Lent - Sacrifice must lead to Conversion

At Mass this morning, Fr. Joe connected the topic of holiness - found in both the 1st reading and the Gospel - with the focus we should have during Lent.  Even though Lent begins pretty late this year (actually, almost as late as possible), it has still managed to sneak up on me and it wasn't until a few days ago that I actually started thinking about what I'll be doing during this penitential season.  This post won't be so much about what I'm doing for Lent (that is still being determined), but just some comments/ideas about this season in general and things that I'll be keeping in mind over the next several weeks.

Fr. Joe made the simple point this morning that our sacrifice shouldn't be the focus of Lent.  Of course, the Church calls us especially during Lent to do prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but this can't become the focus of Lent - they can't be the goal in themselves.  I know that for myself I often think that the bigger the penance I do, or the more prayers I say, or something, the holier I will be, but the thing is that we can't become so distracted by our external sacrifices, as good as they may be, that we forget that the point of Lent is to grow in holiness, to become more like Christ.  As, Scott Hahn explains, the point of our sacrifices must "indicate a deep, interior conversion."  In other words, the goal isn't to do some awesome sacrifice, or spend hours in prayer each day, the point is to become less attached to things that are distracting us from God, and by doing that become closer united with Him and His plan for us.  A new blog that I found the other day called "The Catholic Gentleman" (which seems pretty good after a quick skimming) says about penance that "When we talk about penance, we usually think of doing things, and that is indeed part of it. But our actions will be dead, and in fact harmful, if they are not preceded by an interior conversion of heart. Penance, then, is nothing more than an interior contrition of heart displayed through outward actions.  True penance flows from love for God and a recognition of the seriousness of sin"

Father gave some tips on how specifically to do this.  If you, for instance, gives up snacking, or smoking, or watching tv, instead of just glaring at the clock and thinking about how hungry, or bored, you are, go spend those 5 minutes in the chapel, reading Scripture, helping a neighbor, or cleaning the house -  something that actively brings you closer to Christ.  Basically, don't just give something up for the sake of punishing yourself; fill that opening you have made in your life with something that you want there.  Conversion involves both removing those things in us that take us away from God (certainly sins, but also other types of distractions or desires) as well as replacing those things with activities that do.  

Pope Francis talks about in his Lenten address in a beautiful way as us becoming poor.  Pope Francis has put a huge emphasis during his papacy on caring for and loving the poor, but here he takes the analogy and says that we all must become poor.  Not, of course, in the sense that one must go live on the street or beg for food or something, but becoming poor so that Christ can fill us.  The Pope quotes from St. Paul who says that "though he [Christ] was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." [2 Corinthians 8:9]  The fact is that when we are rich of the things of this life we don't have room for the things of the next life.  When our hearts are consumed by earthly pleasures, possessions, activities, and other things we don't have room for Christ, and without Christ there is no way for us to experience conversion.

Conversion, as I have been explaining, has the dichotomy of having to give things up so that we can be filled with better things, but it also has the dichotomy of us giving up control and letting God work on us.  We can't fix ourselves on our own.  Scott Hahn goes this direction in the second half of his article; during Lent we need to learn to rely on God's mercy. I know for myself, I want to do things on my own, fix my own problems, conquer the world with my own abilities, but while this mentality works fine in man areas of life, it doesn't work in the spiritual life.  There is no such thing as DIY salvation!  Becoming holy means allowing God to transform you.  This is one of the things that Pope Francis was trying to tell us: we have to become poor, we have to learn to rely on God, in order for Lent to truly transform us.  We can fast as much as we want, but spiritual growth means more than having the will-power to skip that meal or not indulge in ice-cream.  

There are many miracles in the New Testament that show Jesus healing or raising people who are sick, lame, blind, or even dead.  The thing is that they couldn't fix themselves on their own.  The story that comes to mind is the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, going to many doctors who could never heal her, but she is healed just by reaching out and touching Jesus. [Mark 5:26-29]  I remember listening to a talk by Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen when he said we are like broken pots [found it!] and can only be fixed by the potter (God).  Furthermore, we can only hold the life of Christ, grace, inside of ourselves when our pot doesn't leak, and we can't fix our own pot!  (Bishop Sheen makes many other points from this analogy, but I'm content with just this one.) 

Alright, so I know that I could keep finding other sources to quote from, but instead, I'll just recap:  Sacrifice is essential during Lent - praying, fasting, and alms-giving - but these outward actions must stem from, indicate, and further increase our internal conversion of heart.  The difficulty of penance or how much time we spend on it isn't the most important aspect of Lent, rather the opening of ourselves up to God (and then others, which is where the rest of Pope Francis's letter goes) and working with His transforming grace so that we are made more and more like Christ is.  Good luck!  Don't be glum like the pharisees, that misses the whole point.

In other news: Posts have been pretty sporadic lately because I have been really busy - partly because we are in the midst of midterms - here's hoping that I can get some more up eventually.  Next week is spring break!