“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” I once relayed to my classes on Ash Wednesday. Not surprisingly, my students met my remark with questions, less-than enthusiastic responses, and the insistence that it was certainly not the most wonderful time of the year.
Like my students, many may not eagerly welcome the Lenten season, for this penitential time serves as a sober reminder that God continually calls us to conversion: to turn our hearts to him. Hence, I find it rather fitting when Ash Wednesday falls on St. Valentine’s Day — a day commemorating fidelity and spousal love — as during Lent, the Church recalls the spousal love God has for us through her meditations on the passion and death of Christ. She exhorts each person to respond to God’s love by more intentionally conforming our hearts to him through our Lenten observances.
Scripture describes God’s love for his people as spousal. The Song of Songs and the prophets Isaiah and Hosea particularly provide this imagery, detailing God’s steadfast pursuit of man’s undivided heart. They speak of how God draws his people into a relationship with him, renewing his covenant with Israel throughout the ages, and how he provides and fights for them. Even though God’s chosen people — as do we — often return God’s steadfastness with ingratitude and unfaithfulness by their idolatry, throughout salvation history God continually calls them — and each one of us — back to himself.
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At the Last Supper, Christ spoke of the nuptial love he has for us. In the days that followed, he exemplified what genuine love entails: abiding in the other and laying down one’s life for the other. In these final hours before his death, Christ prayed that the Father’s love may be in us (cf. Jn 17:26), and that we may be one with him, as he and the Father are one (cf. Jn 17:21). And over the next two days, Christ illustrated perfect love: He exchanged his innocent life for ours, taking on our sins, partaking in our pain, and offering all to the Father so that we may be sanctified, glorified and one with him.
Conversion: A matter of the heart
Responding to God’s love and abiding in God requires we completely give and fix our hearts solely on him. Yet, due to the fall, our disordered affections and appetites present challenges in this endeavor. As Pope Benedict XVI reflects, “at the heart of all temptations … is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.” Though this false ideology often beguiles us, God is not deterred by our fickleness. He faithfully extends his grace, inviting us to cast aside our self-made idols and reorientate our hearts, which the Prophet Joel recounts: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning” (Jl 2:12).
God’s call to repentance requires an urgent response, for the more we distract ourselves from him, the more our yearning for God diminishes and the longer it takes to uproot our disordered loves. St. Paul preaches that remedying tepid hearts consists in daily “[putting] away the old self” (Eph 4:22) and dying and rising so that “we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). This is conversion’s essence: turning from all which detracts from God, so we may turn to, and live in and for him.
When we heed God’s call and return to him with our “whole heart,” Pope Benedict XVI remarks we do so “from the very core of our thoughts and feelings, from the root of our decisions, choices and actions, with a gesture of total and radical freedom.” Hence, accepting conversion’s call demands examining our lives, actions, intentions and thoughts to discover the hidden areas of our hearts, over which God does not have complete reign. Once identifying and confronting our misdirected desires and sinfulness, we can, by God’s grace, be renewed and purified.
Reorienting the heart
For the Desert Fathers — ancient Christian monks who lived in the desert — the call to continual conversion and remedying wandering hearts consists in seeking purity of heart. By fleeing the world to face themselves in the desert, the monks orientated their whole lives to obtaining a pure heart. They consciously lived each day observing their thoughts and guarding their hearts’ desires to pursue God alone.
St. John Cassian, one of the monks, provides much insight on the heart’s role in conversion. In his “Conferences on the Desert Fathers,” Cassian records that purity of heart entails keeping our hearts free from disturbances, and being at rest — peace with God. Similar to our experience, the monk can occupy his mind and heart with desires other than God: food, reputation, anticipation for a good crop, or an unhealthy sense of pride in one’s accomplishments. These earthly concerns disrupt the soul’s peace and meditation, leading the seasoned monks to warn: “whatever then can disturb that purity and peace of mind — even though it may seem useful and valuable — should be shunned as really hurtful.”
Preserving purity of heart necessitates vigilance in minding our thoughts, for thoughts become desires. The Desert Fathers recommend we guard our minds and hearts by “always stay[ing] shut up in our cell” — by speaking to God in the recesses of our souls and keeping him in mind. For Abba Moses — a desert monk — reading and meditating upon Scripture, praying the Psalms, fasting and contemplation allow “holy and spiritual thoughts” to grow in our hearts. By directing our attention to God throughout the day, we reorder our desires and repose our hearts in Christ.
Keeping our hearts fixed on Christ
During Lent, the Church echoes Christ’s summons to return to him with our whole heart and prompts us to repent by recalling Christ’s passion and death. The Church provides the means to do so by inviting us to incorporate the three pillars of prayer, fasting and almsgiving into our Lenten observances. By integrating these practices into our lives solely out of love for God, we relinquish the desires that captivate and trouble our hearts, allow God to transform us and begin to abide in God. And when finding, as we so often do, “our gaze has wandered ever so little from him,” we can follow the advice of the Desert Fathers: “let us turn the eyes of the soul back to Him” and begin again.