St. Benedict says that “The life of a monastic ought to be a continuous Lent” (Chapter 49:1) not just during the season of Lent. What do you think he means by this? Is his main focus on outer practices such as fasting, rising very early, extra prayer and so on or is it something else? While these practices have their place and are a means to help us, I do think his primary focus is on the ‘heart’ and on ‘conversion’. In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we heard the prophet Joel say: ‘Rend your hearts not your garments’. Immediately we are moved from an outer practice to the inner life, to our hearts.
What is so important about having this heart of ours ‘broken open’? Can we imagine conversion without the opening of the heart? For the first reading in ordinary time we have been listening to Genesis. We heard the Cain and Abel story. What is striking is what God says to Cain: God is preferring the offering of Abel…God sees Cain’s heart and he warns Cain for God sees evil lurking around his heart: resentment and jealousy are lurking…Beware of it God is telling Cain and God is even saying to Cain that he can ‘master it’…God is hoping that Cain will choose life and as we know, he does not…imagine what Cain’s relationship with God would have been had he suffered his jealousy and chosen life?…God gave Cain his freedom to choose…and you can almost feel God’s heart reaching out to him. The opening of the heart, the breaking open of the heart done with faith in God dispels jealousy and other forms of egocentricity…it is the opposite of a hardened heart which insists on its way and not God’s way…to go the way of God means the heart, our hearts are offered daily…for conversion, for God’s transforming grace.
The overarching theme in the ‘Lenten Message’ of Pope Francis is the challenge of indifference in light of global injustice and suffering. But the Pope does not keep the matter globally he brings it back to the universal Church and then locally into our churches and communities. He is telling us that Lent, “a time of grace”, calls us to an ‘interior renewal’. In his words: “As a way of overcoming indifference and our pretensions to self-sufficiency, I would invite everyone to live this Lent as an opportunity for engaging in what Benedict XVI called a formation of the heart. A merciful heart does not mean a weak heart. Anyone who wishes to be merciful must have a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God. A heart which lets itself be pierced by the Spirit so as to bring love along the roads that lead to our brothers and sisters.” What stirring words, which I hope we will receive and not forget them each day of Lent.
Could we enter this Lent ready to give ourselves to the formation of the heart, our hearts? Indifference towards our brothers and sisters is not just prevalent in our world…it lives in our own hearts as well. Letting our hearts be formed, ‘pierced by the Spirit’ of Love, broken open so that mercy and compassion can flow. The on-going ‘formation of the heart’ is the antidote for indifference and whatever else hardens our hearts. St. Paul calls us to take on or grow into the ‘mind and heart of Christ’…is this not the immediate work of the soul and as well the end goal of our lives? This work of the soul is incarnational…It is to govern our daily lives and choices. What do we see and feel as we behold Jesus’ heart? Who Jesus is, how he lived, all that he did gives us a pattern of how our hearts are to become. His Spirit breathes in us…his heart is always connected to ours…we can feel it each time we let our hearts be pierced and opened for acts of mercy and compassion. Each moment of conversion brings us close to his heart. God always receives a contrite heart.
Last week my chapter talk centered on the words of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, words that were quoted in the journal of Br. Christophe, martyred monk of the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria: “I would say that the subject who says ‘Here I am’ bears witness to the Infinite” (Born From the Gaze of God, p.206). It seems to me that praying this simple pithy phrase which is a response to God’s call, is one practice that can help the opening of the heart…Perhaps it is obvious but we can not bear witness without this radical opening of the heart….Jesus’ offering is total: we feel and know it as we gaze upon the cross. There is not another liturgical season of the Church that asks such a radical opening quite like the liturgical time of Lent that we have just entered…and all of it is preparing us for “the joy of Easter” (RB).
Sisters and brother, the ‘formation of the heart’ is life giving, it gives us our truest self, it gives us joy…the joy of following Jesus, the joy of the gospel, the joy of living with sisters and brothers that are all committed to this same walk. Lent is not about death…it is about life…and we have the season of Spring, which is opening up all around us, to remind us of this immense gift of God.