by Sister Helena of Mary, O.Carm.
In our Catholic liturgical calendar, the Lenten season opens with Ash Wednesday.
I have never been to a desert. I have never seen one. I don’t believe this is a unique experience. I have seen nice pictures of deserts with sand and sun, a play of darkness and light, and they have awakened in me a deep sense of the transcendent and mysterious. But I don’t think I would even try to visit a place like that even if the opportunity arises.
But the desert is often synonymous with the Season of Lent. I guess because a desert embodies a vision of solitude, silence, deprivations and purification. Early in our Christian history, and even at present, some individuals sought God in earnest and were inspired to “leave the world” and fled to the desert to encounter him there. They sought solitude and silence to better hear what God had to say to them. They embraced the deprivations of that cruel place to tame the body and bring it under the control of the spirit. But more often than not, one also meets someone else in the desert- one‘s self. You know the saying “you can run from the world, even run from the devil, but you can never run from yourself.” And it’s interesting to note that the best stranger we can meet in life is one’s self.
The Lenten season is a time to do a spiritual inventory. We are invited to take a serious and closer look at ourselves in the light of Jesus’ teachings and make an assessment on where we stand in the spiritual journey. I do not mean here an unhealthy preoccupation with our spiritual profile but an honest approach to gain more self-knowledge. In my opinion, Lent is not a time to cut down on the carbohydrates and sweets just to make us feel good about doing something for Lent. Sadly, even among good people, Lent is turned into “a good time to diet.” I liken Lent to a big sale. If we are patient enough and diligent enough to browse around our spiritual nooks and crannies, we may find something worthy our time and attention. During a big sale, those endowed with a flair for shopping may endure the crowd and traffic, for what they consider to be a worthy cause.
If we are honest enough, I think our lives and minds are filled with crowding distractions, preoccupations, inordinate attachments and useless activities of all sorts. We are often times left exhausted and ruffled. But if we find the patience and goodwill to sort through the maze, we might obtain the grace to see the pearl of great price hidden in the midst of them.
For example, why do we work frantically and slavishly like there is no tomorrow? Is it for the glory of God or a hidden self-satisfaction of knowing that nobody else can do a better job? Why do we feel angered when someone disagrees with our opinions? Is it because we love the truth or because we think we are often right basing only on our training, education and authority? Why do we feel offended when someone else takes the initiative of performing an act of charity? Is it true love of service or is it because helping others makes us feel superiorly good? In other words, what motivates you and your good actions? What is the fuel that drives your engine?
These are hard questions to ask ourselves but, more accurately, hard questions to honestly answer. The effort of being honest can shatter our imaginary sense of spiritual security. But this is the consequence of following Jesus. He came so that we may be full of life. We have to give up what is not life-giving and open ourselves to a transfusion of grace that only comes to those who are willing, courageous and humble enough to receive it. But before we can give anything up, we have to name it and own it. This is part of the reason for Lent. After going through this spiritual exercise we will experience the joy of rising with Our Lord at Easter.
The journey to self-knowledge is both exciting and disconcerting. But it is the science of the Saints. It is the door to true life. It is both an acquired skill and an infused gift by the Holy Spirit. We are never able to completely know ourselves and purify ourselves however much we try, according to St. John of the Cross, but we can lay the ground works and do our part. God will eventually finish the job of purification and transformation so that we can be the person he created us to be. Saint Teresa wisely noted that in looking at ourselves, we must not remain there. We must immediately turn our gaze back to Jesus. Why did she say that? Because there is a danger that in looking too much at our miseries and imperfections, we would fall into discouragement and despair. But fixing our gaze on Jesus on the Cross, we are reminded that He already knew what kind of person we are but still loved us and went to die for us. Then are we made to understand that the Heart of God is all merciful. Realizing this our hearts are engulfed in love and we are moved to love Him back. “Love is repaid by love alone,” says St. John of the Cross. And John also said, “I look at your Cross, O Christ, and I see there the song of Your love.”
Lent is a beautiful time given us by God. It is a great gift of His mercy. Let us not receive it in vain. “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”
Sister Helena is a member of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, a congregation founded by Venerable Mary Angeline Teresa, whose ministry is caring for the aged and infirm in homelike setting. She entered Carmel in 1997 and professed perpetual vows in 2007. She lives at Saint Teresa’s Motherhouse in Germantown, New York.
Sister Helena is a registered nurse by profession and has worked in that capacity in the congregation’s local facilities in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Bayside NY and Ireland up until 2010 when she was transferred to the Motherhouse to assume the responsibilities of Assistant-Prioress. In December 2015, she left for Chicago to attend the Institute of Religious Formation at Catholic Theological Union in preparation for her role as novice director.
Sister Helena has served the community in varied capacities at the Motherhouse as nurse manager, Director of Human Resources and current Web Master. In December 2015 she began her new role of Novice Director. She is a member of the congregation’s various committees: Vocation Steering Committee, Carmelite Heritage Committee and The Cause and Charism Commission of Venerable Mary Angeline Teresa.