After 35 days of lent, the Catholic Church of Divine Mercy, Lekki started its lenten retreat on the Monday of Holy Week. I had been eager for the retreat because my lent was not going as I had wanted it. On Ash Wednesday I had committed to so many things; only to find myself being tempted like Jesus was in the wilderness and succumbing in ways I would otherwise not have wanted, making me wonder whether I did not have the grace of God.
As if echoing my thoughts, day 1 of the retreat was focused on examining our conscience. The priest stressed that he was not going to preach to us since we could take a horse to the stream but could not force it to drink. He gave the example of a man who had been so eager to have ash on his forehead on Ash Wednesday and had done all things possible to go to mass on that day. Weeks later, he had met the same man and was shocked to find out that he had not been going to stations of the cross and participating in the lenten activities in spite of entreaties from the reverend sisters. When the priest further encouraged him to attend stations of the cross that evening, the man replied that he had been waiting to watch a football match for so long and his team was playing that night so he would not be attending.
He asked us to examine our conscience on the reason we were going through lent and attending the retreat and whether it was in search of miracles. He reminded us that the greatest miracle one could ever receive is that of deliverance from sin. He urged us to avoid the pitfalls of lent since when what we desire becomes unavailable, the unavailable often becomes desirable.
Day 1 ended with him guiding us to meditate upon Matthew 21 and identifying that thing which needs to be changed in us; that thing making us far from God; that thing that person has been complaining about us. I left the retreat feeling a bit strange as if I had not really gained anything. After all, I examine my conscience every night and read the bible everyday. What exactly was this priest saying? Little did I appreciate that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways and this subtle nudge would be all that was needed to bring me closer to experiencing a deeper lent.
I returned the next day after reflecting on Matthew 21 and that thing which I thought needed to be changed within me. I recalled that he had said that a tragedy is meant for us to appreciate the blessings of easter so I had examined my conscience and my lenten journey so far and had resolved to do better. He started day 2 by asking us whether we were journeying with Jesus by carrying our crosses with him or whether we were carrying nails to nail him to the cross; whether we were hailing him like those on Palm Sunday or whether we were nailing him on Good Friday. He then identified 8 tragic traits of lent of which we needed to be aware:
- NOT OBSERVING LENT/ SINNING:
I thought this was quite obvious and I felt my attention waning when he mentioned this. Ofcourse we should be aware of not observing lent or of sinning this lent. However, he went further by asking us whether we had done anything special during this lenten season. It did not suffice to avoid sin because we are called to do that all year round. It did not suffice to go to church because we are also called to do that all year round. He was asking us whether we had gone the extra mile this lent and indeed whether we could go further in this last stretch of lent called Holy Week.
2. STARVATION FROM SIN:
Initially I thought that this could not be a tragedy because we were called to resist sin and mortify the flesh by starving it from its normal desires especially during lent. However, he mentioned that the focus should be on growth and not death since we are to OUTGROW the sin. He stressed the difference between patience and endurance was that we were not to endure lent otherwise we would risk reverting to those habits which we had sought to overcome.
It reminded me of a crash diet I would sometimes do to fit into an outfit, only to find myself back even fatter after the event had passed and I had engaged in binge galore. I would find myself regretting ever going on the crash diet.
He warned us against being like the Pharisees in our attitude towards lent saying that some would conclude that there was nothing special about lent since he or she had been doing fine throughout the year. He gave the example of those who would come to confession and mention a sin but in the same breath explain why the sin had been committed. He stated that the mere mention of the word “because” negated the confession because it meant that one was not owning up to the sin and thus, not making a true confession. It made me wonder whether I had been doing that at the confessional and if I had, I would needto go to confession once more to wipe my robes clean.
I recall being told that procrastination is a sin which has demons attached to it. It is one of the most powerful of the evil spirits because it delays Christians from achieving their God-given destiny. How so true! He referred us to 1Peter 5:8-9 which says “You also be patient and do not lose heart because the Lord’s coming is near… the judge is already at the door”
This reminder of the coming of God is to prompt us to awake and to be alert. The priest reminded us of the foolish rich man in Luke 12:20 who had amassed wealth in his barns unaware that he would die that night. He also gave the example of those who would wait till Holy Week to focus on lent and warned us not to push forward the day of repentance. I was joking with someone in church about going to confession and wanting to leave it as close to Good Friday as possible considering how my lent was going. Well, after this, it dawned on me that I was just as foolish as the rich man in the parable.
5. SIN OF OMISSION / INSENSITIVITY:
The priest pointed out that this tragic trait is often overlooked but stops us from having a meaningful lent. He referred us to Luke 16:19-21 and the fate of the rich man who had not actively sinned but had failed to consider Lazarus, and as a result of this sin of omission, had ended up in hell. This insensitivity is one to which I must be alert, especially in Lagos which has the power to dull my compassion and sensitivities.
6. OBSTACLES FOR OTHERS TO REPENT:
The priest distinguished this tragic trait from insensitivities by it being an action and not an omission. He pointed out that some people during lent would actively place obstacles in the way of others, thus preventing them from changing their ways. He referred us to those who sought to stone Mary of Magdalene in John 8:1-11, those prevented Zaccheus from seeing Jesus in Luke 19; those stopping the children from seeing Jesus in Mark 10:14 and the elder brother of the prodigal son in Luke 15.
I felt the atmosphere shift when the priest referred to the tragedy of unforgiveness. He stressed that several Christians would not have a good lent in preparation for Easter because of their inability to forgive and let go of their bitterness during this lent. He stressed that there must be genuine forgiveness and no room for bitterness because as Mother Theresa said, it was never about you and the other person anyway – it was about you and God.
This grace to deal with God in the other person is one I constantly seek from God, especially when the priest mentioned that most of those whom you need to forgive or not be bitter towards don’t want your forgiveness and could not care less about your bitterness towards them – in fact some relish it! We must truly avoid this tragic trait during this lent.
8. SAINT TO SINNER:
This trait is one that must be avoided at all cost – when you find yourself going back to the all the sins of which you have repented after lent is over. I can almost visualize the devil’s cohorts luring around eagerly waiting to lure me to the sins over which I have sought to triumph and repented. It would be a great tragedy indeed and my prayer is that we never fall into this tragic state. Perchance if we do, may we be reminded not to fall deeper into the sin of Judas and despair because God’s mercy and grace is always available for us.
Day 2 ended with the priest enjoining us to ponder upon these tragic traits and resolve to remove them from our lives. He mentioned that when we are aware of them and duly purged, we may experience the blessings of lent which would be the subject of day 3 of the retreat.
May we truly remind ourselves of these tragic traits and journey with Jesus not carrying nails to nail him to the cross, but carrying our crosses in unison with him, thus being his true disciples during this lent and beyond. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
BLESSINGS OF LENT
The priest started by explaining that the word “blessings” has been often misunderstood by Christians to mean miracles and in the native context, to mean magic. He referred to hymns that Christians would sing prompting God to answer their prayers today or to the fervent prayers of some which would echo the words of “God, you must do this today for me.” He warned that for some of us, it was not always about the will of God.
There is indeed a thin line between being persistent in prayer and echoing the words of Jacob when he was struggling with the angel at Peniel in Genesis 32:26 and using God as a rubber stamp. If we keep in mind, the awesomeness of God, perhaps we will be less forceful in our pursuit of blessings and in the “God of now” approach. As he mentioned this tendency of Christians, I had to ask myself whether I was guilty of saying the “hear and now” prayers or whether I was more submissive to the Will of God. A sister once said that those who did not press in to God often use this submission approach as an excuse of being a lazy Christian; that we are called to be watchmen. This lazy approach is one thing which I have also been guilty of when I get weary of praying and I need to fuel myself at times by invoking the Holy Spirit for fortitude and perseverance.
After he pointed out the misunderstanding surrounding the use of the word “blessing”, he stated that God’s original plan was not for man to suffer. He pointed out that Noah received his blessings from listening to the voice of God unlike those whom Noah warned about the impending floods who decided to be carefree and careless. I am familiar with the reference to God’s original plan and that man was not meant to suffer but I have found out especially during this lent, that in order to receive blessings from God, we must first submit to His will and that in some instances, His will is not all rosy for us and that suffering may entail. It is in these instances that I cling to the age old Catholic doctrine of “offering it up” for the love of God in sacrificial giving.
He pointed out that when we pray and it seems that we do not receive any answer, that it is not the time to become frustrated or angry but to reflect on why the prayer is not being answered. This introspective approach can be grueling and I recall being thrust into understanding the words in James 4:2-4 that “you pray with the wrong motive.” The priest asked us whether we were ready to persevere to claim Abraham’s blessings and reminded us that the ability to get up when we fall is grace and the blessings of lent.
The priest also pointed out that blessings can be enlightenment and revelation. In this era, where people focus on blessings to be material, perhaps this is not widely accepted as people would rather focus on the material wealth of King Solomon and ignore that he was blessed with unrivaled wisdom. When we go deeper into God’s word, we realize that wisdom is God Himself and so what other blessing could be greater than the enlightenment and revelation that was bestowed upon King Solomon?
The priest ended by advising us to learn to simply trust God instead of trying to understand Him. It often marvels me when I interact with some people including Christians and they try to understand why God did one thing or another. I always tell them the mantra that God knows best but this can also be a hard truth to swallow. I take solace in the words in Isaiah 55:8 that God’s “thoughts are not our thoughts” and His ways are not our ways and continue on my journey in trusting in Him.
As we draw closer to the end of Lent, may we tap into the blessings which God has already reserved for us, as we learn to trust in the Lord and walk in His ways in Jesus name. Amen