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As Lent is underway, we may still be struggling to do some sort of penance appropriate for the season.
Giving up this or that nicety — a Lenten practice we may have learned in childhood — just doesn't seem sufficient. Giving up potato chips or chocolates may not be effective in moving us closer to God.
What can we give back to the Almighty that He does not already possess? What can we give to God that will add to His infinite grandeur? To Him, Who created all things, my "giving up desserts for 40 days" is of minuscule consequence.
But perhaps we can give Him a gift he is sure to accept: "My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn" (Psalms 51:19).
To our God Who has everything and created all that is, we can give only a contrite, humble heart. If our hearts are not given to God first, what good is giving up sweets or treats?
This Lent, I encourage everyone to offer to God a contrite heart along with fasting, praying and giving alms. The freely given gift of one's heart is more important than abstinence from ice cream or donuts for 40 days.
The rough-and-ready Old Testament prophet, Joel, put forth this counsel: "Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God, For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment" (Joel 2:12–13).
The best way to start the process is by making a good confession. This Lent, I advise everyone to make a good confession, in addition to offering penances and atonement. A contrite heart starts with an act of contrition.
The great Jesuit theologian, Fr. John Hardon, defined contrition as "a free decision involving a detestation of and grief for sins committed," and a "desire to regain the divine friendship, either lost or injured by sin."
He continues, "There must also be a determination not to sin again, which is an act of the will resolving to avoid the sins committed and take the necessary means to overcome them."
It is important to remember that true contrition is essential for a disciple to draw closer to God. Among fellow disciples, we can fake it and even delude ourselves, but we can't play that game with God. So as you make your Lenten confession, ask God for the grace of true and deep contrition for your sins. It's key to opening your heart fully and completely to the Almighty.
Most, if not all, of our Church's great saints made it a regular practice to go to confession. Saint Teresa of Calcutta and St. Faustina, for example, made weekly visits to their confessors. Their habit of receiving the sacrament of reconciliation weekly may seem excessive to us, but as they are now saints in Heaven, their habit was proven effective.
Making a good confession at least during the Easter season is a precept of the Church. The Church has, for centuries, required Catholics to go to confession and receive Holy Communion at least once during the period from Ash Wednesday to the Solemnity of the Ascension.
This requirement of the Church to go to confession and receive the Blessed Sacrament during this 80-day period is the very least that is required. If good confessors are at your disposal, avail yourself of the sacrament of reconciliation often to take advantage of the myriad graces afforded by it. More is more in this case!
Now that contrition has been addressed, let's discuss the part about being humble — which may be the harder part of the bargain.
Going back to Fr. Hardon's great wisdom, he defined humility as "the virtue that restrains the unruly desire for personal greatness and leads people to an orderly love of themselves based on a true appreciation of their position with respect to God and their neighbors."
Humility sets us straight and allows us to recognize our complete dependence on God and our "creaturely equality with others." The virtue of humility is greatly disparaged and misunderstood in our time. It seems that few people value humility anymore, but rather prefer the opposite — pride. Being humble is not in vogue.
Ask yourself, "When did I hear a rip-roaring good homily about being humble?" When did a homilist — for the sole purpose of saving your soul — remind you to choose menial tasks or a smaller portion of meat on the platter or to let your brother-in-law bloviate at some family gathering?
A good way to get started on the process is to learn more about the lives of the saints known for wholeheartedly embracing the virtue of humility.
Read more about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He was once a proud, vain young man who was transformed after his encounter with a leper. Francis, on his road to sainthood, might not have been hanging out only with the respected and high-end members of society, but he was still repulsed by the lowly lepers and avoided them.
But one day when he heard the tinkling bell that signaled the arrival of a leper, instead of running away, he walked up to the lowly leper and embraced him. Francis' action on this day recalls these words: "Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you" (James 4:10).
Read more about the life of St. Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church. Teresa herself shunned high-society titles, preferring the name Teresa of Jesus. She gave humility top billing within the Carmelite monasteries she established. The nuns who lived there were required to practice love of neighbor, detachment from created things — and humility.
Another way to jumpstart our journey to humility is to study the New Testament passages that address this virtue. For example, in the first letter of Peter, we read: "So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time" (1 Peter 5:6).
Two parables in Luke's Gospel highlight the importance of humility. One example is about how to act when attending a banquet: "Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, 'My friend, move up to a higher position.' Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table" (Luke 14:10).
Then we have the moving parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Key in this parable is the last section:
But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 9:13–14).
Jesus assured the disciples in these parables that humility is fundamental: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land" (Matthew 5:5).
If you are from a large family, like I am, siblings have a way of keeping us humble. In conversations with my siblings, decades after we all left home, they are prompt to remind me of my numerous shortcomings. "Remember how you took out the barnyard fence when Uncle Jerry let you drive the tractor and you just missed dumping it into the manure pit? You never could drive a tractor."
So if you are struggling to be humble this Lent, try giving a family member or a good friend a call and ask: "What do you think I need to work on this Lent to become a better disciple?" Don't be surprised if you get an honest answer. Don't settle for a pat on the back or being flattered as some sort of a saint.
Talking about your shortcomings with a good friend or a family member can be profoundly liberating and even funny. We learn that God does not want us to be perfect in all things, but rather, He wants us to be humble and contrite. Being humble involves knowing that God alone is perfect and that perfection is not really possible in this fallen world.
The Little Book of Humility and Patience admonishes, "So intimate is the connection between patience and humility, that neither of these virtues can make much progress without the other; nor can charity advance towards its perfection without their aid."
There are ample opportunities throughout the day to practice patience and humility. These examples are not intended to be awe-inspiring, but rather a representation of the opportunities that occur in everyday life.
One of my favorite times to practice patience and humility is at the grocery store. I started my shopping trip this Lent by parking next to a handicapped spot and then removing the grocery cart that is almost always dumped there. It doesn't matter what grocery store I shop at, there is invariably one handicapped spot with a cart dumped in it. So I park next to the handicapped spot and retrieve the abandoned cart, thereby freeing up the spot for a handicapped driver. (The cart also helps me to walk — it's a two-for-one benefit.)
Inside the store, I remind myself to let the mom with two children make her way down the aisle undisturbed, to not get upset when the deli attendant overlooks me waiting at the counter and to accept the crushing of the bread by the checkout clerk. These situations sound like no big deal. But, they help keep me real and focused on what's important.
Driving also gives me another great opportunity to practice humility. When four cars converge all at once at a stop sign, I remind myself to let one of the other drivers go first. When driving on the highway, I remind myself to travel in the middle lane, to let those who want to go really fast go to the left lane, and those who want to go slow to the right lane. These are small examples.
Bishop Joseph Strickland asks us to reflect on the ultimate example of humility. "[L]et us reflect on the tremendous humility of Our Lord Jesus Christ. As the eternal Son of the Father He becomes a tiny newly conceived male child in the womb of Mary & lives in humility until His dying breath saying 'Forgive them.' "
This Lent, offer your contrite, humble heart to God. It's the only gift that you can truly give to God. If your waistline could use some trimming, give up the desserts; but don't give up desserts while failing to open up your heart to God.