Lent is a sacred season whose goal is to prepare our minds, hearts, and souls for a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus Christ.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
23 February 2018
Lent is a sacred season whose goal is to prepare our minds, hearts, and souls for a personal and intimate encounter of communion with Jesus Christ, redeemer and savior of humanity. In other words, Christians enter faithfully into the season of Lent and fully engage its disciples of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in order to experience the presence of God.
The experience of the presence of God is not something reserved only for the next life and the Beatific Vision. It is an experience to which God himself calls us in the present through the relational progress of prayer. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Novo Millennio Ineunte:
The great mystical tradition of the Church of both East and West …. shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart. This is the lived experience of Christ’s promise: “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:21). It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union”. How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila? (33 § 2)
In fact, it is the experience of the presence of God that is itself the ultimate, sublime goal of the Christian life. Further, it is the goal of every human person, regardless of where they may be in their lives with respect to religion. That is not to suggest all religions are equal or that one’s particular religious beliefs are inconsequential in relating to God and attaining one’s end in God. On the contrary, no two religions are equal. Holding to an attitude of religious indifferentism is indeed dangerous, for Christ said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also” (Jn 14:6-7).
It is clear that getting to know who Jesus really is, is an essential factor in entering into eternal communion with the Tripersonal God.
Again, the goal is to advance in intimacy with God through prayer (which must not disregard or exclude such things as the Mass, which is the highest form of Christian prayer, and the Eucharist, which is the most intimate possible earthly communion with Christ). That means the objective is spiritual advancement, something which is made possible by prayer to Jesus Christ.
The Catholic spiritual tradition has defined three categories reflecting particular degrees of spiritual advancement. These are: 1) The Purgative Way (the way of beginners); 2) The Illuminative Way (the way of the proficient); 3) The Unitive Way (the way of perfection).
Pope St. John Paul II mentioned two of the great mystics in the Catholic spiritual tradition, Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Their treatment of prayer and spiritual advancement is unparalleled in its depth, beauty, and precision.
The Purgative Way
Let’s begin at the beginning: the way of beginners. St. Teresa, in her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, draws an analogy between planting and cultivating a garden and the three stages of prayer (see p. 73).
In the first stage of prayer, the “beginner must think of himself as of one setting out to make a garden in which the Lord is to take His delight, yet in soil most unfruitful and full of weeds” (p. 73).
1. The first step is to resolve to practice prayer and is characterized by a gift of self to Christ. One must possess a heart converted to the Lord. It is assumed here that one is committed to living the sacramental life of worship in the heart of the Church in full communion with her belief and teachings. For example, a Catholic who is indifferent to attending Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, and perhaps receives the Eucharist unworthily while in a state of mortal sin, must first correct these grave issues in order to advance in prayer since a rejection of the Mass is itself a rejection of the saving Paschal Mystery of Christ. Similarly, for example, should a Catholic adhere to a “pro-choice” mentality, that in itself must be remedied since it is a belief totally incompatible with the teaching of Christ. The Lord knows we fall into sin, but he does not take delight in hardened and persistent sin, dissent and disobedience.
2. As St. Teresa noted, the goal is to cultivate a garden of prayer that is pleasing to the Lord. This means the beginner must water the garden through the labor of prayer in order to nourish its growth and produce flowers of virtue in which the Lord will find delight. However, in this first stage of prayer (the way of beginners), water can only be obtained by drawing it up from a well, which is a laborious and taxing undertaking. As one advances in prayer, water becomes more easily accessed, even to the point of rain, in which case the garden is watered without any labor at all on the part of the gardener.
3. This first stage is characterized by purging one’s life of whatever is spiritually unhealthy. The emphasis here is on what you must do, assisted by God’s grace. The gardener must pull the weeds that have grown up alongside the plants and flowers. In this analogy, weeds refer to sin and vice. The first priority is to eliminate all mortal sin through the sacrament of Confession and a firm commitment to avoid sin and its near occasions in the future. Here, one should focus on eliminating vice, building virtue, living the gospel life in its fullness, and discarding unnecessary distractions and habits. Think of pruning a grape vine: if the vine is left to grow wild, it will produce grapes of inferior quality. If it is carefully pruned and watered, it will produce abundant, sweet fruit.
4. Drawing water up from a well, bucked by bucket, to nourish the garden is difficult and fatiguing. Nevertheless, the beginner must persist in prayer and in meditating on the life of Christ (think Lectio Divina), for God who sees everything will not withhold his reward.
What if, after long hours, weeks and months, the well seems dry and nothing but aridity is experienced by the gardener, as if the Lord is far distant and unconcerned with his labors directed at cultivating a garden in which he may take pleasure? St. Teresa gives this advice:
What, then, as I say, will the gardener do here? He will be glad and take heart and consider it the greatest of favours to work in the garden of so great an Emperor; and, as he knows that he is pleasing Him by so working (and his purpose must be to please, not himself, but Him), let him render Him great praise for having placed such confidence in him, when He has seen that, without receiving any recompense, he is taking such great care of that which He had entrusted to him; let him help Him to bear the Cross and consider how He lived with it all His life long; let him not wish to have his kingdom on earth or ever cease from prayer; and so let him resolve, even if this aridity should persist his whole life long, never to let Christ fall beneath the Cross. The time will come when he shall receive his whole reward at once. Let him have no fear that his labour will be lost. He is serving a good Master, Whose eyes are upon him. (p. 74)
Dedication and Persistence are Necessary
St. Teresa emphasizes persistence, commitment, and trust in the Lord who is himself perfectly good and loving. She reminds the gardener that his efforts at cultivation are directed at pleasing His Majesty, not the gardener himself. The flowers in the garden are grown for Christ, not in order to decorate the gardener’s table. It must be remembered that it is Christ who created the garden, provided the well, and placed water in its depths for the gardener’s use. This emphasizes the grace of God upon which everything depends.
The road of the beginner may be a long and arduous one. But you must not lose heart, for nothing escapes the gaze of God and no prayer or good work accomplished for the love of Christ is ever forgotten or left unrewarded.
Lent and prayer: cultivate your garden. Draw water up from the well through prayer. Pull the weeds through the sacrament of Penance. Labor to grow the flowers of virtue in which the Lord will take his pleasure. One day, if you persist, you may well find a stream flowing through the garden. As you reach the final stage of prayer, the way of union, the rains will come and saturate the garden with Love from above as the gardener is held in the warm, sublime and loving embrace of God.
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Photo Credit: François Gérard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Image modified by Deacon Frederick Bartels for Joy In Truth.