As mother and shepherd of our spiritual lives, the Church places before us the holy season of Lent, opening the way for repentance and reform. How our human nature revolts against such ideas! Sitting on our comfortable couches and enjoying the luxuries of modern life, our fleshly nature cringes at the least encroachment or inconvenience. As anyone who has taken the season of Lent seriously knows well, the war between the flesh and spirit is real. In light of this war, our Holy Mother, the Church, takes steps to guide her children toward repentance and restoration of communion with God by little steps, always vigilant that she not lose even one of her little lambs.
Thus, as we enter into the great season of Lent, the Church places before her children what can only be called the “at least” goals. Having not only Saints, but also sinners in her hands, the Church guides her adherents with a gentle hand, being careful not to overwhelm the least among us with a teaching that is too difficult to follow. We must “at least” go to Church on Sundays. We must not eat food for “at least” one hour before communion. And during the Lenten season, we must “at least” abstain from meat on Fridays, and keep the sacred fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. How many of us, hearing these “at least” teachings, take them as our ultimate goal, rather than taking them for what they are?
As we set out on our journey of Lent, let us examine by what rule we have allowed our spiritual journey to be guided. Have we been in kindergarten every year of our lives, or have we advanced in the spiritual life, always seeking perfection in Christ? As is our custom during the Church’s most sacred seasons, we turn to the great masters of the spiritual life, and seek guidance in their wisdom. Today, we begin our Lenten meditation with an exhortation from Saint Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church.
Now is the time in which the souls of all men should be stirred with greater fervor towards spiritual perfection, and inspired with greater confidence: now when the return of that day on which we were redeemed invites us once more to the fulfillment of all our sacred duties, so that purified in body and soul we may celebrate the supreme Mystery of the Passion of Our Lord . . . Accordingly, with great solicitude has this divine means been given us, so that these forty days of reflection may assist us to restore the purity of our souls.
As we are therefore beginning this sacred season, dedicated to the purification of the soul, let us be careful to fulfill the Apostolic command that “we cleanse ourselves from all defilements of the flesh and of the spirit,” (2 Cor 7:2) so that restraining the conflict that exists between the one and the other substance, the soul, which in the Providence of God is meant to be the ruler of the body, may regain the dignity of its rightful authority.
We must then so moderate our rightful use of food that our other desires may be subject to the same rule. For this is also a time for gentleness and patience, a time of peace and serenity, in which having put away all stains of evil doing, we strive after steadfastness in what is good.
Be you certain, Dearly Beloved, that the devil, the enemy of all virtue, will look with envy upon these pious practices, to which we trust you freely give yourself; and he will bring against them all the force of his malice, so that from piety itself he may weave snares against piety: so that those he could not destroy through despair he will seek to undo through vain glory. Whose purpose will that most wicked enemy not dare to attack? Whose self denial does he not seek to undo, when . . . he attempted his deceits even against the Savior of the World? Let us therefore, Dearly Beloved, be watchful against the deceits of the devil, not alone against the enticement of gluttony, but even in our very purpose of fasting.
Enter then with pious devotion upon these holy days of Lent; and prepare for yourselves the works of mercy, that you may merit the Divine Mercy. Extinguish the fires of anger, wipe away all hate . . . give way to each other in the simplicity of true humility. Let offenses be forgiven. Let harshness be changed to mildness, disdain to gentleness, discord into peace . . . so that our fasting may be pleasing to God. To Him we shall offer a true sacrifice of self-denial and devotion if we keep ourselves from all iniquity; being helped in all things by Almighty God, Who with the Son and Holy Spirit is One in Divinity, One in Majesty, unto ages of ages. Amen. (excerpts from a sermon of P. St. Leo the Great)