Saint John Cassian wrote: “Only they can contemplate Christ’s Divinity, with a very pure gaze, who rise up from earthly works, thoughts and passions.” As is said at Mass:
V/: Lift up your hearts.
R/: We lift them up to the Lord.
Our hearts are designed to be living altars from which we exercise our royal priesthood by offering sacrifice and praise to God. Lent not only calls us to these sacrifices and praises, but also to make it a personal mandate. Overcoming the obstacles which keep us from daily prayer, sets us on a long but fruitful journey through which vigilance and remaining spiritually awake could make our very lives a liturgy.
It begins by taking steps that remind us to pray when life’s busy-ness averts our focus away from God. In the monastery, the bell rings, calling the monks to pray the Divine Office. In the Carthusian tradition is the following: “As soon as the bell is heard for the Divine Office, we hasten promptly, because the bell’s voice is like the Voice of God that calls to prayer.” Similar steps can be taken by the laity. For example, there are those who set the alarm on their wristwatch for 3 p.m. or 1500 h. Our Lord taught us through Saint Faustina that this is the hour of mercy. By following that strategy, when the alarm goes off, one could perhaps pray the Divine Mercy chaplet, or if busy, simply take a moment to acknowledge the presence of God in one’s life.
Taking necessary steps sets our hearts in motion towards the divine, towards the goal of keeping our eyes fixed “on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). In the traditional liturgy for Ash Wednesday, our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us through Saint Matthew’s Gospel the following: “Ubi enim est thesaurus tuus, ibi est cor tuum – For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also”(Matthew 6:21). Hopefully we all have our treasure and hearts set on celestial realms.
The serious pursuit of intimacy with the Most Holy Trinity will meet with difficulties because of our human weaknesses. “Lord, if it is You, tell me to come to You across the water” (Matthew 14:28). These are the familiar words of Saint Peter, but words that clearly delineate how our own shortcomings make the journey tedious. Peter could have successfully walked across the ocean and embrace Jesus, but he let the storm take his focus off of his Master.
While Lent calls us to “intense prayer” (Saint John Paul II), the Church is very aware of how the sojourn down the straight and narrow path can meet with setbacks. In her liturgies during Lent we see and hear words like, “Between the porch and the altar, the priests, the Lord’s ministers shall weep and shall say: ‘Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people; and close not the mouths that sing to Thee, O Lord.’”
Once again in the traditional liturgy for Ash Wednesday is this prayer:
“Grant us, Lord, the grace to begin the Christian’s war of defense with holy fasts:
that as we do battle with the spirits of evil, we may be protected by the help of self-denial.”
And, when we fail in areas of self-denial and fasting, other words like: “Look upon us, O Lord, according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies” are in the liturgy to assist us. In Lent it is not our garments we rent but our hearts, that living altar.
Sacred Scripture and the Divine Office are great ways to hear the Voice of God. Saint Bernard said: “Because they are blessed who keep God’s Word, you keep it, so it will come down to the bottom of your soul.”
Sometimes God also calls us into the desert, that is, a place to be alone with God. Jesus said: “When you shall pray, enter into your chamber, and having shut the door, pray to your Father in secret, and your Father Who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:6). In solitude, God speaks to the heart. It is then that our hearts truly become a living altar, from which our prayers ascend to Him.
Theodore the Studite, a Byzantine monk said: “A monk is one who gazes at God alone, who ardently desires only God, who has consecrated himself to God and tries hard to give Him an undivided worship; he is in peace with God and becomes a source of peace for others.” There is a monk within each of us. The soul’s desire for God might be rejected by the flesh, but the soul’s longing to have intimacy with God doesn’t disappear. During this penitential season, may we all discover our own inner-monk.
Best wishes on your journey!