The days are cooling a little as Autumn swings in and our summer selves are packed away till early December. It is time to pause and ponder and to take spiritual stock. This is especially the case as we have embarked on the liturgical season of Lent and its time of prayer, donating and fasting. As all Victorians well know, we could not physically gather for the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday, but were able to do so via social media and other platforms. Many of the prayers and reflections spoke of Jesus and his fateful journey. Our memorial accompaniment of this journey over the next forty days reminds us of his sacrifice and also our communal intention and sense of belonging. During Lent we have the time to think about who we are as Christians and to reflect on our sins, misdeeds or omissions; the things that make us spiritually sooty. Lent is a season of preparing for the high season in the Church’s year – the season and the reason we are Christians. We prepare for the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
During March we celebrate the feast days of Saints Joseph and Patrick, our fathers in faith. We look to Saint Joseph especially in this year of Patris Corde. Much has been written of his eloquent silence in the gospels. What we see is a man whose actions speak profoundly of his love for his small holy family and his love of God. We can imagine the blessed child playing in sawdust with small wooden offcuts from his earthly father’s carpentry bench. We also look to Joseph as the patron saint of workers and that special dignity conferred on all who work – in whatever sphere.
Many of us are now back to the working rhythm of the year. We have also managed to get through the five-day lockdown circuit-breaker. At work, there are some times we go through the motions, but there are also those times we know we are in exactly the right job for our talents and temperament. As we enjoy the fruits of our labour, let us also be mindful of those who cannot find work or who have lost jobs because of the pandemic. It is here we must also remember the dignity of each person which remains absolute despite the external circumstances thrust upon them.
Here in Melbourne, we owe a great debt to the many Irish sisters and brothers of different religious congregations who came out to the colony of Victoria to educate Catholic children and founded our schools. Many of them never saw their homeland again. The most memorable piece of theology for me as a child was the way the gentle FCJ Sisters explained three-persons-in-one-God through the symbol of the shamrock. I see a white-bearded St. Patrick with a shillelagh in his hand walking through the Emerald Isle evangelising and exhorting all and sundry pagans to hear and follow the Good News. And when I hear the greeting “Top of the morning to you” I know that there is a blessing in the blarney.
We celebrate International Women’s Day and all the good women in our lives and the example they set for us. We look to the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who loved her son till his death on the cross and beyond. Hers was a quiet strength of endurance and courage. We are reminded that Jesus’ treated women with a remarkable dignity and understanding and this is shown in many of his interactions, particularly those narrated in Luke’s gospel. His inclusiveness and encouragement of women as equal in faith stood out against the patriarchal attitudes of his time.
John Paul II referred to the notion of feminine genius in his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatum and continued this theme in his 1995 Letter to Women where he thanked every woman in the world who helps to make human relations more honest and authentic. He acknowledged the spiritual impoverishment and cultural conditioning that has meant that for centuries the world has been deprived of rich and affective feminine gifts. He spoke of the injustice of denying women the rights of human dignity and participation. John Paul II acknowledged the traits of receptivity, sensitivity, generosity and, of course, maternity which build the culture of life and the civilization of love. Pope Francis, too, has spoken of the importance of a theology of women and the profound spiritual and personal gifts with which women can grace and empower the Church. Over the last few years we have witnessed a powerful paradigm shift in the way women expect to be treated and the obligation of both men and women to be respectful of each other. Phrases such as toxic masculinity and thin-lipped feminism are not helpful, when our complementarity should be making the world a better place for all.
Our sojourn though this Lenten season will enable us to do some soul-searching and to take a good hard look at who we are and what we can do to improve. People often speak of their lives as a work-in-progress. This is the same for the spiritual life. It is in a constant state of renovation, of rebuilding, sprucing up, securing the foundations, opening the skylight of the soul to let the truth fly in. Our spiritual self should be in a state of forward movement, not in a static unthinking immoveable place which becomes fixed and narrow. Every day we should be reaching out, moving forward, stumbling occasionally, trying and trying again, as we move towards a selflessness and service that prioritises God and good.
In the long ago days of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, we fasted. Many of us remember giving up lollies and putting coins into the Project Compassion box. I remember my friends and I competing to “give- up” something, whether that was a treat from the tuckshop such as a neenish tart or deciding not to watch “Gilligan’s Island” and actually do our homework. Perhaps there was even a bit of one-upmanship in these denials and being able to compare and contrast on the asphalt at playtime. We didn’t mind being mini-martyrs as we knew that after Mass on Easter Sunday there would be the thrill of the Easter Egg hunt. My father would hide small Red Tulip eggs all around the garden. Let outside, we would squeal and scuffle as we spotted coloured foil glinting and gleaming in odd spots and obvious places, in the boughs of trees or under pot plants or in the peg-basket on the clothesline.
Fasting seems to be out of fashion these days, except for dieting, but it has both spiritual and health properties and is a reminder of the something small we can all do as we journey through this Lenten season together.
In the words of Pope Francis:
- Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
- Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
- Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
- Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
- Fast from worries and have trust in God.
- Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
- Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
- Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.
- Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
- Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
- Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
By Ann Rennie