Watch and Pray: Return to Me With Your Whole Heart
Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2: 12-13).
These are the inaugural words of scripture for Ash Wednesday Mass and are the first words the church offers us this Lent. As such, they are the foundation for the message God wishes to communicate to us this Lent. Today marks exactly one week from the start of Lent. Let us take this week to reflect on how we might seek deeper conversion this Lent.
One year ago on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis reflected on these very same words, noting that during Lent “We are invited to embark upon a journey on which, by defying routine, we strive to open our eyes and ears, but especially to open our hearts, in order to go beyond our own ‘backyard’” (Homily, March 5th at the Basilica of St. Sabina).
In his reflection, Pope Francis asks us to do four things. First, we must form new routines. Next, he invites us to make this journey to conversion through three timeless practices of penance. “The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (CCC 1434). One cannot help but see the connection between the conversion we are called to through Lent and the practices offered by the church. Put more plainly by Pope Francis, we might say we are called to “open our eyes and ears” through prayer, “open our hearts” through fasting, and we must “go beyond our backyard” through almsgiving.
If we allow prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to form a new routine in our lives we can truly experience the grace of the season.
The actions we perform routinely form us. The first action which should form us is prayer. “Prayer is the strength of the Christian and of every person who believes,” teaches PopeFrancis (Homily, March 5th at the Basilica of St. Sabina). However, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to prayer. Mother Teresa offers us three pieces of advice in the book No Greater Love. First she points out that we want so badly to pray perfectly that we fail and give up. However, prayer is rather simple. “If you want to pray better, pray more,” explains Mother Teresa (No Greater Love pg 6). There are no perfect words, gestures, or feelings; just pray from your heart.
Secondly, it is not enough to just attempt to pray more. Our routines must form our life of prayer. “It is difficult to pray if you do not know how to pray, but we must help ourselves to pray. The first means to use is silence,” says Mother Teresa (No Greater Love pg. 7). The first way we can pray more is to disrupt our routine by making room for silence. Turning off the television during dinner, switching off the radio in the car, and putting down our smartphone in the grocery line allows us to come face to face with ourselves, God, and our neighbor. Praying before meals makes us aware of the presence of God three times a day. Fostering a devotion to a saint helps us to see and hear the Lord in the actions of others. Finally, making specific times for prayer, such as at bedtime, or setting aside a particular location in our home (perhaps a chair or room) is also helpful. A “prayer corner” in our home for our statues, rosaries, and wedding crucifix is a visible reminder to pray. Our family also attempts to take advantage of extra prayer opportunities available at our parish.
Thirdly, she encourages us not to waste our time looking for extraordinary experiences but rather to “live pure faith…by doing our day-to-day duties with extraordinary love and devotion.” In this way, we live our prayer by realizing “God’s constant presence and His tender love for us in the least little things of life” (No Greater Love pg. 8). Simple mundane tasks, such as washing dishes, changing diapers, or shoveling the driveway can be offered with extraordinary love. There is no better opportunity to feed the hungry, clothe the naked or tend the sick than those offered by our children or others in our care.
I once had a non-Catholic friend who had started the practice of fasting. One day he pulled me aside and said to me, “I have learned something about fasting. We do not fast from things because they are bad. We fast precisely because they are good and in giving them up we recognize that God is better.” He was exactly right.
Pope Francis exhorts us, “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.” Our fasting must point to something greater. Our fasting can only “open our hearts to others” if it points to something outside ourselves. “Fasting makes sense if it questions our security, and if it also leads to some benefit for others, if it helps us to cultivate the style of the Good Samaritan…” (Homily, March 5th at the Basilica of St. Sabina).
“The third element is almsgiving: it points to giving freely, for in almsgiving one gives something to someone from whom one does not expect to receive anything in return. Gratuitousness should be one of the characteristics of the Christian, who aware of having received everything from God gratuitously, that is, without any merit of his own, learns to give to others freely,” explained Pope Francis (Homily, March 5th at the Basilica of St. Sabina).
Gratitude and generosity are the two Christian hallmarks. Mother Teresa states that “Poverty is freedom. It is freedom so that what I possess doesn’t own me,” (No Greater Love pg. 96). The ability to give freely stems from a recognition that all we have is a gift from God. We are poor of our own accord and yet rich in the Lord. This recognition allows us to be generous. We can give confidently because since we have nothing our giving brings no loss. The practice of giving, even when difficult draws us back into this mystery. Still, our giving does not have to be in large ways. A small gift to the local food pantry, participating in the parish rice bowl collection, or taking a meal to a new parent or an elderly relative is enough to move us beyond ourselves and forward on our Lenten journey.
Let us prayerfully take up the invitation to “Return to me with your whole heart.” How is God calling you specifically to pray, fast, and give alms this Lent?