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Though Lent begins with the austerity of Ash Wednesday and the summons to conversion of heart through penance, the sacrifices we undertake during this holy time are not an end in themselves. Our own efforts do not make us holy, nor can we of ourselves bring about the intimacy with the Lord that we crave. The fruit of our spiritual lives arises from the gratuity of God’s merciful love. Our Lenten practices of prayer and penance strip away the false attachments that weigh us down so that we can receive even more the self-offering love of the Trinity. Our Lenten asceticism is not geared toward self-perfection, in which case our Lenten discipline becomes an idol in itself. Rather, the penance we undertake now is intended to open us to welcoming even greater gifts.
In His Fatherly wisdom, God does not ultimately convert us by threats of damnation or by the force of His commands. In the end, the Lord draws us in by the marvel of His beauty. As Lent beckons us to greater silence and stillness, deeper purity of heart, it is then our perception is purified to such a degree as to see God as He really is. The Scriptures that the Church presents to us in these weeks of Lent are not full of intimidation but rather with the exquisite promises that God makes to His children, “In a time of favor I answer you, on the day of salvation I help you.” (Isaiah 49:8) Tenderly, the Lord addresses the deepest longing of our hearts, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. Behold, I have carved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49: 15-16). The Lord draws us to Him by manifesting the beauty of His love for us. It is the attraction in us to God’s beauty that sets us free and gives us the courage to abandon ourselves unconditionally to Him and Him alone. Conversion is always a movement of falling in love, or falling more deeply in love. We ought not spend Lent simply contemplating our faults or wishing we were better. Instead, we are moved to contemplate the goodness, faithfulness, and mercy of God who loves us beyond what we deserve, even beyond what we imagined possible. This explosion of our mental configurations by the confrontation of with God’s utter generosity loosens the bonds of our own expectations and prepares us for new joy by giving us God’s own awareness of what He is really like and who we are in Him.
Once our eyes and hearts have been purified by our acts of interior and exterior renunciation, we can perceive supernatural beauty more easily. Whether we spend time with the Stations of the Cross, the words of Sacred Scripture, or service to the poor, we permit ourselves to come into contact with a persistent mystery of love, seeking communion with us. We are prepared by Lenten grace to perceive the divine glory of God present even at Calvary. We recognize the enormity of love present at the Cross in a pure state of gift, the extremity of loving devotion. Bewildered by this revelation of divine love, we find a spontaneous desire welling up in ourselves—the desire to accept the gift, to receive the one who gives Himself away…for me. Captivated by the mystery, we thirst to enter into the very beauty itself, to be enveloped entirely in it, not simply beholding it from the outside, like admiring a painting in a museum. No, we want to be inhabited by the beauty of this supernatural love, so that we become bearers of this beauty in the world. This is what the Eucharist does to us every time we receive Holy Communion—we become beautiful, with Christ’s own glory.
Lent for sure invites us to resolution in the path of holiness, to sacrifice what constrains us in our growth in virtue, and to move outward toward our neighbor in greater self-giving service, but Lent also asks us to accept the paucity of our own efforts. We truly are useless servants (Luke 17:10). We can neither earn nor accomplish our own sanctity. It is for God to draw near to us and to clothe us in His majesty—and this He does for us with marvelous affection as pure gift. He asks us to surrender, to abandon ourselves unconditionally, to His love poured out for us and carrying us back into Himself. The overwhelming beauty of the Lord ultimately conquers every impulse to defend our own lives or our way of life so that we would consent to be swept up by grace and carried in love. In these late days of Lent, may we look up from all that preoccupies us to behold the Lord’s immeasurable devotion to us. May we seek out the beautiful face of the Savior and permit ourselves to be affected by the beauty of the One who gives Himself to us without reserve and may we contemplate His divine beauty until that same grace springs up in our own hearts to make us partakers of this infinite beauty.
Meditation written by Fr. James Rafferty