"Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning" began today's scripture reading from Joel 2:12. Last year at this time, my return to God was dramatic and profound. This year, I find myself going, "Oh, not that again!" The truth is that none of us, many saints included, have been able to turn to God with their whole heart in any given moment of time.
To love God with all our heart, soul and mind is a goal that should direct all our actions, but while our minds are distracted by putting other things first, we cannot offer God the sacrifice of our entire selves. So, that's why we have lent. It's to deny ourselves to purify out hearts so that we remember to love God before our many silly other loves, whether they be chocolate, wii or reality television.
I must confess I really don't like lent. It seems a long, dreary season that tends to pull on my emotions in "heavy" ways. I feel compelled to push myself further in sacrifice to remind myself that God is more important than anything else I could dream of giving up. It's not fun. And midway through, I want it to be over. I'm not a naturally very disciplined person and I get annoyed fairly easily when things aren't going my own way.
As I was writing in my previous blog, at this time last year, I made my first confession, by appointment. At the end of my twenty-five minute "ordeal," the priest gave me a little booklet. For my penance, he told me to go to the adoration chapel and read only one page. The booklet is called, "Seven Last Words," and it was written in 1958. As I left the confessional, I really felt light, like I was floating. I was having the oddest experience. For some reason, my psyche was just feeling so cleaned out, I felt close to God in a way I never had before. So, when I got to the adoration chapel, I was already weeping tears of joy when I opened the little booklet and started to read, "the First Word." The first word is, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34) (Catholics call the seven last sentences of Jesus the seven last words. I still do not really know why.)
I also still do not know why he wanted me to read that page in particular. It didn't matter though. I read the whole book, slowly, meditatively. I had just finished renouncing a life of sin while in confession, and so to read those words started to bond me back to God, like I was re-gluing something broken. And, I read that little book every day for forty days. Some days, I read it several times a day. Every day, I would wake up and want to read that book. Every day before mass, I would sit and read the book. I would take it to the adoration chapel with me. The little booklet became soothing and comforting and it reminded me of the freedom and joy I had experienced after my first confession. I'm free because he loves me. How amazing. Who wouldn't want to read that over and over?
I quit reading the book on Easter of last year, when I was confirmed. And now, I still have that little book and I'm looking forward to reading it again. Just holding the booklet brings back that sweetness. That little book is Jesus. It's the essence of Jesus, the soul of Jesus, in each of those seven last "words."
I would never have appreciated the seven last words of Jesus if they were given to me under any other circumstances. But, because they were there to comfort and reassure me during such a vulnerable time, they became precious beyond measure. And, that's what Jesus would want. For me, those were the seven "first words" of my new life.
Yes, I want to love God more and more. That involves carefully looking at what is standing in the way between me and God and clearing it out. Lent is the gift God gives us to help us grow closer to Jesus. I pray that I will grow more receptive to that gift and see that gift as more important than any other thing I could possibly give up.