Ash Wednesday Reflection

Anne Shepard, OSB

Sister Anne Shepard

A few weeks ago, I read a Facebook post from my niece Susan who was furious.  Her daughter Samantha had to travel with her to an eye specialist in St. Louis, two hours from her home in Jacksonville, Illinois.  The city traffic was horrendous, so the drive to the doctor was difficult.  But what was worse was hearing that last year the optical department, where she got her daughter’s glasses, put the wrong prescription in her lenses.  Samantha, who struggles with dyslexia, lost a year of seeing correctly.  In my opinion, Susan had every right to be angry.

How does this kind of error happen?  In this busy, hectic world of ours, mistakes like this are made because people, even professional people, are not mindful of what they are doing.  They are way too distracted with what is to come next, or what went before, to focus on the now.  When that happens, people get hurt, mistakes are made.  When we are not mindful, our vision of God, of life and of others is blurred.

I want to think that Lent is a season where we check our lenses, where we make sure that we get back on track doing mindful and right things.  We have forty days to correct our vision that has been blurred by our focus on the negative, on the mundane, always on the urgent rather than important, on what is wrong rather than what is right, strong, positive and beautiful.  St. Benedict said that we are too weak to be mindful all the time.  That’s why the church gives us this penitential season in the spring.  

At a community life meeting when we were deciding about the time for Morning Prayer, whether we wanted to keep it at 6:30 or whether we would get up later, I remember Sister Lou getting up to speak in support of the earlier time even though her personal preference is always to rise later.  The reason she gave was that our lives as religious need sacrifice.  Discipline and sacrifice are not popular topics today.  The etymology of the word disciple and discipline is the same.  Both have at the root being a pupil.  The ascetical life, oblate Norvene West says, contains disciplines that are “ways of deepening our capacity to give ourselves body, mind and spirit to God."  God comes in silence, the silence that frees us then to listen to what the divine as well as humans have to say.  Our future depends on the dance between this silence and our engagement with each other.  Dr. Ted Dunn wrote in the most recent LCWR Occasional Papers, “the more we learn from one another, young and old, and the more we travel this path of transformation together, the more likely it is that we will become more fully who God wants us to be.”  To follow Christ in this monastic life is to be one who is a life-long intergenerational learner, a stellar pupil willing to be taught and to practice the discipline of self-control.  

Mindfulness is the exercise of self- control so that we can be closer to God, to the truth we find in the world, in people, in our own lives.  Mindfulness takes discipline because in order to focus, we are asked to change and clean our lenses.  We are invited during Lent to pray more in the quiet and silence of our hearts and rub away the films of that which distracts us from being available and real to others and to The Other.  Michael Casey says that if we forget God, we forget who we are.  Our increased prayer during Lent is an invitation to remember who God is and how God is daily transforming us if we allow the transformation to happen. 

Mindfulness causes us to reach out with the gifts of our time and material resources to those who have less than we do.  When we accelerate our personal almsgiving, we say no to our own cushy desires and say yes to giving away the clutter, the extra, the favorite things we have so we may be freer to live more simply.  Our mindfulness of extending to others deepens our experience of God because we are involved in sacrificial giving or as Esther de Waal says, “the mystery of God work on me, the shaping, the molding, enlarging of a heart that will become increasingly permeable to God as my journey unfolds.”

Our earth needs us to be mindful.  All of creation is shouting for us to change our ways.  Global warming is a reality.  Destruction of rainforests is a reality.  We are asked by the Church, by St. Benedict and by spiritual writers since the time of Christ to fast, to practice restraint.  Some think this is old fashioned and not what Lent is about.  Instead, I was told recently, we are supposed to be nice and not worry about giving up food or curbing our physical appetites.  Pope Francis constantly reminds us to fast from excesses.  Perhaps during Lent, we can be mindful of our original commitment to deny ourselves and follow Christ.  Deny the urge to consume more than we have to. Remind ourselves that the poor have to decide what to eat and do not have the luxury of complaining about choices in the serving line or requesting a continual alternate diet as a mere preference.  To remind is to be mindful again that God's gifts are for everyone, not just us.  

This coming weekend the community will be finalizing the directional statements for the next six years.  We are all mindful that we will be choosing a new prioress. By our disciplines in the traditional areas of sacrifice and compunction, in intensifying our mindfulness in prayer, in divesting ourselves of the unnecessary and trivial, in expanding our hearts by giving when it pinches, and in fasting from consumerism and unhealthy diets that hurt others and ourselves, we hope that we acquire a sharpened vision.  Wouldn't it be great if we allow ourselves to spend more time and energy alone with God and among our sisters and contacts?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if our community vision had as a basis the right prescriptive trifocals which include the lenses of intense prayer and reading, increased hours in silence, and sacrifice?

And so I pray: God help us be more mindful these forty days.  Help our resolutions to bring us closer to you and your plan for us.  God give us the grace and the joy that these days may bring so that You may be glorified forever and ever. Amen