Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lent: Learning To Die Daily

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the holiest, most solemn time in the liturgical year of the Church. This is a time when we should all be going on a spiritual and mental retreat from our worldly pursuits as much as possible as we mirror our Lord who, after being baptized by John the Baptist and before officially beginning His ministry, went into the desert for 40 days of prayer and fasting.
Did our Lord really need to spiritually fortify Himself against the snares and temptations of the devil as we mortal beings do? Hardly. Although Jesus could feel the same temptations we endure - He experienced the same pain and sorrow and pulls of the flesh - He was not capable of sinning. Everything He did in His Life was done as an example for us, His followers, marking the path we should follow. By going into the desert, Our Lord showed us that we must separate ourselves from the world as much as possible and draw close to God. To this end, the Church set apart 40 days prior to the Holiest Day of the Year - Good Friday - to get into the practice of saying no to our wants and desires. Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen explained it very well. From A Christian Pilgrim:
Lenten practices of giving up pleasures are good reminders that the purpose of life is not pleasure. The purpose of life is to attain to perfect life, all truth and undying ecstatic love – which is the definition of God. In pursuing that goal we find happiness. Pleasure is not the purpose of anything; pleasure is a by-product resulting from doing something that is good. One of the best ways to get happiness and pleasure out of life is to ask ourselves, “How can I please God?” and, “Why am I not better?” It is the pleasure-seeker who is bored, for all pleasures diminish with repetition.
 Lent is about sacrifice as Bishop Sheen said:
“Unless the grain of wheat falling to the ground die, itself remaineth alone.” The power to find life through death makes the seed nobler than the diamond. In falling to the ground it loses its outer envelope which is restraining the life within it. But one this outer skin dies in the ground, then life pushes forth into the blade.
So too, unless we die to the world with its vices and its concupiscences, we shall not spring forth into life everlasting. If we are to live a higher life, we must die to the lower life; if we live in the lower life of this world, we die to a higher life, which is Christ. To put the whole law in the beautiful paradox of Our Divine Lord: If we wish to save our life, we must lose it.
I would be lying if I said I look forward to Lent, that it is something I enjoy. Lent is like spiritual boot camp. The soldiers in boot camp are forced to go beyond what they think is their physical ability to endure. They push their bodies to the extreme because they are being made ready for war, and if they are not physically and mentally ready, it could literally mean the difference between life and death. There is nothing fun about boot camp.
But as Christians, we must go far beyond anything a soldier must endure in preparing for war. We must actually die to ourselves. Colossians 3:5 tells us: "Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry." This is what Lent is all about: overcoming and putting to death the sin that is within each one of us. We cannot win the spiritual war for our souls if we allow sin to dwell in our minds and bodies. The question is, how do we do eradicate sin? How is it possible to say no to our desires and wants? Unlike the soldiers in a military boot camp, we don't have to do this using just our own strength and fortitude. In fact, by ourselves we cannot overcome the sin that dwells within. We can't even begin this journey until we have been given the saving grace of God through baptism and the other sacraments, and we can't finish this journey without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the graces offered to us through the sacraments on a continual basis throughout our physical lives.

The Christian life means opening ourselves up to the Saving Grace of the Trinity, just as Mary, our Blessed Mother, did. We must follow her lead in saying yes to the Holy Spirit. She never argued, she never looked for excuses or another way of doing things. She completely trusted in God in whatever He asked of her. This is how we "put to death" the "sin that does so easily beset us", as described in Hebrews 12:1. This is what Bishop Sheen told us:
If we are to live for Christ, we must “die daily”. Lent is an ideal time to think about our own death. A happy death is a masterpiece and no masterpiece is ever perfected in a day. Dubois spent seven years in making the wax model for his celebrated statue of Joan of Arc – and it stands today as a ravishing perfection of the sculptor’s art. In like manner our death must appear as a ravishing perfection of the many years of labor we have given over to its mold by dying daily.
The greatest reason we fear death is because we have never prepared for it. Most of us die only once – WHEN WE SHOULD HAVE DIED A THOUSAND TIMES – yes, even daily. Death is a terrible thing for one who dies only when he dies; but it is a beautiful thing for him who dies before he dies.
Lent means dying before we die.  Remember what Our Lord told us:  "He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it."  (Matt. 10:39)

Go into the desert with our Lord during this Lenten season. Turn off the world as much as you are able. Go to confession, spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, do some spiritual reading, pray and fast, give of your time and treasure to others. These are all ways of saying Yes to God and no to yourself. These are the ways in which we die to ourselves so that, as Venerable Bishop Sheen told us, when we come to the end of our physical lives, we will have already died to ourselves so often that physical death will not be our enemy but merely the culmination of our struggle on earth.


  1. Very good post, very helpful. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. Now if I can just apply it to myself!


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