February 18th, 2015
Mind and Heart Renewed
The cross traced in ashes on peoples’ foreheads at the beginning of Lent marks the start of a Christian’s preparation for the feast of Easter. Many who try to carry that cross intact throughout Ash Wednesday would seem to be contradicting the words of Jesus, ‘not to parade your good deeds before others’ (Mt. 6); in this case the good deed of practicing their religion in prayer. This mark on the forehead may seem a bit similar to that on Muslims, men in particular, who carry the dark mark on their foreheads from the regular prostrations to the ground in prayer. It is a fine line in religion between witnessing to one’s faith and ‘imitating the hypocrites (who) love to say their prayers … for people to see them’ (Mt 6).
The mother of an Egyptian friend of mine used to start Lent a bit early to ‘get into practice’ for the season! And even more extreme, a religious sister who worked among famine affected people in Ethiopia in the 1980’s told me that some of those they cared for would die rather than break their religious fasting habits. This sort of religious fervour is destructive, but how far do you go especially in religious practices which inevitably incur exaggerated behaviour in some who want to excel, but who confuse doing more for God with outdoing everyone else.
On the more trivial level we hear of people giving up chocolate or biscuits for Lent; not a bad way to introduce children to fasting habits but hardly very serious adult commitments. What we hear less of is – what am I doing positively for someone else this Lent? A problem with looking too far beyond our nearest, and perhaps mundane problems in the neighbourhood, is that the wider issues can seem overwhelming: the abuse of children and women in the hands of traffickers, the deaths of migrants struggling to reach safety across the Mediterranean, the horrendous violence in Syria, now again in Libya and N. Nigeria, and the natural disasters that occur regularly across the globe.
Any way to acting more lovingly and justly, however, starts with a personal commitment which usually comes from direct contact with those who we realise have calls upon our attention: the sick relative who could do with a word of encouragement on the phone, the elderly person who needs a hand with managing the transport system, the Big Issue person who stands for hours in the cold waiting for £2.50 a copy and so on. In looking out for the vulnerable around us, even more important than ‘doing for’ someone is the attitude we have towards others. As I was once told, to look on each person we meet ‘with a loving regard’. If we do nothing else for Lent than this, we will not have done badly. If we continue to do this throughout the year, we will grow into less selfish human beings. At the Hurtado Centre, the way we want to do things is as important as the things done.
All best wishes for Lent this year. The church in the liturgy (Preface of Lent) announces: ”Each year, you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed”.
Br Stephen Power SJ is Director of the Hurtado Jesuit Centre