The final part of Sister Margaret’s reflection on the way of penance, Franciscan style. Thank you again, Sister! The last sentence is enough to ponder on throughout Lent.
We, as Franciscans, have been invited to join the way of penance. At times we will fail, for it is not always easy to turn away from ourselves, or to turn away from the values of the world which are, for the most part, so different from the values of God. When we do fail it is then, more than ever, that we need to turn to God and tell him we are sorry and carry on in our journey of penance – our journey of love, our soul’s journey into God.
I don’t suppose we will be receiving ashes this year to start Lent, too much physical contact there! Lent will feel different, in fact we might feel we’ve had a year of Lent, not just 40 days, so why bother with Ash Wednesday, why bother with Lent at all?
Well, as one of the commands accompanying the ashes puts it: Repent and believe the Gospel. We are urged to repent, to turn our lives around. They’ve been pretty well turned around for us these past months, and many of us need no reminding that we are dust, and unto dust we shall return.
We know we are turning to dust, if only because we can spot the difference between today’s photo and one from 20 years ago; or we experience the slowing down, the failing strength, the memory full of holes, the comb full of hair. Honesty reminds us that there are habits we need to turn from, actions we need to turn to for the sake of our sanity and integrity.
And we just cannot do it. The prophet Joel (2. 12-18) may challenge us, ‘Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning’; it’s the ‘with all your heart’ that’s the sticking point. That sticking point is known as Sin.
Joel, after running through various ways that the people could turn to God, says that ‘the Lord, jealous on behalf of his land, took pity on his people’. God had issued the call for change, but it was his taking pity on his people that restored their relationship, not their fasting and lamentation. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that we are doing OK, if not actually doing well. But compromises, compromises, compromises: they tarnish our mirrors, deceive our eyes.
Jesus really did live a good life. Let’s use this Lent to follow him more nearly. And enjoy tonight’s pancakes!
On the eve of his death, Jesus knelt to wash the feet of his disciples. He knew the difficulty of living together and the importance of forgiveness and mutual service. “Unless I wash you,” he said to Peter, “you have no share with me.” Peter received Jesus at his feet; he was washed and was touched by the humility and gentleness of Christ. Later he would follow Jesus’ example and serve the fellowship of the faithful in the early church. Jesus wishes that life and love circulate through us as the sap through the vine, so that Christian communities be one body. But today as in the past, it is not easy to live together. We are often faced with our own limitations. At times we fail to love those who are close to us in a community, parish or family. There are times when our relationships break down completely. In Christ we are invited to be clothed in compassion, through countless new beginnings. The recognition that we are loved by God moves us to welcome each other with our strengths and weaknesses. It is then that Christ is in our midst.
“With almost nothing, are you a creator of reconciliation in that communion of love, which is the Body of Christ, his Church? Sustained by a shared momentum, rejoice! You are no longer alone, in all things you are advancing together with your brothers and sisters. With them, you are called to live the parable of community.” [The Sources of Taizé (2000) pp. 48-49]
The second half of life usually consists of what we have denied in the first half – our shadow; which is not some form of addiction, but failure. We can’t entertain the powerlessness of loneliness, impoverishment, boredom and generally not being in charge. We settle for a kind of pleasure that lacks joy, and even involves denial of joy. We can’t imagine being happy without money, without many options. We have replaced freedom of spirit with freedom of choice.
Why did Francis move into a life of non-power, non-aggression and sine proprio? He was so close to the bottom of life that he could not fall very far, but he was free. He knew that God doesn’t look at our faults and failings, but at the many ways we have been determined to try and say yes [which is what parents hope for seeing their children]. Once experiencing being fully alive we will never fear death, because we will know that we have not just lived but have come alive, and that such life is eternal and another form of it is waiting for us. Which is what Paul urges: reproducing the power of his Resurrection – Phil.3.10.
If I have not lived fully, death will terrify me, not knowing that this is not the end. Working in Zambia showed me a village people who lived – by our standards – with next to nothing. The children played, parents scratched a living from hard ground; but they had something we lack. An attitude with no room for cynicism. When they came together their singing was spontaneous – no hymn sheets; and they smile, with nothing to smile about. Like loving, smiling enjoys its own justification, is not dependent on having a reason to smile.
What do we think about when all else is gone? What did those victims who had no access to computers and phones on the aircraft speak about before the aircraft hit the twin towers? The language we heard was love, nothing else mattered. Life’s only purpose is to live lovingly by choice, and die in the same way. How can this become life’s norm? Be careful of a too ready recourse to detachment. Those victims were far from detached from what mattered. Life’s purpose is not to become detached but attached. For this to be real, other things have to be gently set aside.