Recently I attended an event in town dedicated to a cooperation project between the cities of Rome and Kinshasa. The COMI, an Oblate related secular institute, were behind the initiative. A wonderful Congolese band played African music, we heard poetry about the Congo, we listened to witnesses by two young Italians who had spent some time in the Congo with the project, a health center, etc.
As part of the program, we listened to a medical doctor whose talk impressed me in a special way. Based on his experience not in Congo but in Luanda, Angola, he explained to us the different forms of malnutrition, its cure and its prevention. The talk became a bit longer than was needed to understand the subject. But what was the subject? It became clear that the doctor wanted not just to explain a medical condition; he wanted to touch our hearts.
Nobody mentioned anything religious - perhaps there was a reference in the songs - but at a certain point, I realized that everything fitted perfectly into Lent. This quite secular event became a perfect Lenten exercise! The paschal mystery was obviously present during the talk on malnutrition and it was not a medical doctor but the God and Father of Jesus Christ who seemed to be speaking to us, trying to communicate to us not just some information, but his own Spirit, the Spirit of compassion, love and solidarity.
We could define Lent as a time during which we learn to listen and to see in new ways. Through our accepting austerity and becoming more silent and attentive, our ears and eyes open up to realities we usually miss. We may see people close to us in a new light, conversations where God is not even explicitly recognized may reveal to us the face of the Lord and the words and symbols of liturgy may draw us in more deeply.
Let me offer two more examples for this. The first: someone pointed out to me recently that the apology offered by Tiger Woods, the golf champion, had a message for Lent. That day, Tiger Woods’apology occupied the first 10 minutes of the BBC evening news! It was true, his words, even with all the ambiguity one could find in such a press conference, spoke about that change of mind and life we all want to achieve during Lent.
The second example is from liturgy. Some time ago, the altar caught my attention, just the altar itself. What do we see in this very special table? On top of the altar we offer our gifts which will be transformed and shared; the altar therefore symbolizes our hearts. It also points to Christ and evokes his meals in Bethany or in the house of Zacchaeus; his Last Supper and the altar of the cross. It even announces the final banquet of all peoples.
As I now realize, we have dealt above with the very classical elements of the Lenten period: fasting (austerity and silence), almsgiving (support of a clinic and fight against malnutrition) and prayer (liturgy). During the talk of the doctor, I also understood that our preparation to celebrate the Easter mysteries does not mean doing many extra things. It may mean that we do less in order to get into more. It is through silence and listening, watching and praying, that we become more sensitive and capture the presence of God in everyday life events. God then has many ways to touch our hearts and to transform them.