Psalm 51:3-4, 18-19, 20-21
One of the temptations of Lent is to see our self-denial as a test of personal will power. We may want to see how strong we can be and if we can actually gut it out until the end of the season. I have had experiences in the past where I kept certain fast days but by the end of the day my hunger had turned into uncontrolled irritability. I ended up snapping at everyone and generally being a rather nasty person. Yet, I had kept to the letter of the law and made my fasting sacrifice.
The point is an obvious one, but it bears repeating as many times as we need to hear it. A significant strand of the biblical tradition warns that God is not impressed with sacrifices and burnt offerings—or indeed by our Lenten observance. God is impressed by a humble and contrite heart. As we learn from the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in today’s gospel, the former will not necessarily produce the latter. The Pharisee was not a sinner. He kept the law, but he was not humble and he did not grasp his need for God. For such a person, the legal observance does no good at all. It really is a pathetic thing when we feel smug about our righteousness.
Still, it is possible for our Lenten observance to lead us toward greater humility. This year I have been able to keep the fast without loosing it at the end of the day. The fast reminds me of my need for God. So far my observance has not turned into a test of will…not yet at least.
St. Ignatius encouraged his follows to spend some time each day, usually at the end of the day, reflecting on where God had been working. This daily examen may be a good thing to add to our spiritual practice during Lent. It can help us in our efforts to discern the location of our heart and to remind us of God’s great preference for humility.
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