Perhaps no follower of Jesus ever appreciated
Lent more than Francis of Assisi
did. In fact, besides the pre-Easter Lent,
he made a “Lent” before the feast of St.
Michael the Archangel and another
one between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday.
In any word-association exercise,
Christians are very likely to link “Lent”
and “penance.” Francis did that—but
much, much more. He can, therefore,
be a good guide for all of us this Lent.
'Who You Are Before God'
According to St. Bonaventure, an early
biographer of Francis, the Poor Man of
Assisi often said, “Who you are before
God, that you are and no more” (Major
Life, VI:1). We are rightfully inclined to
add “and no less.”
In his Admonition XIX for the friars,
Francis says: “Blessed is the servant
who does not consider himself any better
when he is praised and exalted by
people than when he is considered
worthless, simple and looked down
upon, for what a person is before God,
that he is and no more.”
I first encountered this saying almost
40 years ago, and I continue to be profoundly
struck by it. Francis of Assisi
was one of humanity’s most honest
and free people, and his observance of
Lent helped both his honesty and his
Penance is not some “extra” tacked
on to a person’s life. It naturally proceeds
from living out the deepest truth
about one’s life. Conversion is simply
the means by which we surrender partial
truths for more complete truths.
People addicted to alcohol or to
some other drug may be able to abstain
from that substance for some period
of time, but they will always be addicted.
Only when they admit that can
they take appropriate action.
The same is true of the attitude “I can
quit anytime I want.” People sometimes
say that while tenaciously grasping
their addictions, which they assure
everyone are “no big deal.”
Penances that are not based on truth
are simply an exercise of a person’s
willpower and must eventually crumble.
Penances that grow out of truth
thoroughly transform a person’s life.
A Little Help From Aristotle
Francis of Assisi probably never heard
of the fourth-century B.C. Greek, pagan
philosopher Aristotle. Although
Francis would have absolutely disagreed
with Aristotle’s assertions that God is
impersonal and that the world always
existed, they shared at least one firm
conviction: Goodness, truth and beauty
are always found together.
Whatever is good is automatically
true and beautiful. The same is true for
all combinations of those three terms.
In his “Praises of God,” Francis addresses
God as “the good, all good, the
highest good, Lord God living and
true.” Francis had a cosmic vision of
God and creation as a reflection of
Lent was not simply a time for
Francis to afflict his body, which he
eventually admitted overdoing! Rather,
Lent was a time to name the truth and
falsehood around Francis, to grow in
appreciating beauty, which is always a
reflection of the generous God who
Francis’ exuberant Canticle of the
Creatures spilled out of a man dedicated
to living in the truth about his life
and how it connects with the lives of
others. How many Lenten reflections
reinforced those convictions?
Lent can subtly tempt us to tell ourselves
lies and then feel virtuous about
it. I could tell myself that if I eat or
drink moderately during Lent, then
maybe that is not important at other
times. If I can refrain from getting into
arguments with a certain person during
Lent, then perhaps it doesn’t matter
what I say to that person at other times.
“After all, I did the right thing during
Lent!,” I can say.
Lent could become an endurance
contest leading us not toward, but subtly
away from, God’s goodness, truth
and beauty in our lives.
The solution, however, is not to give
up on Lent. We will inevitably grow as
Jesus’ disciples to the extent that we
accept what Jesus tells us about how
goodness, truth and beauty are connected
in our lives and in everyone
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving (the
works of mercy) remain the classic
Lenten practices. Each of them, however,
can have its counterfeits. According
to Jesus, the Pharisee who prayed at
the front of the Temple wasn’t really
praying (see Luke 18:9-14). His “prayer”
was more about praising himself than
about being open to God’s grace.
The more we live in the truth about
God, ourselves and others, the more
genuine will our prayer, fasting and
works of mercy be, the more they will
represent who we truly are before God.
That is the path to true freedom. Sin is
always a counterfeit freedom.
We don’t have to wait until we see
God face-to-face to arrive at that truth
and to know deep down that God loves
us profoundly and invites us to share in
divine life forever.
In his homily during Mass at Warsaw’s
Pi’lsudzki Square last May 26, Pope
Benedict XVI said: “Faith does not
mean accepting a certain number of
abstract truths about the mysteries of
God, of man, of life and death, of future
realities. Faith consists in an intimate
relationship with Christ, a relationship
based on love of him who loved us first
[cf. 1 John 4:11], even to the total offering
By helping us nourish such a faith,
Lent 2007 can be an appetizer for the