Sunday, February 22, 2015

Make Your Hearts Firm

"Make your hearts firm" (James 5:8).

Pope Francis I, in an address to Catholics and Christians across the world in preparation for Lent 2015, cited this passage of scripture as the main purpose of this penitential season:

Make your heart firm.

The traditional practices of Lent - prayer, fasting and giving alms - can help our hearts to grow stronger. These practices, if observed in the right spirit, should temper our spiritual hearts. More than giving up chocolate or soda or swearing or eating crab legs on Fridays, our Lenten exercises should offer us more time for reflection, service and worship. In turn, this orientation will allow us to fast in manner prescribed by the prophet Isaiah:
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; 
Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; 
Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; 
Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. 
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; Your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard (Isaiah 58: 6 - 8).
Our Lenten sacrifices and practices should inspire us to do more than "give up" ______________, and instead to "give in" to the will of God. But, this can't happen without time spent with God in either prayer or reflection or some combination of the two. It can't happen without a strong heart.

In our over-connected world, finding time to do this may be difficult. In fact, giving up ______________ may be easier than turning off your phone / iPad / computer / device and disconnecting from social networks, news feeds, emails, texts, messages, pins, posts, tweets, and other distractions! Wouldn't the world just stop entirely if you didn't respond immediately?!

Take Jesus's cue and make time to sit with God every day during Lent (Jesus spent 40 days in a desert to be alone with God!). Start small with just a few moments. Then work up to minutes. Attempt a quarter hour, maybe even a third. There's no set amount of time that equates to the magic amount. God will lead you. Listen. Bring yourself - all of yourself - and just pray where you are. If you're angry, pray about that. If you're overwhelmed and resentful of spending precious time away from electronics and in prayer / reflection, pray about that.

Come as you are - not as you want or hope to be.

Sr. Melannie Svoboda, SND, explains this posture of prayer - meeting God exactly where you are - in the following way:
If I’m worried about something, for example, I begin to talk to God about that. Chances are, it is something or someone I’ve been worried about before. Then I ask God to let me know if I can do anything about this particular worry. If I can’t, then I simply entrust that worry anew to God and I move on. If I’m mad, I reflect on what is causing my anger. Sometimes anger is the Spirit urging us to do something we are reluctant to do. (It’s often easier to stay mad than to take action—especially an action that is hard like forgiving someone, or letting go of something, or having a difficult conversation with someone.) If I feel greatly blessed, I sit with that for a few moments, thanking God for whatever those blessings might be (from her blog, Sunflower Seeds, and a post entitled, "Lent: God's Great Come As You Are Party").
As Catholic educators, think of the power this could wield with students. We constantly ask students to do hard things and we constantly encourage them to believe that they can DO hard things. We push them and pull them and lead them and guide them and tutor them and review with them and remediate them and yet we seem to affect little change overall. Those who struggle seem to continue to do so; those who excel do somewhat independently of us.

The same is true of behavior. We work with those who have a harder time self-regulating and we form those who have made poor choices, but little lasting change takes place. The same students seem to keep making the same mistakes.

With the many demands placed upon us to advance academics - standards, standardized tests, grades, unit plans, course timelines - the things that may actually help students to have a strong enough spirit to do all that we ask of them are the very things that either take a back seat or get pushed aside altogether.

Make our hearts firm. Make our hearts more like Yours - "firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference" (Pope Francis I).

Enter self-reflection. Enter more prayer. Enter service and then time to both pray and think about that service. Enter self-assessment. Enter time etched out in the midst of and in place of academics to chisel out a stronger heart.

Enter awakening.

Enter Lent.