Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God!
And so we have begun Lent 2013 here at St. Rita Parish and throughout the Universal Church. In the spirit of today’s Gospel, the forty days of Lent mean that we accompany Jesus into the desert—to converse with our Heavenly Father, face our tempters, and be ministered to by angels. What I have found helpful over the years, as foundational to a Lent well observed, is to recall the spiritual life as outlined by the masters—the saints. Common to all of them are the classic elements of the conversion process: the PURGATIVE, ILLUMINATIVE, and the UNITIVE WAYS.
To be in a “purgative” mode is to be in the process of ridding oneself of excesses, abusive and/or addictive behavior, and our bad habits in general. It is the “turning from sin” or repentance part of “Repent and believe in the good news!” Purgation typically includes fasting, prayer, and almsgiving; that is, it includes holding back from the excesses of eating, drinking, and any form of substance abuse—it includes quality time for prayer—and includes letting go of accumulated wealth and goods in favor of the poor. To purge oneself spiritually and in fact is to arrive at the Christian virtues of temperance and detachment. It is living “all things in moderation.”
Once freed of sins, those thoughts and actions that separate us from Christ, we are ready for “illumination.” To be in the illuminative way means to be in a mode of awakening to the Good News. It is the “believing” part of “Repent and believe in the Good News!” Whereas our sins made us deaf to Jesus’ teachings and blind to his truth and salvation, now by illumination we can hear him again and see him again. The illuminative way in the spiritual life is good old spiritual reading, praying with the scriptures, making the stations of the cross, and going on retreat. (Attending the Religious Education Congress, for instance, could be an illuminative experience by way of inspiration and thoughtful study.)
Finally one is in the most desired Unitive Way of the spiritual life when, after purgation and illumination, one simply experiences ABIDING IN CHRIST. It is that moment when, in prayer or meditation, that all ceases to exist (even the prayers and meditation) and there is only God. Evidence of having experienced this type of union with God is the fact that it is almost impossible to satisfactorily describe it to anyone. For those of us less practiced in the unitive way, it is the lightness or airiness we might feel after a good confession; it is the feeling of abiding in Christ at the end of a good retreat that we wish would never end—the feeling that makes us wonder why we don’t make more retreats.
While youth may find these ways or steps to be in more measured succession, those of us older may find the various parts of our lives to be more or less in any of the “ways” and at various stages. For instance during our participation at Mass and Holy Communion we may more often sense our union with God; while exploring the scriptures or reading a good article we might feel the need for deeper understanding and illumination; while dealing with any form of excess or addiction we might feel the need for the practices of purgation. Bottom line: we are all “works in progress.” Anyway, how appropriate. It’s LENT!