The Secret of Lent

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But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you…But when you pray, go to your inner room, close your door, and pray to your Father in secret…But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father, who sees what is hidden, will repay you.

Matthew 6: 3-4, 6, 17-18

For all of our lives from childhood onward Ash Wednesday brings the question: “What are you going to do for Lent?” Even more than New Year’s Day, Ash Wednesday is the time for resolutions. Today’s gospel reminds us of the form those resolutions almost always take:  fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Yet, the gospel today is not so much a call to do these things as it is a description of how and how not to do them.

What is all this “secrecy” about? Beyond its historical significance at the time of the writing of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ teaching summons us to the hidden and mysterious aspects of the coming season of repentance. The God of Jesus’ teaching is one who “sees in secret” and “who is hidden.” As we enter into this season, we are reminded that we enter into a Reality which is unknown – and that “hidden” Reality includes both God and ourselves.

Religious practice for us consistently tends to devolve into modes of control and superstition. We cannot help but bring to our devotional and charitable practices the same pragmatism that so influences our vital and functional lives. When we act or speak, we look for some kind of positive and gratifying result. We long to be seen as good and valuable in our own eyes and in the eyes of others, and we expect that “being good” will in some way accrue to our benefit.

Today’s Ash Wednesday gospel, however, invites us into the realm of a different kind of vision. The vision of God is one that “is hidden” and that “sees in secret.” Lent is a time to realize that all of life, including our own, is not just what it appears to be. We are not merely the one who is seen by others and even who is known to ourselves. There is another life that is being lived out in us. “Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth, because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3: 3).

The Church, in its selection of gospel for today, seems to be warning us about an asceticism that will build up those inevitably false senses of social identity by which we live. We receive the warning that the practices of Lent are not meant to reinforce the defenses of our superego, religious or otherwise. Rather, we are invited to enter more fully and consciously the limits and disappointments of our actual life experiences and the failures and frustrations of our attempts to be and do good that draw us ever more deeply into the passion and death of Jesus.

At every moment our life is forming us. It is telling us in multiple ways how in our laziness and even in our strongest efforts to be and do good, we are, to varying degrees, violating our deeper call. There is a “secret” in us which is our spiritual identity that is “hidden with Christ in God.” It is always trying to show itself in action and speech. Much of our daily life throughout the year, however, is too noisy and busy to hear its “still small voice” in the midst of the clamor of our bodily needs and our functional projects.

So, today’s gospel is an invitation to “go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” It is no small act of abandonment to bring the one we do not know before One we do not know. A real act of prayer and of true almsgiving requires that we simply act out of a “Self” that we can only know as it is known. It is giving alms in such a way that our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing. It is to abandon the self who is familiar to us, who searches for gratification and meaning in familiar and habitual ways, in favor of the one who lives in secret its true life with the “Father who is hidden.”

Every person has a vocation to be someone: but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill his vocation he can only be one person: himself.
What does this mean? We must be ourselves by being Christ.
. . .  

Our Christian destiny is in fact a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. 

It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

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