The Gospel reading in today’s Mass brought me back 50 years to my first visit to the Holy Land. In today’s Gospel the Lord teaches his disciples how to pray by giving them the words of the “Our Father”.
On the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old Jerusalem, there is a chapel to mark the place where Our Lord is said to have taught the disciples how to pray. It is called the Pater Noster chapel, Pater Noster being the Latin for Our Father.
The original chapel is thought to have been built on the orders of Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century A.D. That chapel was destroyed in war in the 7th century, and the site remained vacant for several hundred years.
When the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th centuries, a new chapel was constructed as the Pater Noster chapel. The new chapel was short-lived, and was again destroyed in war as the Crusaders fought the Saracens.
Again the site remained vacant for several hundred years. In the 1800’s the site was purchased by a European noblewoman. She had a chapel built on the site as the place where Our Lord gave the Our Father to his disciples. Along the inside walls of the chapel is a series of 152 plaques in artistic tile work, each plaque with the words of the Our Father in a different language. This is the chapel I visited in 1962.
When Our Lord gave his disciples the words of the Our Father, he introduced them with, “This is how you are to pray” (Matthew 6, 9). This introduction is interpreted in two different ways. The first interpretation understands Our Lord as saying, “This is a model. Make your prayers like this”. The second interpretation understands the introduction to mean, “This is the way you should pray. Pray these very words”. Whether you interpret Our Lord’s words as descriptive or prescriptive, the words of the Our Father are a continual source of spiritual life to the simple and profound alike.
I remember being impressed by an incident Saint Teresa of Avila recorded in her autobiography. One of the lay Sisters came to her in great distress because she could not meditate or contemplate like the other Sisters. Her only way of praying was repeating the Our Father over and over. Saint Teresa questioned her, listened carefully, and came to the conclusion that this lay Sister, unknown to herself, had arrived at mystical prayer simply by the thoughtful repetition of the words of the Our Father.
Another Sister could only begin the Our Father, but never finish. As soon as she reached the word “Father’, she would dissolve into tears, at the very thought that she could call the infinite, eternal Creator her Father.
So it does not seem to matter how you consider Our Lord’s words. It does not seem to matter which of the 152 languages in the Pater Noster chapel you want to follow. It just seems that if you can learn to say the words of the Our Father simply and thoughtfully, they can bring you to a state of mind and heart beyond anything you could have imagined for yourself.
But that is hardly surprising, considering where those words originated.
Many years ago in high school one of my classmates was William Johnston, who went on to become a Jesuit missionary in Japan. Father Johnston became an expert on Zen, and was known worldwide through his best-selling books, such as The Still Point, Silent Music, and Christian Zen.
From his experience in learning Zen, he said that he sometimes envied the Buddhists because they are so single-minded. While Catholics were drawn in different directions in pursuit of holiness, Buddhists had just one goal, Enlightenment. Later he came to realize that Christians too could focus their pursuit of holiness on one single goal, Conversion.
Conversion is the goal the Church puts before us time and again during the season of Lent. The very first sermon of Our Lord, read on the First Sunday in Lent, is a call to conversion, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1, 15)
Repentance means a change of mind, a change of heart. Sometimes “Repent” is translated as “Change your ways”. It really means changing both your way of thinking and your way of acting.
Every day of your life you are under the influence of forces which are trying to tell you how to think and how to act. A book published in 1957, “The Hidden Persuaders”, by Vance Packard, explains how advertisers make use of psychology and motivation techniques to persuade you, without you being aware of it, that their products are the answer to your needs.
From the moment of birth we are self-centered, so the spirit of this world finds us to be ready listeners when it tries to persuade us that happiness is to be found in the pursuit of possessions, the pursuit of power and the pursuit of pleasure. But there is another Spirit which appeals to our inner self with the inspiration that happiness is to be found not in holding possessions, but in sharing them; not in dominating others, but in serving them; not in seeking pleasure, but in a spirit of self-sacrifice. These are two contrasting sets of values; the first set self-centered, the second set other-centered.
The call to conversion is a call to reject that first set of values, and embrace the second set. And conversion is not a once-off action but an ongoing process. Our Lord makes clear that it is a decision that has to be renewed day after day, and that the struggle is ongoing. “If you wish to be my disciple you have to forget yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9, 23)
The Buddhist single-minded pursuit of Enlightenment helped Father Johnston to see conversion as the central focus of the Christian life. If you can be single-minded enough to pray for your conversion each day during Lent, look in the mirror on Easter Sunday morning and you will see a new person.
If you are thinking of giving up visiting some social website for Lent, you may find yourself missing something. I have a vague memory of seeing a news item saying that Pope Benedict will be posting a short daily message every day during Lent @Pope2YouVatican. I have not succeeded in finding the message yet, but I will keep searching, and maybe become an online follower.
Lent has come a long way since it emerged as an institution sometime about the beginning of the 4th century. Since the earliest days of the Apostolic Church, it seems that the weekly Sunday assembly was the ongoing celebration of the Paschal Mystery in response to the Lord’s injunction “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22, 19).
Gradually over time the annual remembrance became established, though the Church in different parts had different dates for celebrating the event. These differences in the date for Easter continued until the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, when the Roman date was established for the universal Church.
The 40 days of Lent in anticipation of Easter seem to have begun as the weeks of preparation of those who were to receive Baptism at the Easter Vigil. Those who were already baptized were encouraged to join the candidates for Baptism in some of their preparations, including their prayers and fasting. Eventually those 6 weeks became established as a time for everyone to prepare to take part in re-living the Paschal Mystery through the ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter.
In the past it used to be common to ask someone, “What are you giving up for Lent?” I prefer to think in terms of, “What can I do for Lent?” Online there are websites presenting “Forty ways for forty days”, and many parishes are offering practical suggestions and opportunities. In one parish I saw a colorful poster with a short Scripture passage for each day of Lent, encouraging those who text their friends to include one daily message in keeping with the season.
Those who prefer the traditional way of Lent can find their inspiration in the Gospel of Ash Wednesday, where the Lord spoke of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matthew 6, 1-18). In the meantime I will keep searching for @Pope2YouVatican, in the hope of joining the ranks of those who follow Saint Peter’s successor online.
At 8 o’clock this morning I officiated at the blessing and distribution of ashes for a packed congregation in a small country town in New England. We like to think of ourselves as the most advanced country in the world, but our faith and history enable us to continue an ancient ritual which the Catholic Church has been celebrating annually for more than 1200 years.
Recently on television I saw an archive picture of Pope Benedict XVI receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday last year. The officiating Cardinal followed the Roman custom, and sprinkled the ashes on the Holy Father’s snow-white hair. While we moisten the ashes, and dab them on the person’s forehead, the Roman custom with clerics is to sprinkle the ashes on their tonsure, that small circle shaved on the crown of the cleric’s head.
I remember my first year in the Philippines, when I was fresh from my studies in Rome. One of my assignments was to be chaplain to a large convent school. On Ash Wednesday I remember telling the Sisters that the Roman custom was to sprinkle the ashes on the veil covering the nun’s hair. Since these Sisters wore beautiful white veils, they absolutely refused the Roman custom, and insisted on receiving the ashes on the forehead, the same as their students.
In the olden days the ashes used in the Ash Wednesday ceremony were acquired by burning the palm branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday. At the present time, many parishes are buying commercially produced ashes. Church suppliers estimate that one ounce of commercial ashes (cost about $10) will provide ashes for 250 foreheads.
My first year as a missionary in Chile, my pastor decided to get the ashes the old way. Two weeks before Ash Wednesday he asked the people to bring in the palms they kept from the previous year, so that they could be burned to provide the ashes for Ash Wednesday.
The people did as they were asked, but reluctantly, because they had the belief that the blessed palms were a protection against earthquakes. The palms were duly burned, and the pastor assured the people that they had the best possible ashes, produced as the Church authorities prescribed.
You can imagine the pastor’s dismay when, the following Sunday just before the evening Mass which I was preparing to celebrate, there was a one-minute 6.75 earthquake which led to the collapse of the main wall of our church, and left many parishioners with collapsed or damaged homes. Needless to say the people felt betrayed, and vowed never again to give up their old palms until they had received the new ones.
Even if I failed to find a connection between blessed palms and security against earthquakes, I had to admit that the people had a case when they insisted that their traditional beliefs are to be respected, and there is a price to be paid if they are not duly observed.
Fortunately your observance of Lent does not depend on the quality of the ashes on Ash Wednesday. If you can add some prayer, fasting or almsgiving to your daily life during these forty days, you will arrive at the celebration of Easter with a joyful heart and a renewed spirit.