When I was growing up In New Jersey, Lent was a serious time of the year when fasting and acts of penance were required of the faithful. Each year, giving up chocolate for Lent marked the six-week trek of meatless Fridays, special devotions and, when possible, doing acts of charity. It felt like rolling a heavy log up a mountain until the thought of Easter candy appeared, and then the will to persevere increased. Lent was a remembrance that here we have no lasting home, and that this valley of tears was the outflow of original sin. To repent was to turn from one’s selfish ways and return to God.The funny thing is, once Lent was over, many of us went right back to our old habits of eating chocolate and looking out for number one. Any small spiritual brownie points gained during Lent were pretty much spent by Pentecost.
It has taken me years to realize that the Christian journey is by definition a Lenten journey. Following Jesus through the cross should not be a special effort six weeks of the year; rather, it is the path into God. As Bonaventure wrote: “There is no other path than through the burning love of the Crucified Christ.” It is a path of conversion, a realization that we are unfinished, insecure and a bit broken. Conversion is based on the Greek word “metanoia” which literally means “change of mind” or “change of heart.” What is this change of mind and heart? It is essentially a process of “unlearning” or rewiring our thoughts, attitudes and actions, from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. It is awakening to the interior desire for God and the need for God. This desire for God and the movement toward God is the turning of the mind and heart in a new direction, seeing things in a new way by seeing them in a new light. One becomes liberated from the selfish ego, the desire to possess and control, by letting go and trusting the power of divine life at the heart of life. In this respect, conversion is a means of becoming more authentically human, as one awakens to the presence of God. As the mystics tell us, awakening to God within the self is awakening to God within the world. As we wake up to the divine light, our level of awareness changes, we start attracting a new reality. Our eyes are open to the truth of God shining through the people we meet and the events of our lives.
To see God’s presence in the world is to love the world from a new center, the center of the heart. From this new vision of the heart, God’s goodness overflows even amidst the trials of a pandemic and a brutal winter storm. God’s love shines through the cracks of our darkness, and if we focus on this light, the darkness fades away. This is how the early Franciscans came to realize God’s abundant love and how we too can realize this same love today.
During the last two months, I have experienced the challenge of pulsatile tinnitus, an outcome of my concussion last summer. I have constant noise in my head, from morning until night. This comes at a time when all my classes, meetings and talks are online. I am basically confined to my apartment because of the pandemic and the persistence of winter, with mounds of snow and ice piled up outside my window. For a while, life grew dark, I felt confined and anxious until I began to realize that, in every moment, God’s love is shining through, and at every moment, I must make a choice to return to God or feel sorry for myself. The words of the prophet Joel began to play over and over within me: “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). To “re-turn” is to turn back but the “turning back” is really a “turning toward,” in a new direction, receiving the love of God in the present moment and turning toward God who comes in this moment from the future, the future of absolute, unconditional love. This Lenten head injury in the midst of a winter pandemic is a grace-filled time, not because I suffer but because I can let go of my need to control the situation, to have immediate answers, and to let God be the God of my life. My Lenten motto is: let go, lean in and love by celebrating the moment with a “yes” of the heart.
Lent serves a good purpose in our lives. We are called back from our busy routines and invited to slow down, to be attentive to what God is doing in our midst. It is not about “giving up”; it is about “giving in” by letting go of the reigns of control and receiving the love of God into our hearts. Lent is a process of “re-turn.” As we turn toward God, we realize that God is already turned toward us, loving us in our darkness and weakness. God returns to us when we open up our hearts to let God in, the heart which often shuts God out of our everyday lives. The time of Lent is like a doorbell ring, announcing that God is standing at the door of the soul but that we must come down from our heights of success and power to answer the door, to welcome God into our anxious lives and to relax with God over a cup of tea or a nice glass of wine.
The truth is, Lent is an invitation to a deeper love, a recognition that we become what we love; a realization that how we love changes the world. The journey through the cross is learning to love through the breakdowns and sufferings of our fragile lives. What seems like invincible boundaries of our personhood can suddenly be shaken at their roots and we can begin to see just how tenuous life is, that we exist by the gracious gift of God’s merciful love. Once we awaken to this love, we can begin to recognize God’s love in all aspects of life: in the snow and ice, in the upset neighbors, in those struggling with COVID, in the anxious students, and in the dark, silent moments of the unknown. Everyone is suffering in one way or another and everyone is in need of love. However, it is difficult to respond in love if we are preoccupied with ourselves.
Conversion of heart is rooted in desire. What do we want? Do we want to live in fear, anger and distrust? Do we desire life? Allowing God into our hearts fills us with a power of love that energizes us for life. In this love we are free to face the challenges of the day, no matter how difficult they are. To let God into our lives is to realize that nothing can overpower us, for where God is, there is life. God is the light in the darkness, the love that endures all things, hopes all things. Where there is God, there is eternal light, for the sun is always rising on the horizon.