It was important to get a really good daub of the ashes on Ash Wednesday so that your cross would outdo those of your classmates.
What a badge of honour, even if it faded somewhat before school ended!
It was only later that you began to hear the words and understand that the little cross on your forehead signalled: a call to take a good look at your life and turn again to follow the Lord: with renewed energy.
Even as we are signed with the ashes on the first day we are being urged to turn away from our sins and come back home. Don’t delay, don’t hesitate, now is the time to “Come back to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12).
What is being asked of you this Lent? Is there something in your life that you need to deal with because you know it is holding you back from wholeheartedly following Jesus? An injury you can’t forgive, a jealously that is corroding you, an anger that consumes you?
Take time this Lent, even five or ten minutes a day, to sit quietly and look at your life. Ask the Holy Spirit to help and guide you. The more open and responsive we are to his movements the quicker our heart is renewed. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead” (Ezek 36:26).
The penances we undertake express our desire for this new heart. God works with and on us in this conversion process, shaping us like the potter forms her clay. How do we compare to those who indeed fasted and prayed but incurred the judgement of God because they neglected that which was far more important – justice? (Is 58) True conversion awakens in us a concern for the plight of others, a determination to fight the causes of injustice, even a great cost to ourselves. “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:12). No one pussyfoots their way into heaven.
A master was instructing: his disciples. They should strive, he said, to be free of strong attachments to the events of daily life, to live reverently and to meditate every day. In this way they would come to realize God’s presence pervading all. “The whole process,” he said, “is like filling a sieve with water.”
When he had gone, the group spoke among themselves. What did he mean, filling a sieve with water? Some thought he meant until they could only find temporary fulfilment. Others wondered if he was alluding to some sacred text. Or was he simply making a fool of them all. One man fumed “He’s saying we’ll never be able to do it. Filling a sieve with water, I ask you! This is what happens now, to me at any rate. I pray, I help someone; I visit the sick, I give money to the poor, and really I feel good about myself. Maybe I am becoming a little less impatient, I think, a little bit kinder. Then, after a few weeks, bang! I’m back to square one, as bad as I ever was. He’s right, it’s like filling a sieve with water.”
But one woman in the group was determined to find out what he really meant. She sought him out and asked him to explain. He gave her a sieve and a cup and took her to the nearby seashore. They stood on a rock with the waves breaking around them.
“Show me how you fill the sieve with water,” the master said. She bent down and, holding the sieve in one hand, scooped water from the sea with the cup and poured it into it. In a moment the water was gone.
“It’s just like that with spiritual practice,” the master said, “as long as one stands on the rock of I-ness and tries to ladle the divine life into it. This is not the way to fill the sieve with water or life with the divine.”
“Then how do you do it?” the woman asked.
“It is not by ladling little cup fulls of water that you fill the sieve, he said. He took it from her and threw it far out into the sea where it floated momentarily and then sank.
“Now it is full of water,” he said, “and will remain so. In the same way, to fill your heart with the divine you must throw yourself into the ocean of God’s love.”
Columban Sr Redempta Twomey is the Congretational Archivist for the Columban Sisters in Ireland.