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Lent: Knowing Who We Are Before God


'Who You Are Before God'
A Little Help From Aristotle
Lent 2007

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 freedom grow.

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 God.

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 created it.

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 2007

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 else’s.

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 of himself.”

By helping us nourish such a faith, Lent 2007 can be an appetizer for the eternal banquet.—P.M.

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