Lent is fast approaching, which means soon enough we’ll be hearing about nothing but deserts for forty days at Mass. A lot of people struggle with Lent – they struggle to make it a fruitful time, finding it to be a depressingly mediocre affair, a pointless forty days of giving up the same things they did last year.
It doesn’t leave them changed – just annoyed and then relieved when Easter finally dawns. But that relief has very little to do with the resurrection of Jesus, if we’re being really honest.
How do we make Lent different? How do we go deeper, go further, and make it a spiritually rich time? We could start with the three traditional practices of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We could focus more on the doing of things, and raise the stakes. But we’re not going to do that.
Maybe we jump out of the gate too soon. Maybe we launch into the practices that are supposed to take us deeper, but we haven’t laid the groundwork to ensure they do take us deeper.
In which case, we need to do some heart-work first. We need to do some deep self-reflection. We need to work out what we’re doing here, and why. Instead of being a ‘human doing,’ (to quote James Martin), we need to focus more on becoming a ‘human being.’
Socrates, the famous Athenian philosopher, allegedly said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ ‘Know thyself’ was the dictum inscribed into the very stone of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Precisely what distinguishes a human being from every other kind of being is the existence of an inner life; an ‘interior world’, as Pope John Paul II used to refer to it. Paying attention to this world is key to starting off on the right foot when it comes to Lent.
The readings for Ash Wednesday hint at this anyway:
Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn’ (Joel 2:13).
The focus of Lent is the human heart.
One of the things the prophet Hosea reveals to us is that time spent in the desert isn’t simply a time of testing. It isn’t simply a time to challenge us, to make us stronger. It’s actually far more intimate than that. Speaking to Israel, God says:
That is why I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart. I am going to give her back her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a valley of hope . . . When that day comes – it is Yahweh who speaks – she will call me, “My husband” . . . I will betroth you to myself forever, betroth you with integrity and justice, with tenderness and love; I will betroth you to myself with faithfulness, and you will come to know Yahweh’ (Hosea 2:14-22).
Everything God does is for the purpose of giving new life and fresh hope. And one of the purposes of the wilderness is to lure us, to speak to our hearts, to betroth us. The desert is the place of betrothal.
This is a point Brant Pitre brings out in his book Jesus the Bridegroom (2014), especially in his section on the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). Throughout the Old Testament, a surprising number of betrothals happen at a well in the desert. The ‘gift of living water’ is the wedding gift: ‘a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). Lent is about finding and receiving this internal spring in the desert.
What if we changed how we saw Lent so that it was in line with this?
What if we saw Lent not primarily as a time of personal sacrifice, but as a time in which God is trying to court us, to win our hearts? As a time where he is trying to get us to know him, in the most intimate way possible? As a time that is about God and not about us? How would that change our approach? How would that change how we pray, or what we choose to sacrifice, or what we choose to give?
How would this change our prayer, fasting and almsgiving?
If we want to start Lent right, and engage with it fruitfully instead of just enduring it, maybe we should take a step back. Become aware of how God is using this time to win our hearts. And then reflect, and reflect deeply, on what is preventing us from going deeper or becoming more intimate with the Lord.
Then take a look at this guy: he knows what he’s talking about.