My Iona

Lenten Reflections

Earlier in this Lenten season, on Saturday, March 18, we encountered Christ’s teaching that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). We might note, here, that humility is depicted as a universal condition. One way or another, we must all embrace humility, and it is through our movement into humility that we will experience authentic exaltation. This teaching streams through the Lenten season, from Ash Wednesday, when we confront our origins in and as the dust of the earth, through Easter Sunday, when we contemplate the transformative promise of resurrection.

As we reflect on the virtue of humility, we can glean deep wisdom from investigating the word “humility” itself. The word “humility” first appeared in the early 14th century, and its etymological roots can be traced back to the Latin word “humus,” which translates to “earth” or “soil.” To be humble, then, is to be close to the earth and connected to the soil, quite literally. The word “human” is linked to both of these words, suggesting that to be human is to be humble and therefore enmeshed in humus.

Considering the connection between these three words, Norma Wirzba emphasizes that "the human creature must show humility as one who draws its life from humus." Arthur Waskow observes strong parallels in the Hebrew language. These connections emerge in the creation story in the book of Genesis. The word adam (human being) is closely linked to the word adamah (earth). For Waskow, “the two words are connected to teach us that human beings and the earth are intertwined.”

To lack humility is to lose touch with our humanity, which is itself inextricably interwoven with the lives of other human beings, the wider earth community, and the vast and expanding cosmos. To lack humility is to lose touch with our true identity, which is grounded in our fundamental interdependence with the evolving web of life. It is to become desensitized to the reality that the facets and features of our lives, including the very elements that constitute our bodies, are inextricable from this web. As Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson has it, “Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.” As Thomas Berry has it, “The human is neither an addendum nor an intrusion into the universe. We are quintessentially integral with the universe.”

And yet, if we lack humility, Jesus teaches, we will be humbled. If we have ego-centrically exalted ourselves, by elevating our interests above the wider community of life, we will be humbled. If we inhabit lofty positions in unjust systems, if we exert power over others rather than sharing power with others, if our hoarded abundance breeds planetary scarcity, we will be humbled. As Mary proclaims in the Magnificat, “God brings down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts the afflicted” (Luke 1:52). 

In light of biblical wisdom, this humbling is ultimately a grace, as it invites us into a transfigured sense of who we really are, and how we are called to be. We are only authentically exalted, Jesus teaches, if we embrace humility. And to be authentically exalted is not to be lifted up not at the expense of others, but to be lifted up alongside the wider community of life.

The humility that truly exalts us is not passive, but active, like healthy soil (which is teeming with vibrant life). As we root our humanity in the soil, as we reclaim our interdependence with the web of life, we must simultaneously transform the practices and systems which rend this web.

This vision comes through vividly in Isaiah’s prophetic declaration that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). If we are to thrive together, we must turn our weapons into tools for tending. We must transform systems and practices of self-exaltation, marginalization, violence, and exploitation into communities of mutual flourishing and shared abundance. Our deep rootedness in the earth must coincide with active and collective efforts to move society in the direction of justice.

As we move toward Easter, may we embrace our humility, may we remember our interdependence with the wider community of life, and may we rise together.

In closing, we might contemplate the generative power of humility by turning to Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. God’s Kingdom is “like a mustard seed” which is “the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:32). The mustard seed itself crystalizes the journey from humility into authentic exaltation. This small seed entrusts itself to the soil, it is lifted up by the wider community of life (from the microorganisms in the soil, to the sunlight, to the rainwater), and its exaltation brings about the flourishing of the wider community of life. The birds find habitat in its branches.

What is asceticism? Very simply put, it is a purposeful avoidance from worldly comforts with the goal of attaining some spiritual or personal reward.  Individuals have practiced various forms of ascetical acts for centuries with the hope of becoming closer to God, purifying one’s self, or as a means to accompany prayer. Some common forms might involve avoiding certain foods (or food altogether), secluding one’s self from others, or enduring a self-imposed physical hardship.

While other religions, namely Buddhism and Hinduism, are known for their own ascetical practices, Catholicism is renowned for its long history of men and women who have engaged in asceticism as a major means to become closer to God. Saint Anthony the Great has been known colloquially as St. Anthony of the Desert for his preference to live in the desert and away from the trappings of the civilized world.

Many envision asceticism as an antiquated idea, but it is extremely relevant today, especially in the consumer-centered modern world.  In fact, Catholic tradition stipulates that individuals abstain from meat products on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent. This is a form of asceticism. 

One does not need to solely deprive one’s self of creature comforts to practice asceticism. You could walk to class instead of drive or opt to work out instead of watching a ball game on television. Whatever you do, do so in contemplation of God’s presence and with a prayerful heart and reflect on what Jesus says to us in the Gospel of Matthew:

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

While sitting at a traffic light a couple of days ago, I was drawn to read the license plate of the car in front of me. Ironically it read, “YESGOD.” I found this especially ironic because at the time I was pondering what I should write for this week’s Lenten reflection. I also found it very fitting since for me Lent is a time to remember that even in my suffering and in the suffering of those I love, God is there in the depths of our hearts. Sometimes we don’t get to the point of recognizing God’s presence until the suffering becomes unbearable and the loss is so great that we have nowhere else to turn. We have searched for peace and happiness in things of this world, like our possessions and positions of power. However, as this Sunday’s readings said, God does not care about appearances, but it is what is in one’s heart that matters. I so often ask my sons before they get out of the car in the morning to walk in the door to school, to be the persons they are in their hearts. Isn’t that all we are called to do? Isn’t this what it means to say yes to God?

I have often heard that when we leave this earth, all we take with us is the love that we gave away in this life. If this is the case, then maybe taking the leap of faith to say, “God I give my life to you,” is what we are called to do so we have the strength to love as He did. No matter how uncertain that surrendering may be, it is the only way to joy and happiness. In the book, The Shack, the author speaks of how we “have our own grief, broken dreams, and damaged hearts, each of us our unique losses,” but the presence of Jesus “will fill up your inside emptiness with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” This reminds me of a conversation I had so often with my mom as her birthday would approach. I would ask her what I could get her to celebrate her birthday and without hesitation she would always respond, “Peace.” Not quite knowing what to make of that, I would respond saying, “But what can I buy you?” It was not until more recently that I finally understood what she meant. The things of this earth are fleeting, but the love of God and the peace that comes with believing in His incredible love for us is what it’s all about and what is everlasting. So, when we find ourselves on the edge of despair and are sinking in the deepest of waters as Apostle Peter did in the storm at sea, may we find the courage to keep our eyes on Jesus as he did, letting our hearts call out to Him in whom we will find comfort, peace, love and all we could ever desire.

“Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.”

This passage comes from last Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew and describes the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor. Unlike many of Jesus’ other miracles, the Transfiguration at first sight might seem to lack the “wow factor” of raising the dead or giving sight to the blind. But if we reflect more deeply on this miracle, it provides us with an important lesson that is particularly relevant for our Lenten journey and our lives as Christians.

First, it’s important to consider the context of the Transfiguration, which can help us to appreciate the awe that Peter, James and John would have experienced that day. Not only did the Disciples witness the miracle described above, but it also brought them face to face with Moses and Elijah who appeared before them. In that moment, they were in the presence of God the Father, his Son and our savior, Jesus, and two of the most important prophets of the Jewish people! Sometimes it might be difficult for us to fully appreciate these experiences in 2023, but this would have been a life-altering experience for the Disciples, to say the least! The irony, though, of the Transfiguration, is that it lasted but only for a few brief moments. Immediately after this monumental event, the Disciples are essentially told to go back down the mountain and go back to live their lives with sealed lips. Could you imagine having to keep that experience a secret?!

The Disciples’ experience through the Transfiguration teaches us an important lesson that should guide us in our Lenten journey- that our lives and calls as Christians might not be full of or fulfilled through miraculous experiences, but rather, in the simplicity of living a Christ-like life. Yes, Jesus’ life was filled with miracles, but so too was it filled with daily work, public ministry, and some of the same challenges we face each day. While the Transfiguration shows us, if briefly, the Glory of God and our ultimate goal to one day be with Jesus in this glory, it also calls us to remember the great opportunity to live out our faith each day by doing the “small things.”

So how does this relate to our Lenten journey over the next 40 days? It might be best summed up by Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s (Mother Teresa) famous quote: “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” As we journey through this Lenten season, may the Transfiguration inspire us to always live out our faith even in the simplest ways.

Prayer! It is one of the things we hear from Matthew’s Gospel that we are called to do during Lent. Jesus tells us to go to your inner room and pray to God in secret. Jesus is not talking about a secret room somewhere in our house (though that might be helpful) but to go into our heart where God can be found. We need to go deep within ourselves to be alone with the Lord. Many of the saints spoke about the need to go deep within to be alone with the Lord. St. Francis of Assisi told the friars in his writings, “Let us make a home and a dwelling place for him who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit...” This understanding can be seen in the early desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th and 5th centuries as well as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. We need that time alone with the Lord in silence and solitude. Perhaps at home, in church, in the car, in a park or the beach. We need to silence the phone, the computer, the TV and the radio. There are so many distractions around us.

In the Gospel for Tuesday of the First Week of Lent, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer. It is not only a prayer that we offer so many times, often without thinking about it, but also a model for all prayer. Perhaps, spend some time with the Lord’s prayer. Focus on one line and reflect on it. What does it mean? What does it say to you today? Talk to God about it. Prayer can be simple and not complicated. Let it begin in that inner room.

Recently, The New York Times Book Review had an interesting review of a book dealing with distractions and prayer. It is called The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks tells Us about Distraction. Written by Jamie Kreiner and published by Liveright Publishing, it may be helpful for the Lenten journey and beyond.