Every day we awake with a purpose to the day and a plan to get it done. We don’t wake up in the morning saying, “I think I’ll do something really stupid today!” We have an end-goal for every choice and believe that our choice will get us to that goal.
The exception, of course, is when it comes to our salvation! We are comfortable with our weaknesses, even the problems or crises in life because we are accustomed to it. People just don’t like change, and the call to holiness is precisely that: change.
Once the desire to change is embraced, it can be difficult to keep our eye on the prize. The cycle of shame can keep a person convinced of their shortcomings and unworthiness. Looking into the mirror held up by the spirit of shame, all we see is our faults. We make our brokenness our identity.
Then Lent arrives, and we are sure we will conquer these shortcomings once and for all. Unfortunately, in the wrestling with our weakness and sin, we can focus so much on overcoming the faults we aren’t really paying attention to God. It can help to know we are not alone in this battle! St. Francis of Assisi once shared with Brother Leo to not be over-focused on the purity of our soul, for our act of thanksgiving glorifying God is the truly pure heart:
“And when you are thus turned toward God, above all do not turn back to yourself at all. Don’t ask where you stand with God. The sadness of not being perfect and finding yourself a sinner is still a human sentiment, too human. You must lift your gaze higher much higher. There is God, the immensity of God and His unalterable splendor. The pure heart is the one which does not cease adoring the living and true Lord. It takes a profound interest in the very life of God and it is capable, in the midst of its miseries, of vibrating to the eternal innocence and to the eternal joy of God…Holiness is not an accomplishment of the self, nor a fullness which one gives oneself. It is, first of all, an emptiness which one discovers and accepts, and to which God comes filling the measure that the person opens himself to His fullness. Our nothingness, you see, if it is accepted, becomes the free space where God is still able to create…But the purity is not obtained by force of arms and by being grasping…keep nothing of yourself…renounce everything heavy, even the weight of our faults. Have nothing more than the glory of God…Its desire for perfection is changed into a simple and pure desire for God…God is. That is enough.”
Our nothingness is God’s creative space!
The point is neither to ignore, and continue to wallow in, one’s attachments and self- centeredness, nor to be so overly fixated on overcoming them that you feel it necessary to be perfect. As we grow closer to God, our desire for Him grows too. The eyes of the soul open and see its imperfections quite clearly. It is an easy trap for your efforts in overcoming imperfections to become the center of your attention. St. Ignatius, like St. Francis, saw ingratitude as the greatest sin and felt giving thanks and glory to God was always the first priority; it is the first step in the examen. The emptiness of which St. Francis speaks isn’t suppressing emotions or memories and pretending all is perfect. It is a detachment from the need to be perfect so that our efforts to reject temptation and overcome weaknesses are ordered towards loving and desiring God.
Looking at God looking at me…
When we turn and see God, we find He is already concerning Himself with us. We must keep our destination as our focal point. God is our destination. This requires a true surrender of the will; rejecting temptations and especially overcoming preferences are necessary to surrender. This is why the other practices outside of prayer are necessary. The first step to changing habits is to monitor yourself during the day and notice when you’ve lost your peace. Ascetical practices such as giving up unnecessary ‘treats’ (food, entertainment, knowledge gluttony) are important to getting over oneself. Also important, however, is giving up preferences because that is where our ego lies— our reaction to not having food exactly to our liking or watching the TV show we want to see is almost guaranteed to lead to unkind thoughts or words. The confession list grows!
We can be so wrapped up in overcoming a weakness that we grasp onto it instead of God; we subconsciously keep control of it. An ugly cycle ensues: frustration at not overcoming the bad habit yet giving into it time and again. For those with scruples, the shame cycle imprisons them too. For anyone, it is like being a hamster on the wheel and unable to get off—by the way, hamsters can actually die because they are unable to stop. So can we spiritually.
Which leads to Lent. Wouldn’t change be easier if you were truly convinced of God’s love for you, and that you are lovable, and that you are worthy of it? We cannot see it. Our vision is clouded. Lent serves to give us new eyes to see. Instead of planning a complicated Lenten practice of giving up, taking on, etc., the most profound change can come from simplicity. A simple practice of asking yourself throughout the day “why does this matter” is all it takes to uncover how much of what you do is focused on you and really shouldn’t matter at all. If this is taken on as the one and only endeavor for Lent, and no others, it would be sufficient to change your life profoundly and permanently.
May this Lent bring you to a more permanent discipline of vulnerable honesty with God so that His covenant already inscribed in your heart becomes your lived existence.
Lord Jesus, embrace me in this very moment and never let go. You are my King and Savior, and I am yours, belonging to you and called to bring people to you, their salvation. Give me respite and courage in the struggles. Teach me abandonment into your arms. May my heart forever profess “nothing matters but Jesus.” Fill me with your spirit and create in me a docile will, a clean heart, inspired speech, and a burning desire to be Love to others. Protect me from the enemy and give me intimate knowledge of you so I follow you alone. I consecrate to you and to the Blessed Virgin Mary all thoughts, speech, and works so that I may be your voice, your instrument, your vessel of Grace. I profess my desire that my life be a living praise of you. I thank you with all affection. Amen.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.