The Interior Focus of Great Lent
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 26, 2017
The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (6:14-21)
As we prepare to begin the Great Fast, here are a few important points to remember.
First, God is love, a kind and compassionate father to us. We must never forget that because love is the reason for all spiritual effort. "God does not love us because we are good, but because he is."
Here’s a little story from the shimmering fictional account of the life of St. Francis book by Nikos Kazantzakis.
"Each dawn, when the birds began to sing again, or at midday when he plunged into the cooling shade of the forest, or at night, sitting in the moonlight or beneath the stars, he would shudder from inexpressible joy and gaze at me, his eyes filled with tears.
'What miracles there are, Brother Leo!' he would say. 'And who created such beauty -- what then must he be? What can we call him?'
'God, Brother Francis,' I answered.
'No, not God, not God,' he cried. 'That name is heavy, it crushes bones...Not God -- Father!'"
Our Lenten effort should help us realize more fully and more often his great love and closeness to us not just during Lent, but every day after it.
Secondly, our invitation to increased fasting, prayer and works of generosity is not a punishment for our sins. It is meant to help us discover and transform all obstacles within our minds and hearts to the free flow of God's energy in us and through us. When we are unable to love it is often because the heart is blocked by something. We must learn what that is and, with loving awareness bring light and healing to those dark places.
Remember St. Porphyrios’ instruction to “Open a tiny aperture for the light to enter, and the darkness will disappear.” What is that “tiny aperture” and how do we open it? The aperture is awareness and we open it through mindfulness.
This brings us to point three which is this: concentrate on a Lenten practice that has the power to change your life. Fasting is good, of course, but we become so focused on it that we forget the goal, which is not just to get through Lent not eating the forbidden foods, but to expand our capacity to love God, neighbor and self unconditionally and always.
Meister Eckhart warns that to seek God by ritual, you get the ritual and lose God in the process.
Fasting is not beneficial if it is not accompanied by deeper spiritual practices.
Metropolitan KALLISTOS Ware, at a lecture in Weston, said something I will never forget. He said that one of the great tragedies of the Fall of Humankind is that we are no longer able to be fully present in the moment in which we live. To be fully present, to be fully alive to what is right before our very eyes, that is mindfulness, the pathway to holiness.
I recommend the practice of mindfulness as your Lenten practice; paying attention to life in the present moment with openness and receptivity, without judgment or commentary, giving thanks to God for all things. Mindfulness or watchfulness, is a very profound and simple practice. Some have called it the "narrow gate." Why are we so seldom at peace? Because we are so seldom in the present. Living in the past, we are conquered by regret. Living in the future, we live in fear and disappointment. But God is in the present! And he is the source of all good things.
So, let's focus this Lent on expanding our awareness through mindfulness along with our other Lenten practices. Each day pay close attention to the little details of life. The mystery is that God is in each one staring at us through the petals of flowers and the deep, blue cloudless sky; through the eyes of our loved ones and our enemies. Let us feast on love through awareness of each precious and passing moment and fast from fear and judgment and faithlessness.
In this way we will water the divine seeds that lie dormant in our souls. Think of the list St. Paul gives us in Galatians known as the "fruit of the spirit." Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." I find inspiration in another list from the Bhagavad Gita, "Calmness, gentleness, silence, self-restraint and purity." If we focus on the nurturing of these divine seeds, then we will have done something that we will not discard when Lent is order. We will have developed a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking and a new way of life that we will carry with us always.