I returned home on Ash Wednesday with ash on my forehead and beamed to the question: what is that? It is ash from Church. Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, I responded. Only Catholics have that, right, asked my wife who happens to be Presbyterian. In sensu stricto, I answered in the affirmative. In another sense, the defining characteristic of this season resonates in and with other religions. Muslims for example have the period of fasting as they look forward to the feast of the Ramadan.
Lent is the season that draws its meaning first from the event of Christ in the desert. The gospels tell us – The Spirit led him into the desert where he stayed for 40 days and 40 nights. It culminates with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.
As I searched for an appropriate image to live out the essence of this season, no better image than that of a desert experience, hit home. I was invariably drawn back to those years in the seminary when thrice every year, as an integral part of our spiritual formation, we had three Saturdays, one for each term, set aside for desert experience. This was different from monthly recollections not just in intensity but also in focus.
Having become used to the daily routine of seminary life where a bell summoned one to mass every morning, then breakfast, lectures, lunch, work, sports, vespers, dinner as daily routine, the desert experience provided the opportunity to break this “humdrum.” In fact, the seminarian had the luxury to determine how to spend the day in prayer.
Clearly, one had a lot of time in one’s hands on such days. After mass, in the spirit of the desert, one may retire to his room and skip breakfast or rather have a heavy breakfast to sustain one through the stress of the day. We all had assigned chores for the day, which we had to cater to up until lunchtime. Then at 3 pm, Office of readings, which lasted 15 minutes at most. The day closed with evening prayer at 6.30 pm.
The temptation, at least for me was to fill the day with activities. For example, I made sure I had something to read. Something spiritual may be the biography of a saint or my preferred text, Imitation of Christ or any of the spiritual classics by Henri Nouwen, C.S. Lewis to name but these; then to kill time, I would stroll to the chapel for holy hour, adoration before the blessed sacrament, recitation of the rosary and then stations of the cross. Before one knew it, it was time to leave the desert.
Throughout the day, one could hear a pin drop in the seminary. Magna silencia was mandatory. After all, you do not find God in a noisy environment. Nothing could be more frightening than this especially for a man given to idle chatter. Otherwise said, nothing could be more difficult for an extrovert like me to spend a whole day with myself. Even in the midst of this external silence, some of us are still noisy internally. Such silence, which affords us the opportunity to come to face with the reality of our inner recesses, is honestly frightful and demands a lot of courage.
Even though alone, we are never alone. We are “alone with the Alone” who reveals not only Himself to us but also reveals ourselves to us. For those those of us given to the humdrum and noise characteristic of our society, Lent provides us the opportunity to pause. We must stand back and listen to ourselves and not just or only to what others are saying. Even couples, in fact families are called to this solitude during Lent. A familial spirituality requires that we step back and reboot.
Essentially, the ticking away of the clock was always quite slow and you know how time crawls in Cameroon. Honestly, the judicious management of time was crucial but admittedly not always the case. There was the great temptation to sleep throughout the day; after all, it will be holy sleep. It would have been in accord with the spirit of the day and may be not the letter of the day.
In a certain sense, the seminary experience of the desert marked by boredom, sacrifice, silence and solitude, work and prayer, I find crucial ingredients in living out this holy season of Lent.
The Dominican priest Fr Goergen notes that “It is no whim of history that the breadth of the first monotheistic faith took place in a desert, or that it was followed there by the other two great religions: Christianity and Islam.” I would like to spend some time on this image of the desert.
To speak of Lent as a desert experience is an invitation for us to interiorize and to return to our center of gravity. The readings of Ash Wednesday all point to this: let your hearts be broken not your garments torn. When you give, let your right hand not know what the left is offering. (May mean we have to give from both the right and the left not either…or)
Many of us have an idea of what the desert looks like. Parched land, scorching heat of the sun, solitude, and inhabitability are images we necessarily conjure of the desert. In describing lent as a desert experience, I do not mean to invite us all to get into a physical desert. We made a desert experience in the seminary without leaving the seminary. Rather, it is an invitation to get into the desert of our hearts.
Cardiac arrests are very rampant and quite lethal in our physical world. Along these lines then the question becomes how healthy is our spiritual heart? Lent affords us the opportunity to do a spiritual health check-up. It provides us an official spiritual examination. This is the time to do the annual spiritual check up. In no way does this preclude other bi-weekly/bi-monthly checkups as need be. If we conceive of the desert as place, then it is in our heart.
After the example of Christ, the Lenten invitation and challenge is for us to fast, give alms and to pray. All three activities benefit the individual but are also intrinsically linked to neighbor and to God. When I fast, I give something of myself. It is something I have and something I cherish that I decide to give up. Fasting evokes the spirit of humility: What do we have that we have not received and how much do we have that we do not lack? In fact, nobody has everything that he does not need/receive anything and nobody is so destitute that he cannot give. Even the poor give the rich the opportunity to be charitable. It is against this background that alms-giving comes in.
Fr Goergen describes his experience of the physical desert thus: “The desert continually made me aware of my utter dependency on the Lord. One lives in the desert by faith. One cannot harbor illusions of self-sufficiency. The dependency is too real, too obvious, too frightening, or even consoling. Whether it be salvation from heat, from cold, from thirst, from falling, one’s human assurances are often out of reach and one must rely on nature, on God alone.
The experience of the desert is first an experience of dependency. Once one makes this shift from self-reliance to reliance upon God, from independence to dependence, the desert is no longer frightening, but reveals an unparalleled beauty. The desert is a call to surrender; it is also the offer of delight…Its barren landscape and dry breeze can inspire insecurity and facilitate fatigue. One can bake by day and freeze by night: survival is an issue. The desert invites dependency.
One form of this dependency is surrender realizable in alms-giving. It is to an-other. What would it look like if there were nobody to whom we could give? As we give, it is never enough just to give. Why, how and what we give all matter. There is the temptation to condescension and paternalism which we must avoid else alms-giving becomes a remote control for the giver.
St Paul in his discourse on love gives us a correct motivation: If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Prayer in its most basic definition is talking and listening to God. It is a conversation with God. There are different forms of prayer but two that stand out during this season are Holy Mass and the Stations of the Cross. The common practice of our local church in Cameroon of prefacing mass with Stations of the Cross – a devotional reflection on the journey of Christ recasting the trial, passion and death of Christ has set up an unwarranted tension between the two. It has become routine that many Christians gather for the Stations of the Cross and leave before mass, a clear demonstration of a misunderstanding. Prayer is yet another acknowledgment of dependency. We shall return to this later.
One could say then that the season of Lent in its essence seeks to break the sin of pride. This cardinal cum mortal sin that tempts us to think the world rotates around us. Our selfishness, eccentricities and egotistic machinations are brought to check in this desert experience. The desert exposes the deepest recesses of our heart and confronts our pride headlong.
Prayer for example comes from the candid proclamation: I am not my own. We then do not allow the alluring enticement of what we have to blind us to who we are. Alms-giving helps us in this regard and we can purge ourselves of this trait.
There is no denying it that Lent is quite a demanding season. It demands a lot of heavy lifting and hard work.
Lent is a time of renewal. It is no mere coincidence that Lent is always during springtime. It always begins either during February or March and extends through April/May. It is a period of rejuvenation. The Cherries blossom once again after a bitter cold deadening winter.
Hence at the heart of this season is repentance. The celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation becomes critical. In the words of the famous song: Yes, I shall arise and return to my father. Lent makes no sense if we do not avail of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.
Lent then is also a pilgrimage through the desert. We are a pilgrim people and through this desert, the Lord renews us in spirit, gives us the strength to purify our hearts and to control our desires. (Preface for Lent 1)