Last Wednesday we observed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent. It was inspiring to see churches full for the Masses and, as one evening newscast reported, a lot of young people filled the churches.
In my ministry as a priest and educator, I have become more aware of the search of young people for some form of spirituality and the desire to live a meaningful life. The past six years I have been running formation programs mainly but not exclusively for teachers and principals. This has put me more in touch with the longing of people for some form of spiritual formation.
This Lenten season will be a good time for a series of articles that helps us reflect on our spiritual well-being. The second preface for Lent, “The Spirit of Penance,” serves as a good framework for this.
“This great season of grace is your gift to your family to renew us in spirit. You give us strength to purify our hearts, to control our desires and so to serve you in freedom. You teach us how to live in this world with our heart set on the world that will never end.”
Let us map out our journey in the next five weeks of Lent using this preface. For the first week, we will get an overview of the journey and the stages of the process of formation suggested: the goal of renewal of spirit; the two “tasks” to purify and control; the resulting product of service in freedom; and the horizon of life and mission. Then for the succeeding four weeks we will go in-depth into each stage or element.
In 2002, the Ateneo de Manila UAAP Men’s Basketball Team won its first championship after 14 years. It came after close to a five-year reorientation and build-up of the program, punctuated by pain and sacrifice. But after the pain and sacrifice came the victory and the glory. The team came out with a collection of essays and reflections entitled “Memories of a Season of Grace.”
The title denotes the team’s journey, the ups and downs that led to a championship, the realization that at the end of it all, it was grace. The journey led them back to the core of their persons and they became channels of grace to renew the school’s spirit. They looked back and discovered the grace and the spirit that marked the journey, the memories of a season grace.
Lent—“the great season of grace”—brings a certain mood or mindset for penance and prayer, a time for renewal. As the preface reminds us, it is more than just penance, it is a time for a renewal of spirit. Let me go back to this as I close this introduction to what will be a four-part article.
“This great season of grace is your gift to your family to renew us in spirit…” The entire season of Lent is oriented towards renewal. This is the spirit of penance. The penance of Lent is for the renewal of spirit. This is the spirit of our Christian identity and vocation or mission, which is the Paschal Mystery, the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.
Core of Christian spirit
The 40 days Lent culminate in Holy Week where the liturgy of the Great Easter Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday—celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. This is the core of our Christian spirit renewed in this season of grace; the spirit that will give meaning to our life.
“ …You give us strength to purify our hearts, to control our desires…” The purification of the heart and the controlling or, as I prefer to use a more Ignatian term, the reorientation of desires are the formation tasks in the renewal of spirit.
This stage of formation is often the difficult part or, as we say in Filipino “madugo” (the bloody part). Here we go through a lot of self-awareness and self-acceptance, the twin process of attaining spiritual freedom.
As I always say, self-awareness is one aspect and self-acceptance is another. Very often people fall short of self-acceptance, which is the process that leads to healing and reintegration. The healing and reintegration are what leads to a deeper sense of service as one experiences greater freedom.
“…and so to serve you in freedom…” This is the end goal, so to speak, of the renewal of Lent, the process of formation—the purification of the heart and the reorientation of desires—to serve God and others with greater freedom, i.e., with greater magnanimity and greater love. This is the central grace of Lent, that we live lives of greater service and greater love—as great as the love and service of the Cross and Resurrection.
“You teach us how to live in this world with our heart set on the world that will never end.” This is almost like a postscript or an epilogue. This is the final word that our life and work are meant for the Kingdom of God. As St. Paul writes—“Our citizenship is in heaven.” All the fuss and the work are towards a dream and mission larger than life. In the horizon is our citizenship in heaven. We are in the world, but not of the world.
More in the coming weeks.
Let me go back to a final reflection on this great season of grace as a time of renewal of spirit.
God gives us moments of grace to renew the spirit within us, the spirit which is the inspiration of our life and journey. Let me share a moment of grace I recently was blessed with.
Almost a month ago I had a meeting where we presented our formation program for public school teachers, principals and supervisors. It went well, but not without some challenges. At the same time there were so many other concerns my staff from my different offices and projects were texting to me. To put it simply, it was a harrowing morning.
On my way to catch my noon Mass at ABS-CBN, the traffic on Edsa added to my stress. I got off Boni to take the train to Quezon Avenue to make sure I would make it to my Mass. There I was feeling even more harassed and negative.
In the Cubao station, a father and son got off. The father was carrying his son who must be about 3 years old. When they got off he put him down so he could fix his backpack.
The little boy, perhaps feeling overwhelmed by the crowd rushing out of the station, frantically looked around, looked up to his father, and raised both his arms asking to be carried again. He found security in the arms of his father in this crowded, unfamiliar world.
This scene reminded me of the little boy who grew up with me; he had been with me since he was three months old. Very often, when we were together, he would ask me to carry him, motioning the same way the little boy in the Cubao station did to his father.
Such is a moment of grace. It reminds me that my life and work are for the future of young boys and girls. I have dedicated my life to the education and formation of the youth.
The sheer realization of that made me snap out of my negative mood that morning. The moment of grace renewed my spirit of mission and service—a life dedicated, or at least offered, to the education and formation of the youth.
“This great season of grace is your gift to your family to renew us in spirit… ”