Deepening Our Lent

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(Isaiah 1: 10, 16-20, Psalm 50, Matthew 23: 1-12)

Thomas Aquinas taught, “Grace builds on nature.” Science tells us that efforts to make a change hit a critical point in the third week. Change can become a habit in the third week—or change can feel like it is too hard so we give it up in the third week.

Scientists who study these things note that change is exhausting. Efforts to do some new thing (be it giving up coffee, going to daily mass, or spending extra time with each of your children) begin with enthusiasm and adrenalin. When that energy naturally dies down, we feel exhausted from the effort. One way or another we say to ourselves, “I took on too much. This is too hard.” We lower our standards or give up completely.

Today marks two weeks we have been at our Lenten efforts. Tomorrow will begin the third week of Lenten observance. It is our nature in the third week either to deepen our commitment to whatever work we are letting God do in us this Lent or to slack off and settle for no real change.

My internal dialogue has already begun. It goes like this, “So it’s Sunday. You know, some people let themselves have whatever they gave up on Sunday because, well, it’s Sunday. A piece of bacon sure would taste good this morning.” “I’m too tired to do evening prayers tonight. One night missed won’t hurt.”

The battle isn’t about bacon or a chaplet. Those are details. The battle is about our hearts. We do “outward observances” in Lent to discipline our wills—and discover in the struggle of the discipline what God seeks to do with our hearts.

What is God calling my heart to this Lent? What is He calling your heart to? What is the conversion that is emerging? Our readings today (and all this week) give us encouragement to look deeper and guidance for how to do it.

If we are feeling pretty good about our Lenten observances, Jesus asks us to check our pride. Speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, he says, “All their works are performed to be seen.” This can be a matter of our own vision, as well as the view of others. Last Friday several times I found myself saying to myself, “What a good girl am I.” Ouch, Jesus! “For they preach but they do not practice.” Hmm. What is the inner observance, the conversion that I’m not listening to because I’m too busy congratulating myself for outward observance?

Good question.

If outward observances are holding up to our eyes the magnitude (or tenacity) of our sins or lukewarmness, Isaiah has some comforting words, “Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord. Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.” That is encouraging…but then the next line causes me to pause: “If you are WILLING and OBEY, you shall eat the good things of the land; But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you.”

As the old saying goes, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. The critical element is to be WILLING and OBEY. I have started out WILLING. What is God calling me to OBEY?

What is the inner conversion that is deep, perhaps a part of my history, personality, or habitual selfishness, that hides in my resistance to Lent’s discipline? What am I afraid to bring out into God’s light?

More good questions.

Matters to ponder in prayer today.

As I ponder them, three guidelines toward conversion emerge for me.

From Isaiah these words stand out: “Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged.” Let me scrub my soul with the soap of justice. Is there anyone whose good I do not seek? Whose need for goodness in their life do I not have time for or ignore?

From the Psalm, it is these words: “Why do you recite my statutes, and profess my covenant with your mouth, though you hate discipline and cast my words behind you?” There’s real meat for me there today. Lenten practices are a discipline that I get bored with after a couple of weeks—just when they can do me some good. I don’t “hate” discipline, but I don’t “love” it either, unless I embrace it now.

From the Gospel it is the final sentence, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

What does “humbling myself” look like just now? I know the answer to that one: it looks like sincerely asking God to move me past my hesitations and being willing to face whatever God shows me.

Putting these together, I have the beginning of a path beyond and beneath Lent’s outward observance: pay attention to how loving by God’s standards I am with others; carry on with the disciplines of Lent; and be humble, so that I do not limit the conversion God seeks to work in me.

I can do that. I will do that. And watch while I pray to see what God will do. I take comfort in the final words of the Psalm: “He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me; and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God.”

Prayer:

Lord, thank You for this holy season of Lent. Thank You for its disciplines, even if they are beginning to scrub on me. Thank You for these readings today that encourage me to open myself up to You, to let You touch some recess of my heart and soul that I’ve never opened to You—that I may not even have let myself see. Shine Your light in my darkness.

While I wait for You to make the next move, to show me what You want me to see, help me make a sacrifice of praise. Let me give myself up to You, to adore You just because You are who You are. Let me rest with You now in the grace of praise. Lead me through praise to the conversion You would give me this Lent. Amen.

About the Author

Mary Ortwein lives in Frankfort, Kentucky in the US. At different times in her life she has been an elementary and college teacher, a full-time wife and mother, founder of pro-life service agencies, a marriage and family therapist, a non-profit agency administrator, and a writer of relationship and mental health curriculum. A convert to Catholicism in 1969, Mary had a deeper conversion in 2010. She earned a theology degree from St. Meinrad School of Theology in 2015. Recently retired, Mary takes as her model Anna, who met the Holy Family in the temple at the time of the Presentation. She is a widow who finds joy in prayer, in being a part of parish life, and in offering hospitality to those who are journeying toward God--especially those who have previously wandered away from God, those who are journeying home to Eternal Life, and those who are seeking a deep relationship with God and other Christians.

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8 Comments

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  2. Hi
    Ms. Mary Ortwein…I love to read and wish to write a simple book or a short story about my faith …but I don’t know how to do that…I’ve been here in this catholic moment for months..

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  3. This is all so true Mary. Sustaining the discipline is a challenge. I too usually begin with a lot of enthusiasm which is never sustained if it is a long haul. I take consolation in knowing that God’s grace is sufficient. Let us constantly ask for that grace. The journey of faith is “one day at a time, one step at a time, trusting fully in the guidance of the Lord. Great that you also share your own vulnerabilities. This encourages us to keep trying and confirms the words of 1 Cor 10:13. May the Lord continue to use you for his glory.

  4. Mary, thank you for your encouraging ideas. Daily i look forward to reading your comments. I am strengthened by the fact we need to ask for the grace to move on. Pray with me that i may listen to what the Lords me bring to him, and obey the lenten practices.

  5. Dear Mom, Thank you so much for this awakening and faith enriching reflection especially at this week whe i began to slide back. Looking forward for more teachings. God bless you.

    Joseph.

  6. Thank you Mary for this beautiful reflection. It touched and moved by heart. I have recently discovered the word of God – the joy and peace it brings has amazed me. Thank you again. Be well.

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