point of my life’s work.

Today is the feast of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary. He was such an extraordinary husband that the Church proclaimed an annual feast to celebrate it. We don’t just remember him because he married an immaculate woman. We remember him because he lived out his vocation so completely that it brought him to God. He does not just blend in as the third person of the Holy Family. He shines out to husbands everywhere, holding up the example of how to fully commit oneself to the vocation and sacrament that is marriage.

In a time when nothing about where I am, what I am doing, or where my life is headed seems certain or stable, Joseph reminds me to look at the walls of this apartment, and most especially to the woman who made them a home, and remember that this is my vocation. Despite the fluidity the next few years may contain in terms of location and occupation, regardless of whether our family expands in 1 year or in 10, my commitment and my role is modeled for me perfectly in the life of St. Joseph.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

Full of Grace: Finding Order in Christ

Grace Maginn

Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2014)
University of Notre Dame, Class of 2016

 
With confidence, I can unashamedly say that one of my favorite activities is tidying up. As I am a college student, this might sound a bit outrageous; but vacuuming rugs, putting my clothes away, and picking up after my roommates makes me happy because these things allow me to de-clutter and organize the world around meTidying up allows me to put something in order when everything else is busy, chaotic, and out ofmy control. It brings me a sense of peace, knowing that all of my stuff is organized and right where it should be. Though I do love tidying up, what I don’t always love are those times when there are plenty of actual messes to clean up. More than once, I’ve woken up to find a couple of pizza sauce stains on the white couch, a bottle of purple Gatorade spilled onto the carpet, an overflowing trash can giving off a pungent aroma, and crumbs everywhere (and I mean EVERYWHERE). Often when this happens, I freeze up, panic, and metaphorically (and/or physically) get into the fetal position. Messes that require a bit of tidying and organizing I can pretty well handle. But Stains? Spills? Messes that go beneath the surface? Not so much. One day during my sophomore year, I found myself frantically getting ready for class, running a lot more behind schedule than I wanted to be. Grabbing a bottle of lotion from the top of my dresser, I hurriedly opened the cap, only to watch in horror as the bottle flew from my grasp, tumbled out of my fingers and spilled all over my newly-vacuumed carpet. I’ll confess that the first thing to escape my lips was not a nice word. However, the second thing I uttered, which still surprises me, was Lord, give me patience. After a messy and exhausting first semester, that phrase seemed to connect the dots with many of the difficult and overwhelming things I had been struggling with.
When my brother told my family he was gay a year and a half ago, I spent much of my time avoiding deep conversation with him—or any conversation at all, really—in my effort to maintain the same image I once had of him. When a friend of mine was accused of sexually assaulting another student at Notre Dame, I tried to ignore the problem by shutting him out, because I didn’t want to have to help him deal with the mess he had created.  When I myself experienced a scare with cancer, I tried to put the fears and anxieties I had about my potential sickness-filled future into the back of my head, and instead I pretended like everything was fine. I avoided letting these issues break open into my daily life by simply pretending they weren’t there. I feared that if I did acknowledge them, I wouldn’t be able to handle them. As long as everything was tidy, I was okay. In a lot of ways, I imagine myself to be like Martha, in the Scripture story when Jesus visits her home.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Lk 10:38–40)
Martha spends her time frantically cleaning, cooking, and tidying up her house forJesus’ stay. In her hurried effort to get everything all ready, she forgets what’s right in front of herLove itself, in the person of Jesus, her friend.
The bottle of lotion spilling all over the floor and making me late to class wasn’t only the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was a mess I couldn’t just tidy up. I had to stop what I was doing, get on my hands and knees, and really work to get it all off the rug. In the same way, I found that trying to put all my problems in neat little boxes and stick lids on them didn’t fix them. Instead, they sat there accumulating dust, itching to be broken open and worked through.Inevitably, all of these situations in my life did eventually break open, and I could no longer ignore them. I had to acknowledge my overwhelming desire to become close to my brother again. I had to reach out to my friend from college who needed someoneto talk to—someone to help him through his rough time. And I had to address my own anxieties about my health, and about what was in store for me in the future. clutter1In removing the lids from my boxes of problems and sorting through the contents, I realized that for a long time, my life had needed a deep cleaning. With my brother, this required having plenty of conversations, gradually getting to know him for who he really was, not for who he had always pretended to be. With my friend, it meant allowing him to share his own worries and anxieties with me, instead of just brushing them off or ignoring them. With my health, it meant taking it all in stride, coming to terms with the reality of the situation, and embracing it for what it was. In all these situations, deep cleaning was the only way I was truly going to work through these problems. Like Martha, I had to realize that deep cleaning came in the attention I paid to Christ. It wasn’t getting on my hands and knees to work a stain out of the rug on my own, it was getting on my hands and knees in prayerful meditation, offering up those stains to Christ.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and itwill not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:41–42)
I found that my worries and struggles were better understood and seen in a new wayafter I had spent time in Mass, meditative reflection and prayer. It was only when I spent time in silence with Christ that I was able to slow down, process all that had happened, and then move forward. Mary, Martha’s sister, understood that the only thing in her life that could remain constant and steady was Christ. I needed to be a little bit more like Mary. Though my room might be clean, the world around me will most likely be pretty messy. Messes are always going to be made, but it’s how I go about handling them that makes all the difference. Taking my messes to Christ and offering up my struggles to him transforms my stresses and anxieties into points of deeper union with him. Despite all the challenging experiences I’ve faced, I’ve found that Jesus is the order I need.

Keeping Patrick in St. Patrick’s Day

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Unless you spend your time hanging out under the proverbial rock, you’re probably aware that today is the feast day of a certain saint famous for his way with reptiles and for creating theological analogies using local foliage (albeit theologically problematic analogies, as we learn here). Yes, laddies and lassies, it’s St. Patrick’s Day. The day when pretty much everyone claims to have distant relatives from the Emerald Isle whether it’s true or complete blarney, because, as the saying goes, Everyone’s Irish on March 17th.

St. Patrick’s Day, like St. Valentine’s Day, has become more of a cultural phenomenon than a religious celebration here in the United States, so much so for the latter that the “St.” in “St. Valentine’s Day” (that is, the historical figure of St. Valentine) has been all but dropped from the consciousness of popular culture, leaving an almost entirely secularized celebration almost exclusively of romantic love, where chocolates, flowers, and bling express the extent of a person’s affections. With St. Patrick’s Day, we’ve at least retained the awareness that St. Patrick was, in fact, a real person, and that he was, in fact, a saint whose devotion to spreading the Gospel impacted an entire nation, but nowadays—or at least on most college campuses—it seems that the celebration of his feast is simply an excuse to indulge in a celebration of all things stereotypically Irish. . . or perhaps more accurately, just the one thing that many people associate with Ireland. In other words, St. Patrick’s Day has become an excuse to drink. Heavily. And not just on the actual day, either—parades and parties take place on the weekend before St. Patrick’s feast day, providing revelers who believe that “Everyone is Irish March 17th” with plenty of opportunities to drink too much, get in a fight or two, and most certainly wake up the next morning with the world’s worst hangover. It seems strange to me that a feast in honor of someone known for sanctity and courage and virtue has given rise to celebrations that generally cultivate none of these things. Somehow, I think, we’ve missed St. Patrick’s boat.

Having spent two of the happiest years of my life living in Ireland, I learned from the locals that the current shape of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland are largely due to the way it’s been perceived and celebrated here in the United States. It’s only in relatively recent years that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland have begun to resemble the drunk-fests they’ve become in the States, in part because so many Americans have begun traveling to Ireland to celebrate the holiday there—the streets of Dublin were thronged with my fellow Americans on the St. Patrick’s Day I spent there. Prior to this recent trend, though, St. Patrick’s Day was (and still is) a national holiday and holy day of obligation in Ireland, one that, until recently, was celebrated simply: one would attend Mass at the local parish and take the day off from work or school, and perhaps celebrate with a “session,” an evening of music, poetry recitations, and story-telling.

Indeed, far more enjoyable to me than the parade and the pubs was the incredibly beautiful celebration of the Mass for St. Patrick’s Day that I attended at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin in 2011. The incredibly rich cultural heritage of this small country was represented both linguistically—readings and prayers were proclaimed in both English and Irish, and musically—traditional Irish singing and instrumental music resounded through the church as Irish dancers processed in front of the celebrants.

A Mass rock outside the village of Kildorrery, County Cork, where the Irish would secretly celebrate the Mass during penal times, using the rock as an altar. Many such Mass rocks exist throughout Ireland.

This is Ireland: a country whose resilient people truly are the salt of the earth, whose inimitable language and music and prayer intertwine with all of the intricacies of a Celtic knot. A country where the faith persisted in spite of centuries of oppression. A country where that faith persists still, in spite of a threat more insidious than oppression.

The seeds scattered by St. Patrick blossomed in the rich soil of the land of a thousand shades of green, so much so that Ireland became known as the “Land of Saints and Scholars.” Now, though, with the secularization of recent decades, coupled with the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, it seems that the Catholic identity of Ireland is more akin to a stereotype or cliché than a reflection of reality. Mass attendance has diminished greatly, and the various sacramental moments of a Christian life are often seen as mere rites of passage. Perhaps the most devastating development of recent years has been the revelation of abuse inflicted on the innocent by members of the clergy in Ireland. Just as the sanctity of one man brought a nation to the faith, so too have the sins of a few rocked that nation’s faith to its core. Thankfully, the light of faith has by no means been extinguished in Ireland; there are still many who live the Gospel each and every day of their lives. However, the reality is that the Catholic Church in Ireland is suffering, as she is suffering in many places throughout the world.

Which is why I think it’s more important than ever for people to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, in Ireland, in the United States, throughout the universal Church—not by using his feast as an excuse to indulge in drunkenness and debauchery, but by giving thanks for his witness, imitating his courageous example, and asking his continued intercession for those who live in the land he helped to evangelize.

The Book of Kells' famous Chi Rho, symbol of Christ
The Book of Kells’ famous Chi Rho, symbol of Christ

Like each and every one of the saints’ feast days, St. Patrick’s Day presents us with a vivid example of a particular life, lived at a particular place and time, in which the Word of God—Jesus Christ—took root, became flesh. By allowing that Word to take root in his heart, and by giving his life over to sharing that Word with others, St. Patrick changed the course of history for the nation of Ireland, and the Irish missionaries inspired by his example in turn helped to bring the Catholic faith to the United States of America. Anyone engaged in the work of the New Evangelization ought to see in St. Patrick not a cultural cliché, but a companion on the journey of discipleship and an ally in the effort to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Ultimately, the story of St. Patrick and the impact he had in Ireland is an incredible example of the way in which Jesus Christ, who is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” (Heb 13:8), continues to take flesh in the hearts of those who are open to encountering him, and he does this within the particularities of their own lives and cultures. By allowing Christ to take flesh in his heart, St. Patrick made his own the words of St. Paul—“I now live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), yet he did so in a uniquely Celtic voice, as we see in the lyricism of the prayer for which he is most famous. Today, or this weekend, or whenever we celebrate all things Irish by raising our voices in prayer and song, kicking up our heels in a jig or a reel, attending parades, eating corned beef and cabbage, donning our favorite green woolen sweater, and yes, even perhaps raising our pints of Guinness (it is a celebration, after all, and everything in moderation), may we honor St. Patrick by looking to this great patron saint of Ireland more than anything else as an example of a life lived in Christ for others, and may we echo the final lines of his prayer with courage and fidelity, wherever our lives may take us:

Christ with me.
Christ before me.
Christ behind me.
Christ within me.
Christ beneath me.
Christ above me.
Christ at my right.
Christ at my left.
Christ in my lying down.
Christ in my sitting.
Christ in my arising.
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me.
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me.
Christ in every eye that sees me.
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Practicing Lent: Living as the Beloved

Meredith Holland

Boston College School of Theology & Ministry

The Lenten season invites us to enter into a time of preparation through prayer and ascetic practices that can rid us of our sinful behaviors so that we become more open to God’s presence in our lives. We reform those aspects of our lives that take away from our true humanity so that we may enter into Holy Week, the Paschal Triduum, and Easter Sunday celebration—and the whole of the Christian life—as authentically human creatures, intended for and capable of praising God the Father. Lenten practices are not meant to temper our capacity for joy, but rather to increase it. Through the experience of emptiness and of darkness, we are more able to receive the fullness and light of God’s love. We remind ourselves of our hunger for God.

Yet, it is so easy to let the Lenten season simply pass by; it becomes merely a time to go through the motions of fasting and sacrifice, of prayer, of almsgiving, with a sense of detachment that precludes the authentic repentance and emptying that are not only necessary for the reorientation of our hearts and minds toward God, but also for making possible a participation in the genuine Christian joy that is Easter Sunday.

In his text Life of the Beloved, Henri J.M. Nouwen writes:

Still, I am thoroughly convinced that the origin and goal of our existence have everything to do with the ways we think, talk, and act in our daily lives. When our deepest truth is that we are the Beloved and when our greatest joy and peace come from fully claiming that truth, it follows that this has to become visible and tangible in the ways we eat and drink, talk and love, play and work. When the deepest currents of our live no longer have any influence on the waves at the surface, then our vitality will eventually ebb, and we will end up listless and bored even when we are busy. (40)

Lent is an opportunity to reform the ways we think, talk, and act in our daily lives such that that the deepest truths of our beings become more present in those ordinary actions. We abandon social media not to deprive ourselves of communication, but as a reminder that the vocation of the Christian calls all of one’s being to seek and praise God. We fast in order to remind ourselves of our bodily weakness, such that our physical hunger is a tangible sign of our spiritual hunger.

These practices are meant to be truly transformative, not merely temporary. They ought to make possible this visibility and tangibility of our deepest truth of which Nouwen writes.

I have always found the naming of Lenten practices appealing: it offers a tangibility and practicality to the spiritual life that is often difficult to identify and define. Lenten promises invite us to allow our spiritual lives to infuse the totalities of our lives, creating a space for prayer beyond the traditional pose or our standard practice. These offerings become another way for us to access God, at a time when we need this spiritual renewing most.

I have found recently that my traditional still pose of kneeling in silence, eyes closed, palms open, does not always bring a sense of peace and belovedness, but sometimes anxiety and restlessness. And, because that is the image we often have of prayer—quiet, solitude, serenity—this impatience can become a spiritual obstacle that breeds frustration and dissatisfaction, a sense of disappointment with one’s prayer. Often, it seems as though if we cannot find God in the stillness, we cannot find him at all. Lenten practices—the reorientation of the ordinary to reflect the deepest truths of our lives—remind us that this is not the case. When I do not feel at home in the stillness of a pious pose, I must learn to remind myself that we do not become the beloved only from our knees. We become the beloved in the living of our lives, too.

If we simply go through the motions of Lenten practices, not allowing them to penetrate our thoughts and actions, our preparation becomes merely a dulled anticipation. There is no emptying, no depth. We must remember that in seeking this depth, we will struggle, but we cannot assume that this struggle is an indication of a lack of faith. Pain and weakness are not the products of an uncertain faith, but rather offer witness to the conviction of the joy and love that will come. Lent is an opportunity to both satisfy and renew our hunger for God, continually reorienting the entirety of our lives to focus on God the Father who always recognizes us as his beloved.

Practicing Lent: The Formation of the Heart

Danielle PetersSr. Danielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame

Alarmed by the “globalization of indifference” which also “presents a real temptation for us Christians,” Pope Francis entitled his Lenten Message 2015 with an imperative from the Letter of James: Make your hearts firm (5:8)! In this letter of a little less than 2000 words and signed already on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the Holy Father contrasts the love God has for each one of us with our all too often utilitarian, indifferent feelings. This is never more evident than in times “when we are healthy and comfortable;” then we easily can be unconcerned with the suffering of others and gradually “our heart grows cold.” The Pope’s Lenten reflection highlights indifference and egocentrism as the main characteristics of a cold heart which permeate our world to such a degree that “we can speak of a globalization of indifference.”

How can we protect our hearts from this contagion? The Holy Father proposes three biblical texts for our Lenten renewal. He begins with the First Letter to the Corinthians (12:26) and directs it to the church as the Body of Christ: If one member suffers, all suffer together. Being interwoven as members of Christ’s Body, indifference seems inconceivable. The truth of this interdependence we have all experienced in our own families, the smallest entity of the church’s communion. How quickly plans can be frustrated due to the sickness of a parent or sibling? On the other hand, family love and joy have a motivating impact on the individual’s heart formation. The same applies to the church; whatever we do and omit in some way affects the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ; we either contribute to their misfortune and/or increase their happiness! For our Lenten practice the Holy Father suggests that we first allow Christ to serve and feed us by washing our feet and by nourishing us at the Eucharistic Table. Then, touched by this unconditional love our hearts will eventually be conformed to Christ’s and like him we will be urged to share ourselves with others.

The second pericope of the Pope’s Lenten message is taken from Genesis 4:9 where God asks Cain “Where is your brother?”  The Holy Father directs this question mainly to parishes and communities where Christ’s spirit prevails. He is concerned that ecclesial structures do not prevent us from being Christ’s body “which acknowledges and cares for its weakest, poorest and most insignificant members.” There is a real danger that we appease our conscience by writing a check for the weekly offertory collection but fail “to see the Lazarus sitting before our closed doors (Lk 16:19-31).”  By making an effort to practice the corporeal works of mercy we show responsibility for our brother and sister whereby “our parishes and our communities may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference.”  

With the third scriptural reference Pope Francis challenges each one of us personally: Make your hearts firm!” (James 5:8). The Holy Father admits that the flood of the media can paralyze us to the extent that “we often feel our complete inability to help.”  In order to escape “this Just like last year he wishes to commemorate the day of his election as pope, March 13, with the initiative “24 Hours for the Lord.” The pope requests that his anniversary will be celebrated “throughout the Church, also at the diocesan level” as a day of prayer and the opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. The US Catholic Bishops’ Conference has included the 24 Hours for the Lord Initiative in their Lenten calendar and several bishops have responded to it in their Lenten reflections.

Whether as church, parish or individuals, we all need to find “a way of overcoming indifference and our pretensions to self-sufficiency.” The Pope suggests using “this Lent as an opportunity for engaging in what Benedict XVI called a formation of the heart (cf. Deus Caritas Est, 31).” A formed heart, writes Pope Francis, is a “strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God.” Such a heart “lets itself be pierced by the Spirit” and in recognizing “its own poverty … gives itself freely for others.” The formation of the heart presupposes on the one hand receptivity towards the transforming work of grace and on the other hand-and perhaps before everything else-an encounter with God’s love. At stake is a personal experience of God, who knows me by my name, who loves me unconditionally, who searches for me even when I turn my back on him. This is the question we need to reckon with: Do I really believe this? Can I believe this when there are so many puzzles in my life? Can I surrender to God when my prayers or needs are not met in a way I had requested? Where is this loving God when I am treated unjustly or when my hopes are compromised?
RendYourHeartsPope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us that the formation of the heart aims at a purified heart which can confidently perceive God’s solicitude even behind  what seems incomprehensible in life. And he proposes that “it may just be the task of Marian piety to awaken the heart and purify it in faith” (  “Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine,” Communio 30 (Spring 2003), 160). Many saints and spiritual writers have elected Mary as mother and guide in forming their hearts.  They confirm that divine initiative and human cooperation merge creatively insofar as we choose the Marian way, a way with and like Mary towards God. It is a way marked by the obedience of faith and fiat surrender. Saint John Paul II reminds us that “Mary’s motherhood… is a gift: a gift which Christ himself makes personally to every individual” (Redemptoris Mater, 45). Do we need such a gift? As with every gift, we are free to accept it. I have come to realize that the more I unwrap this gift, the more I am fascinated by the thought that this gift is most fitting for our fickle hearts. Jesus entrusts the gift of his mother to us because he knows and loves us more than we can fathom. He knows our innate need of a mother.

Indeed, Mary’s personal integrity, her receptivity for God and her motherly disposition are natural and supernatural points of relationship. Is it not the sensitivity of a mother that takes seriously the subjective needs of each of her children?  Her love is the key which unlocks hearts even when the religious organ seems to have died. Patiently she tends the wounds of lethargic hearts, helping them to recuperate from their various disappointments and losses.  She knows that unless the soil of the emotional and irrational life is lovingly nourished and tilted, spiritual and religious values cannot take root. Hers is a spiritual force which reaches beyond doctrine and commandments; laws and prohibitions; moral pressure or the mere avoidance of sin. At issue is a relationship where the uniting and assimilating effect of love can transform hearts unlike anything else.

The large stain glass window of Our Lady of Mercy Chapel in Geddes Hall at the University of Notre Dame depicts Mary’s children, young and old, seeking refuge under her wide spread mantle. Some look up to her with outstretched arms or folded hands; one covers his face; one is bent low due to his weighty backpack, perhaps indicative of a heavy burden life has placed upon his shoulders. Whether dressed scantily or wrapped in several layers; whether they kneel before her or are still at a distance in the two side panels, Mary’s eyes rest on them all. By her maternal charity, she offers her heart to us no matter how close or distant we are to her Son. As the “Mother of Fair Love” she longs to receive our hearts so as to teach them genuine love of God and neighbor.

Lent is a time to become more aware of what it means to be an authentic disciple of our Lord by hearing and practicing his word. Pope Francis’ Lenten Message challenges us to engage in a formation of our heart. Following in Christ’s footsteps of self-denial, service, and prayer our hearts will be purified and renewed for the victory of Easter. Let us invite Mary, to form our hearts unto Christ’s and to shelter us in her heart especially when we are tempted by indifference. In company with Mary let’s make March 13/14 a deep encounter with the loving and merciful Heart of Jesus!

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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