Ash Wednesday 2014

Anne Shepard, OSB

My Uncle Alfonso was a scientist, an engineer, who up until his death at age 94, studied the cosmos for three hours a day.  More than anyone I know, he had a disciplined ability to concentrate on his work; he had a way of blocking study time so that nothing interfered with it.  He was a native Peruvian who came to visit our family in Washington, D.C. only periodically.  Even with eight children and a handful of cousins running through our house (we Shepards were never known to be a quiet household), he sat at a desk in the living room and did mathematical calculations, never caving in to interruptions.  We marveled at his concentration.

The last time I saw him, in 2004, I was reminded once again of his approach to life.  "We are but a blip in time."  All the while he talked he put his thumb and middle  finger together and gestured as if he were throwing a spec of dust in the air.  His point was not that we were insignificant, but rather, that we must put our lives in perspective, a perspective that our being adds to the much greater universe. We must never think we are too important, nor should we think we don’t matter.  We are part of the universe for a purpose, a reason.  And we are here for a short time, a blip in time.

Lent is a time for us to reclaim our purpose in life.  We are invited by the Church to return to a disciplined life, a life that Benedict says will wash away the negligence of our behaviors the rest of the year and prepare us more fully for the joy of Easter.  We have the opportunity to read more, to study what we read, to abstain from food and drink more than we usually do.  Our lectio, our good works, and our self-denial add and strengthen our communal life, our living group and the Mount as a whole.  

This year in his Lenten message, Pope Francis challenges us to confront dimensions of poverty.  We are invited to help alleviate the physical deprivation of people and challenge systems that bind them.   Paying fair wages, contributing to AIM, simplifying our own lives, directly serving at the thrift shop and the like are concrete ways we act justly with our brothers and sisters who count on our witness and prayer.  We eradicate moral destitution by lending our voices to assure an increase in employment opportunities and express hope to those we meet and with whom we work.  As Benedictines, when we live and act as though we prefer nothing to the love of Christ, we give witness to our dependence on God and thus diminish society’s spiritual poverty.  Pope Francis tells us, "We are called as Christian to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life. . . "  Lent is a fitting time for self- denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up to help and enrich others by our own poverty.  Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self -denial is real without the dimension of penance.  I distrust charity that costs nothing and does not hurt."

Benedict wants us to become holier.  We just heard in Chapter 49 of the Rule "we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life more pure."  That’s why and how we take our part of belonging to this group seriously and deliberately.  Benedict calls us to intensify the meaning, the intentionality of our monastic lives.  The Lenten call is not a call for newness; it is a call for returning to God wholeheartedly and helping each other to do that.  Returning to God by giving of ourselves to extra prayer, almsgiving, fasting and presence to one another will cost us.  It will hurt if it’s real.  It will heal us and the community.  Ultimately, we will contribute to a more peaceful universe if our Lenten actions, our penitential acts, are done in the Spirit of Christ, and thus our short time here on earth will definitely matter.