For most of my life, Lent has been my favourite period in the liturgical year. I suspect it has something to do with my distant childhood and the solemn, but expectant atmosphere prevailing in our home at that time.
On Ash Wednesday, a large pinch of ashes was put on our heads in church, to be collected later in the prayer books. My grandmother's old prayer book was filled with ashes of her many past Ash Wednesdays spanning two world wars. She lost all her possessions in those wars, but not that small, worn-out book – and the holy ashes within.
Lent would bring a distinct change of atmosphere in our home. All small adornments would be removed, music silenced and the fast kept. Those small austerities, however, were performed with certain warmth that pointed to the delights of the resurrection and Easter.
CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
'He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.'
I owe it to my parents that my understanding of penance has never been that of sadness or gloom – rather one of getting ready for joy.
On Good Friday, solemn Lenten songs were permitted but the fast became even more strict – bread and water mostly. As in antiquity, we, the family children, understood the fast to be obligatory for all members of the household, including pets.
I remember my horror at discovering that the house cat had tried to help himself to a stray mouse. My sisters and I immediately confiscated the living meat morsel – and released it unharmed.
All those memories bring me to the main topic which shines through some of this Sunday's readings: gratitude for all God's graces.
Lack of gratitude is prideful and closes us to God. It seems to limit the graces God can bestow on us in the future.
This is understandable in a human way – if you keep giving freely to someone, but your gifts are not acknowledged gratefully and one day you hear "I do not owe anything to anyone; I owe everything to myself," you realize that any further gift will only do more damage.
Gratitude and contrition are pillars on which personal faith can be safely built – neither of them generates pride.
Pondering on past and present graces builds up gratitude; pondering on past transgressions builds contrition. Contrition leads to gratitude, too – hasn't God saved our souls? In a way, we can say that "all is grace."
Some of those graces have been in the category of "easy graces": a happy childhood, the good example of previous generations, and guidance from members of our families, teachers, priests and even complete strangers.
To these easy-to-receive graces, I would add also successful marriages, education and work, health and preservation from nasty accidents, and all sorts of wonderful spiritual experiences.
On the top of my list of graces are all the absolutions I have been granted during the sacrament of Reconciliation; I do not think we appreciate this enough.
Then, there are the "difficult graces," the most hidden and unappreciated of all. These are the moments when "we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and he heard our cry."
To these belong especially departures or the suffering of those we love, the illnesses and deaths of parents or close friends, our serious troubles or those of our children. All of these events are unique experiences, affecting our lives in various ways.
We may think that God has not heard our cry. It is not true. He always hears and always responds. Sometimes, however, he allows suffering because hardships and pain, too, are graces which we can take and use or reject.
God knows that our suffering gives him a chance to come close to us. During the sacred time of suffering, like during Lent, our hearts, normally so busy with daily events and work, stand still for a moment and lay open.
When we are broken, we cannot brag that "we owe everything to ourselves." It is through this crack of a broken heart that God can enter and turn the poor human soul into his kingdom of love and, eventually, eternal happiness.
It is difficult to say to someone tormented with suffering: "Friend, thank God for all his graces, not only the easy ones, but especially the difficult ones." But it is important that we practise this type of gratitude ourselves.
Lent is a time of practising virtues. It is like swimming – you take lessons, you practise often so that you do not drown when swimming in the ocean with its huge waves.