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Call to the wilderness to heal our ancient wound

Q: Archbishop J, why prayer, fasting and almsgiving?    

As we saw last week, Lent is a ritual space where we are plunged into the inner purpose of the Christian life. We are reminded “we are dust and onto dust we will return”. But there is a second reminder: “Repent and believe the Good news”, which sets the agenda for the whole of Lent. It is the inner reason for the season and a call to the soul of each Catholic. “Repent and believe the Good News.”

In Christianity, we need a very delicate balance between what we do and what God does in us. I cannot make myself a better person far less a saint. That is God’s initiative in the soul; we are called to respond to the divine prompting—to listen and discern.

Lent, a call to the wilderness, is a special time for disposing ourselves to the inner work of grace.


The wilderness

God speaking to the prophet Hosea says: “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her…There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14–15).

The wilderness is a privileged place of intimacy where God will once more speak to the soul: a place of love and restoration. It is not a place of judgement or punishment.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is led into the desert by the Holy Spirit. It is God’s initiative! We are led into the wilderness by God where we are tested. No one likes the wilderness—whether literal or metaphorical—the dry and arid place where humans are tested. But it is there we have the greatest opportunity for conversion of heart, to “repent and believe the Good News”.

If you have been thrown into chaos, if you suffer loss of status or a major challenge, then just maybe the Spirit is leading you into the wilderness. If you are in the wilderness, remember there is a purpose—to be tempted.

John Justus Landsberg, a 16th century Catholic writer, says: “From this episode our first lesson is that human life on earth is a life of warfare, and the first thing Christians must expect is to be tempted by the devil. As Scripture tells us, we have to be prepared for temptation, for it is written: “When you enter God’s service, prepare your soul for an ordeal” (Sirach 2:1).

During Lent and in times when we have been invited into the desert, we become keenly aware of our frailty. We must be even more aware of God’s help.

Says Landsberg: “Mindful of our frailty rather, we must be on the watch, praying not to be put to the test, and keeping ourselves clear of every occasion to temptation” (John Justus Landsberg, Complete Works I, 120; trans. E. Barnecut, p. 30-31).


Spiritual warfare

When Adam was tempted and sinned, he turned paradise into a wilderness. And he did something else, he imprinted on each of us his sin. The tradition calls it triple concupiscence because the sin and its effects are threefold.

Genesis 3:16 says: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”

The ancient wound of Adam still affects us in these three forms. The first letter of St John names it this way: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn 2:15–17).

During Lent, we focus on the three spiritual practices: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In the desert, doing spiritual warfare, we seek the remedy to undo the ancient wound. Prayer is the medication for pride, fasting the medication for lust of the flesh, and almsgiving the medication for lust of the eyes.


Spiritual practice

It is vital that we engage the three practices together. Let us remember, it is not magic: it is a sacred quest for union with God. In this union, true freedom and happiness reside.

Prayer: Is your prayer rote action or about raising your mind and heart to God? Is it a true desire to encounter the living God and to be open, vulnerable, and naked before God?

The first focus is not on the amount, but rather on quality. Prayer as medication for pride has one simple objective—to bend our will to God’s will. Saints have been made on the Rosary, the reading of Scripture and deep contemplation. A heart open wide to the Divine allows for profound interior transformation.

If you already have a great rhythm of prayer, then focus on the interior disposition. If you do not yet have that rhythm prayer, how about beginning the day with gratitude to God and spending a few moments in silence with God in Christian Meditation.

The day could end with the Examen, that ancient prayer where we review our consciousness of God’s movement in our heart. Scripture and the Rosary are also great ways to achieve union with the Father.

Fasting: We discipline our body to subdue the flesh, not through our strength, but through God’s grace. Our fasting needs to be internal and external. We can do without food for a day or give up something for the whole of Lent.

Fridays are usual fast days. At least, give up meat, or a meal, or food till evening. The focus is not on the giving up, but rather on the inner movements of the heart. Be aware of the movements of the heart, of the negative emotions, of the lingering resentments and appetites that distract us from God and one another.

Our fast disposes us to God by curbing our desires for material things; ultimately, allowing God to bend our will to His.

Almsgiving: Almsgiving covers a multitude of sins. As we learn to give away what we have, we learn to enter into solidarity with all people. Give till it hurts. Be generous this Lent with the poor and those who are in need.

If there are people in your family or circle who have lost their job and income, during this Lent give them a gift that is meaningful.

Give to a poor person or charity. Give extra to charity and organisations that support the poor. Give more in collection during Mass. Almsgiving is prayer because it gives to God. It is fasting because you do without.

Generosity is always a hallmark of spiritual movement. The more God graces us, the more generous we are. The more generous we are, the more God graces us. Gather your family together and agree on what you will give to the poor in this season. Bring the children and grandchildren into the conversation. Let them sacrifice also, out of their pocket money.

We cannot outdo God in generosity.

When done together, these spiritual exercises dispose us to deep interior conversion and ultimately to union with God.


Key Message:

Lent is a time of being plunged into the wilderness where we do spiritual practice to seek the healing for the ancient wound.

Action Step:

Look at your spiritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving and deepen your commitment this Lent.

Scripture Reading:

Tobit 12:8–9