At dinner on a recent Friday, one Sister’s 5-year-old nephew learned, to his dismay, that he was not to order a burger: his family’s choice of Friday penance throughout the year is the traditional one, abstaining from meat. He pondered this news and suddenly conceived a brilliant idea. “Well, Mom, when Lent comes, I’m giving up Fridays — so I can eat meat!”
The innocent logic offers us a fruitful point of self-examination: Do I focus so much on “giving something up” during Lent that I forget the reason for the exercise? The Catechism reminds us: “Jesus’ call to conversion … does not aim first at outward works … but at the conversion of the heart, [which] urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance. … Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, … an end of sin, a turning away from evil, … [it is] first of all a work of the grace of God” (§§1430-32).
Writing to the community two Lents ago, one of our Sisters drew on the wisdom of 50 years living consecrated to Him to embolden us: “Sometimes we think of Lent as dragging on for six weeks when actually it is a sprint — toward Him!” The goal of Lent is Jesus; we are hastening toward Him, and so we should ask Him to direct the journey: “Jesus, what do You want me to do this Lent — give up and/or take on — to reach Easter cleaving to You?”
The joy of arriving at Jesus cannot be overstated. It is something that should set us into a sprint! Think of the people of Palestine scurrying around the countryside, gathering up their sick and bringing them to wherever they had heard Jesus was (Mk 6:55). Think of Zacchaeus hurrying down the tree — and then recklessly dissipating his amassed wealth, in reparation for his greed and dishonesty (Lk 19).
The joy of encountering Christ — of seeing, reflected in His gaze, the truth of both one’s sinfulness and His healing love; of repenting and reorienting one’s life to that truth — this joy is a font of life and strength, welling up within us and spilling out on others. It issues forth in extravagant gestures like that of the Magdalene, who poured not only the expensive ointment but her own hair over Christ’s feet (Lk. 7).
A priest recently shared a story I had not heard about the gentle giant, and genius, St. Thomas Aquinas. Daily, Thomas would walk round and round the priory cloister, abstracted in contemplation of divine things. A contemporary wrote that, sometimes, he lumbered along so briskly, head up, shoulders forward, he was almost running. It is an endearing image of a glorious interior reality: Thomas was chasing sweet Truth, the Lord whom he loved!
So let us ready ourselves for the Lenten sprint: the extra prayer, the small mortification, the practice to root out a vice and cultivate a virtue — it is all in service of drawing near to Him who ceaselessly draws near to us (James 4:8).
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.