Of Dusty Wayfarers, Gloomy Hypocrites and the “Continuous Lent”
“The day is full of joy…the source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.” ~ Thomas Merton
You may find this hard to believe ~ or perhaps you are in fact aware of it and in turn every bit as surprised as I am ~ but precisely two months ago to this very day was December 26th, the day after Christmas (and the Feast of the great Saint Stephen, Protomartyr of our Church, but I digress.). Yet here we are, poised to begin yet another Lenten Journey on this the day our Church celebrates Ash Wednesday. To quote the immortal Groucho Marx, “time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.”
Trust me, it sounds funny when he says it.
In Genesis 2:7, we learn that “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” In his Ash Wednesday Homily delivered on February 28, 2001, Pope John Paul II explained that the traditional rite of distributing ashes reminds us of the transitory nature of earthly life: everything passes and is destined to die. “We are wayfarers in this world,” he said, “wayfarers who must never forget our true and final destination: Heaven. For though we are dust and destined to become dust, nevertheless not all will come to an end. Man, created in the image and likeness of God, is destined for eternal life. In dying on the Cross, Jesus opened the way for every human being.”
By changing our way of thinking to conform to this message of hope from Saint John Paul the Great, by fixing our eyes on Christ crucified and allowing the Gospel to govern our thoughts, words, choices and actions, we become much more that aimless wayfarers, rudderless wanderers of the earth destined for nothingness. We instead have a date with paradise. it is there that we will reside forever.
Today’s Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18) reminds us of who we belong to, who we offer our prayers, fasting and almsgiving to. We are urged to make these offerings with joy, to steer clear of behaving like gloomy hypocrites, a term that is in and of itself redundant. Have you ever met a joyful hypocrite? “When you pray,” Jesus says “go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your father in secret.”
Lent is the “Inner Room” of the liturgical year. We must strive to make prayer a part of our true being, our very breathe even.
On Ash Wednesday, it is worthwhile to ponder Chapter 49 of the “Rule of Saint Benedict.” Although written for Monks, it has significance for all Christians. Here are a few of the highlights and key takeaways. Perhaps you can add one or two of these disciplined practices to your Lenten Repertoire:
“The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:6). In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”
Let today be the day that you give up who you’ve been for who you can become. For “behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” ~ 2 Corinthians 6:2