In his Confessions, Saint Augustine will say to God: “You were within me and I was outside of myself, and I searched for you in that exterior world.” How often is our treasure in that “exterior world?”
Have you ever had the sense that you just are not good enough? Have you ever spent time comparing yourself to others? Have you ever spoken or acted in a particular way in order to get someone’s approval? How much of your sense of self-worth or value is tied to what others say or think about you? Have you ever tried to prove yourself by working harder and longer? Have you ever put up a good front, pretending to be someone you were not, just so you would fit in and be accepted? If you recognize any of these attitudes in your life, then you probably know what it is like to search “in that exterior world.”
Searching in that exterior world can be risky and heart-wrenching because you will eventually realize, as Augustine did, that you are not who you thought you were. This is who I thought I was and wanted to be. This is the recognition, praise, and approval I have longed for and searched for. And yet, it is not really me. As painful and humbling as such an experience can be, it is also a grace-filled experience. Such experiences are opportunities to discover that who we are in God - and not in the eyes, opinions or praises of others - is who we most truly are. Such experiences can become the first step in our journey home, home to our true self. This is what Lent is really all about.
Lent is not a journey from bad to good or from sinner to saint. It is the journey of coming to ourselves and returning home to who we really are. And so we all need to be careful that the very things we choose to give up or take on or do for Lent, don’t become our Lenten treasures to which we give our hearts. Let us never forget that our practices and disciplines are fundamentally about teaching and helping us to give our hearts to God and to each other. They are not the means of gaining God’s acceptance, approval or love, for we cannot gain these things. We can only accept and receive them. God’s love and acceptance is already ours or we would not exist.
My brothers and sisters, where we begin our Lenten journey is not as important as where it takes us. In the same way, what we give up, take on, or do for Lent is not as important as what those things do for us. May we all come to the end of Lent with completely empty hands. Empty because we have learned throughout the course of Lent to open ourselves more and more to the completely free gift of God’s unqualified love, approval and acceptance.
Reflection by Abbot Damian.