Saint Leo the Great – Lenten Parish Retreat
First of all, greetings to our parishioners and all who are reading these reflections in the Lenten season 2020. Originally, like all things that have since been cancelled in light of the pandemic, we had planned to hold a parish Lenten Retreat given by me on the evening of Wednesday, March 25. While that obviously cannot happen due to the necessity for people to keep a safe distance from one another and not gather in crowds, I can and will offer reflections at this time which can serve to help us all center ourselves once again on the One we follow, serve, turn to and return to – Our Blessed Lord, Jesus Christ.
When faced with the scope of putting on even a one-evening retreat there is always the challenge of ‘what’ to talk about. Lent provides a plethora of directions a retreat master could head into and yet, the one I had originally thought of is the one I would like to remain with and expand upon: “Taking Stock in Our Walk”.
When Jesus was talking to His disciples about the Kingdom of God and the many analogies He made in saying “The Kingdom of God is like….”, He was making it clear that the Kingdom of God is not just one thing or a place you point to with your finger, but rather is present both in the here and now and in the fullness of life with God forever in heaven. Often when people, particularly those who weren’t believers or religious, were asked questions by Jesus as part of his desire to invite them into knowing Him, these individuals would answer in such a way that it would impress Jesus who would say to them in return; “You’re not far from the Kingdom”. Jesus would welcome their sense of knowing right from wrong, truth from falsehood and error and logic from nonsense. Saying that they weren’t far from the Kingdom didn’t mean they were going to die soon and see that Kingdom, rather, He was telling them that right where they were at that moment, they were already walking in and in the Kingdom of God. Jesus even said that the Kingdom of God is within you.
In so many ways we know God’s love and the things He has revealed by analogy. Jesus, Himself, revealed this truth by comparing the Kingdom of heaven to known realities. So many times He said, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”
a mustard seed…
leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened…
treasure hidden in a field…
a merchant seeking beautiful pearls
a dragnet that was cast into the sea…
a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old…
a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard…
a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son…
a man travelling to a far country…
So, since the Kingdom of God is one thing with many examples of it, it has been revealed to us through Jesus’ vivid examples that the Kingdom of God we are now walking in on the earth grows in us, is to be discovered and found, is the greatest and highest personal investment, can be arrived at in different people and in different ways. When each of us was baptized we were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet our walk in the Kingdom of God also began with the invitation which came to us through baptism. We walk in the Kingdom of God when we seek to do the will of God; when we desire the promises of heaven over the things of the earth; when we recognize that there are things much higher than all other things we are tempted to settle in and for in this world. We walk in the Kingdom of God when we recognize, not so much that we love God but rather how much our God loves us, you!
So, as this retreat calls us to concentrate more intently in this season of Lent on our “walk” in the Kingdom, we do so more fully when we stop to look back on our life journey thus far and the manner in which we are walking in the Kingdom. Our walk is always forward in Christ, not backward.
Yet, looking back we must, not to live there – that is a terrible error and temptation – but to take stock of where we have been and perhaps where we have gone off the path. Even little deviations over time can lead to a widening distance between doing our will and that of the will of God; of accommodating ourselves to the spirit of the world and not the Spirit of God. Jesus said, when speaking to His gathering disciples, “Jesus said to one, “Come, follow me.” But this person said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Anyone would think that the duty and necessity to bury ones father would be the most important thing at hand and, of course, so would Jesus. We know that one of the corporal works of mercy, besides the six mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel with the separating of the sheep from the goats, (Matt. 25:35-36) is to bury the dead. To show respect for a father who has died in seeing that they are reverently buried with dignity and honour would seem to be the right thing to do and it would be fulfilling also the fourth commandment, ‘Honour your mother and your father’. But Jesus’ response to the one He has just called seems rather terse and perhaps even unreasonable:
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus isn’t saying that no one need even bother burying those who have died, but He is saying that this and any earthly priority, no matter how noble, cannot take priority over following Jesus. Nothing. No one. Why? Because following Jesus is the highest of all things to do in this life in response to His calling of us. So looking back is not good when the priorities and demands of this life distract us from our following of Jesus.
Another reality in Jesus’ statement is found in the fact that if you are plowing a field, looking back can cause you to veer to one side or the other thus making the furrows crooked and not straight at all. When I was first learning to drive I remember my father telling me that I was oversteering because I was looking at the road directly in front of the hood of the car. My dad told me to look down the road and when doing so would end up steering less and driving in a straight forward manner. Looking just ahead of the car will make a right turn more abrupt and may result in hopping over a curb.
Looking back, however, not in order to dwell there or live in constant lament over what was, good or ill, is a good thing when we seek to take stock of our lives in light of the truth and revelation and love of Jesus. When we desire to follow Jesus and look back on our lives when we didn’t, we can often see that we weren’t really happy in doing the things we wanted in just pleasure or popularity or self-centeredness, and that often enough happiness was discovered within ourselves when we least expected to find it is some simple thing like time with a loved one or another person.
No one can go and make a good confession if they don’t first look back and review their life since their last confession and examine how they have deviated from the call and path in following Christ because of those sins. Lent itself begins with a looking back when on Ash Wednesday as we receive ashes we hear, “Turn away from sin…” (Looking back) “and be faithful to the Gospel”, or even in the second form of receiving ashes, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. We also look back in a positive, affirming way when we might do an Examine of Consciousness when at the end of a day we would turn to God in prayer and review with Him where we have met Him in our day and where we didn’t. This can give us a renewed sense of our following with its deviations, selfishness and sin but also where we have seen the hand of God in another person, in a kindness shown us or by us with another. This taking stock each day can be an effective way for us to re-center ourselves with Christ and endeavour to live the following day in closer union with Him.
When we look back with God we are recognizing that God is always with us both in our yesterday (history) and in today, the present with Jesus. Our aim and goal is to better follow Jesus forward in the rest of today and in our tomorrows. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It is worth living the life that looks back at our day and its events and in review ask where God has been made manifest and where God may have seemed He was absent.
According to ignatianspirituality.com, the daily Examen is “a method of reviewing your day in the presence of God. It’s actually an attitude more than a method, a time set aside for thankful reflection on where God is in your everyday life. It has five steps, which most people take more or less in order, and it usually takes 15 to 20 minutes per day. Here it is in a nutshell:
- Ask God for light. I want to look at my day with God’s eyes, not merely my own.
- Give thanks. The day I have just lived is a gift from God. Be grateful for it.
- Review the day. I carefully look back on the day just completed, being guided by the Holy Spirit.
- Face your shortcomings. I face up to what is wrong – in my life and in me.
- Look toward the day to come. I ask where I need God in the day to come.
I remember being introduced to the daily Examen when I was in the seminary. With my spiritual director, each meeting would begin with, “So, Charles, where have you and where are you meeting Christ over the past few weeks and days?” And, “Where are you not meeting Christ?”
Over time, one of the things I observed was that I tended to identify the positive encounters I had with prayer, others and myself as encounters with God and the negative ones as evidence of the absence of God. What I learned, however, was that God was most profoundly present in my life in the good encounters and experiences and in the negative ones. God doesn’t come and go in my life, I tend to do that with Him. I can easily crowd-him-out in ways that are self-centered. God is always present.
Perhaps you could look at the above Examen and just review your day in light of the five steps. No, it’s not earth shattering but it can serve as a useful tool to with God, look at my life or just my day, take stock of all the many blessings I have been given and may have taken for granted. I can look at my day as a personal moral inventory from rising, my day, my work, my relationships and social interactions, my prayer, my thoughts and attitudes and, yes, my sins. If I compare myself with others I can fool myself into thinking I’m okay and don’t need to change. If I compare myself to God, well, that’s a whole different thing. I can be honest with myself before God and then ask for His help in my tomorrow, living just one day at a time.
Jesus doesn’t want us to get stuck in the past but it is good to revisit it for our betterment and improvement and overall happiness in our today and in our future. Each Mass, which we are currently being deprived of through this pandemic, begins with an admission that we have sinned but that through prayer and the prayers of others including the angels, saints and our fellow Christian travellers, and above all with God’s help, we can live a wiser and better today and tomorrow. In so doing we can discover day by day that we are happy in our following of Jesus.
Look back to better look forward.
God love you. Fr. Charles