Lent, the ashes-to-ashes time of the liturgical year. Penance, mortification, purple vestments, prayer, fasting, abstinence, deprivation, desolation, abnegation, purification, sackcloth and ashes.
Ah yes, ashes. Remember Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, the ashes, the dry dirt feeling of them, their grittiness: remember. “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.”
This sacramental of the Church touches our skin, but more deeply, it impresses itself upon the mind, penetrates the spirit, and communicates to the soul an important message: Life as we know it is passing away, but there is another life, a better life, an eternal life.
Whatever happens in this life pales to insignificance when compared to what happens in the life to come, in eternity.
The truth is not that we were dust and that we will return there, but that we are dust. All the energy we expend on behalf of our bodily well-being is not necessarily wasted, but it is not the best possible investment. What would it profit a man to gain the whole world (or a six pack abdomen) and suffer the loss of his very soul?
The truly wise investment is to invest in the kingdom of God where neither thief can steal nor moth destroy (cf., Matt 6:19). This means applying an appropriate amount of time and energy to the well-being of the immortal soul.
For instance, Pope Francis recently suggested a relatively simple way of doing this, and that is by using one’s daily bus commute to read a few lines from the Bible. If one doesn’t ride the bus, one could just as easily take up His Holiness’ suggestion by reading Scripture over breakfast, on the exercise bike, or in a similar circumstance.
“A Christian’s first task,” he said, “is to listen to the word of God, to listen to Jesus because He speaks to us and saves us with His word.” He also suggested carrying a pocket edition of the Gospels in order to spend at least a few minutes each day reading God’s word.
The Holy Father effectively points us to the truth that a truly healthy spiritual life is a life of balance between what is good for the body and what is good for the soul. Many aficionados of health will run or jog or lift weights each day. That is fine, even wonderful. That does the body a lot of good, and it is needed.
But those things are done for a body that will, no matter what the care, ultimately wear out. Therefore that energy needs to be balanced with an appropriate amount of time and energy expended on behalf of the soul. Daily prayer, spiritual reading, rosary recitation, Scripture reading, daily Mass if possible, frequent confession, daily examination of conscience, charitable works, community service, patience in the face of trial: All of these promote spiritual health and assure that we never lose sight of our ultimate goal – heaven. If we reach this goal, we are a success; if we do not reach it, we are a failure (cf., Saint Robert Bellarmine, SJ)!
Of course, our modern phenomenon of an exaggerated emphasis on physical fitness and well-being is nothing new. Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul uses the athletic example, “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor 9:25-25). For St. Paul, the athletes of his day provided the best example of the kind of work and discipline needed in the spiritual life.
The same could be said of today’s athletes. The work ethic, the determination, the focus they bring to their respective sports stands as a real indictment against the Christian man and woman of our day. If we exerted one portion of the energy on Godly things as they do on worldly things there would have to be an explosion of godliness on our planet.
Perhaps this Lent each of us can, in some small way, readjust our priorities and move God and the things of God a little closer to the center of our lives.
During and after strenuous exercise, an athlete feels miserable and at the same time feels great. The physical distress, while painful, yields a rather pleasant sense of well-being. That sense is greatly enhanced when the individual or team wins. Saints (especially the martyrs) likewise experienced distress.
At the same time however they experience great spiritual consolation in knowing that they, while apparently losing, were in reality winning. They were disciplining the body but saving the soul.
Our Lenten ashes are not as literal as the ashes of someone burned to death for their faith. With that understood, every one of us has to be willing to be burned up for God, to become ashes for His sake. The paradox of the Gospels comes through very clearly here: It is in dying that we live, it is in losing that we gain, it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is in choosing to be ashes that we are ultimately reborn into everlasting life.
Some of the spiritual practices asked of us during Lent may be a bit difficult.
- Abstaining from meat on Fridays of Lent may conflict with some weekend outings – ashes.
- Confession is never easy – ashes.
- A serious examination of conscience, praying for the light of the Holy Spirit to truly point out to us our shortcomings pains us – ashes.
- Being kind to an enemy or refraining from spreading the latest “news” requires a type of violence to self – ashes.
- Asking for the grace from God to actually change an immoral life style can be humiliating – ashes.
There are many ways in which we are challenged by the grace of God to receive ashes during the course of our lifetimes, especially during the course of Lent.
Ashes are not pleasant. They are not meant to be. The ashes of Wednesday come and go and quickly disappear, but those ashes need to continue to haunt us throughout Lent so that we will learn to choose them and embrace them and never fear them.
May there be many graced ashen opportunities and positive responses to those opportunities for you in the course of this richly blessed season of grace.