This article was originally published as part of Ad Cenam Agni, a 2023 virtual Lenten Retreat hosted by the Abbot's Circle.
It is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6: 6)
Now that we are settling into the sacrifices of this season of fasting, it’s good for all of us – inside the monastery or out – to think about how our sacrifices and our fasting can carve out within our hearts a wider place for love. When we first receive the grace to leave behind a life of sin, we first have to learn what it means to make sacrifices for the Lord. We have to sever all our attachments to the world, learn what it means to deny ourselves and to take up our cross. So we might embrace the discipline of regular prayer, a more frequent reception of the sacraments. We might even at this point hear the call to the religious life, where those sacrifices in God's service become even more thorough-going and routine: fasting, silence, a daily horarium.
Sooner or later, whether we are inside the monastery or out in the world, God is going to invite us to make that next step forward in giving our lives to Him. It's when our focus shifts from the external discipline of sacrifices for God...to our motivation behind those sacrifices: It is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Once we have some practice at the prayer, fasting, and separation from worldly attachments that marks a committed Christian life, God asks us to ask ourselves why we're doing all the good things we're doing. He invites us to learn how to put Him more and more at the center of our innermost heart, that place where we very often still want to reign even while it looks from the outside like God reigns supreme in our lives.
I used to know a priest whose favorite piece of spiritual advice was this question: “If God is the center of my life, why am I always the center of my own thoughts?” My friends, fasting and our other Lenten practices are very good things. They are sacrifices that are very pleasing to the Lord, and they will help us to leave behind the idolatry that still infects our hearts – worldly attachments, selfishness, our tendency to occupy the center of our own thoughts most of the time. In this holy season, as we take up once again the life of sacrifice that Our Lord has inspired us to embrace – as Christians, as consecrated religious, as Lenten penitents – may we also strive to motivate our observances today with humble and grateful dispositions of heart. We might pray that pure and humble prayer of the tax collector in the back of the temple: O God, be merciful to me a sinner (Luke 18: 13). As the Lord comes to meet us in all the circumstances of this day, may He so fill us with His grace that He becomes not only the center of our lives and the center of our hearts, but even the center of all our thoughts.