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Lenten Reflections from Br. Andy

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Br. Andy Opsahl, OP

As some of you may know, part of our formation as Dominicans involves spending a year at one of our ministry houses around the Province, gaining new experiences in Dominican life and service. This year we have four brothers on residency. One of them, Br. Andy Opsahl, O.P., is right across the bay at St. Dominic's Church in San Francisco. Lately he's been providing some reflections on the meaning and purpose of Lent on St. Dominic's blog, offering insightful analogies and ways of approaching this penitential season. Check out his latest posts:

You can read all of his posts here. For those in the Bay Area, he also will be giving a talk for the "Friends in Christ" group on Thursday, March 19th at 7pm in the parish hall at St. Dominic Church, on "Five Steps to Becoming a Happier Christian." You can read more about the event by clicking here.

Please keep all of our residency brothers in your prayers, that they may continue to grow as faithful servants of our Lord and preachers of the Gospel, bringing many souls closer to Christ!

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Br. Kevin Andrew, O.P.'s picture

Run so as to win!

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While all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, the award goes to one man.
In that case, run so as to win! Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things.
They do this to win a crown of leaves that withers, but we a crown that is imperishable. (1 Cor 9:24-25)

"Run so as to win..."I ran cross country and track throughout college. All four years of college we had 6am practices. We had to learn to be disciplined: watching what we ate, how late we stayed up, how much we went out. If not, we could easily get hurt, or – even worse – slow! In the end, after 10 years of races in total, I had collected a small box worth of trophies, ribbons, and plaques. Although I never won a laurel wreath, this trophy box is now sitting in some closet at my parents’ house, collecting dust.

In addition to my own running, I zealously followed the international track, cross country, and road racing circuits. At that time the Kenyans dominated the distance running world, and so I followed the Kenyans. I was amazed at how effortless they often made running look. It was art, it was beauty, it was poetry in motion. They have some natural advantages -- they tend to be very slender, and they live at altitude -- but I’d say that their true advantage lies between the ears. The “secret” of their success is their relentless single-mindedness. Here in the Unites States, runners have to make time to train before and/or after school or work. The Kenyans go to extended, isolated training camps; no family, no job, no friends to distract them. They eat a very basic diet. They train in large groups, and these groups are made up of the best runners in the world, with each runner trying to prove that he is the fastest one there. A race can break out at any time. These camps have a very high drop-out rate, as there is no room for mediocrity. Bernard Barmasai, the former world record holder in the steeplechase, would train four times per day: an easy run in the morning, then intervals before lunch, then a tempo run in the afternoon, before closing out the day with a long run in the early evening – that’s a week’s worth of workouts for most people!

They do this because their focus is not on a withering crown of leaves, but something more important. The average income in Kenya was just over $1000 per year back in the mid-90s. Elite runners can earn over 100 times that for a single race, but even second-tier runners could earn 10 times that much in a summer of European racing. They ran to make money in order to support their families, and to support their futures. They would use their winnings to buy farmland back in Kenya, or to build a house. The Boston Marathon winner a few years ago announced he was looking forward to buying some cows. Younger Kenyans have also increasingly come to the United States to compete collegiately, as their running skills have netted them scholarships. They then return home afterwards with degrees in their pockets, often in business, political science, or agriculture. When I ran, it was a hobby and so the “crown” I pursued has faded. The Kenyans tend to run to improve their lives, and their crowns last a bit longer, but are still oriented towards this life, and so, they too, will eventually fade.

The questions we Christians must ask: What is the crown we desire? What are we aiming at? Now that Lent has begun, what is the purpose of our penitential practices? What do we desire from them? Do we mortify ourselves out of pride, or humility? Or to say – to ourselves or to others – simply that we’ve done them? Or do we do them for higher purposes? Does our fasting remind us of our hunger for God? Do we give alms from our surplus, or do we give “until it hurts," until it affects our lifestyle? Do we spend a lot of time online or in front of the TV, or do we spend it in prayer and in conversation with Jesus? In the end, we each get the crown we deserve: either withering or lasting, rusty or glorious, material or spiritual, faded or eternal.

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Fr. Gabriel Mosher, O.P.'s picture

Realize What He Has Done For Us

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Br. Gabriel's Passiontide preaching...You are dust, O Man, but Behold What God has Done!

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Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

Behold the Cross

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Holy Week is upon us once again.  We are summoned urgently to prayer and spiritual focus, to experiencing with Our Lord his Passion, Death, and Resurrection.  My reflection on Palm Sunday gives a picture from the Mount of Olives of the drama to come, the drama of divine redemption in which we are called to participate with Jesus.

Br. Andrew Dominic Yang, O.P.'s picture

Me, the Prodigal Son

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The parable of the Prodigal Son features a character I can identify with. Saint Maximus the Confessor writes, “Again, he told of how that Father, who is goodness itself, was moved with pity for his profligate son who returned and made amends by repentance; how he embraced him, dressed him once more in the fine garments that befitted his own dignity, and did not reproach him for any of his sins.”

In Luke 15, Christ reminds us of the life-changing love the Father has for us. Reflecting upon my own life, I realize how easy it is to lose sight of this love, especially when we don’t keep vigilant on Christ’s desert path. At times this path appears lined with enormous billboards of temptation. Whereas my journey forward seems lonely and narrow, these temptations can practically seem lit up with the neon of the Las Vegas Strip. Sometimes, I can lose track of how far I’ve already walked –  how much progress I’ve already made. Like Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis, I feel like turning around to catch a glimpse of the life I’ve left behind.

Indeed, Christ’s words in the Gospel are confirmed by the wealth of my personal experience with sin. First, we learn that disobedience to the will of God inevitably leads to sin and death. This is precisely what the Prodigal Son encounters in the Parable. Departing his true home for the world’s deceptive promises of happiness, and seemingly emboldened by his father’s mercy, the disobedient son enjoys the “good life” for probably quite some time. But where does that lead him? He has to face the consequences sooner or later, and he finds his soul just as sullied as his body is by mud. Confronted by his own misery, he starts the long “walk of shame” all the way home.

However, he does not yet know the depth of the Father’s mercy; he believes his Father would never accept him after all he’s done. If he’s anything like me, the son prefers anything else to having to face his father. But he’s short on cash, and out of options. After a sound beating, perhaps his father will allow him to work as a servant.

But what is the Father’s response? Since his son’s departure, he has not slept well. He has sent emissaries to search for him. He has scoured the horizon daily, waiting for the shadow of his son to appear. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. The shame of the son is covered by the overwhelming love of the Father.

In “The Problem of Pain,” C.S. Lewis says that “if God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is 'nothing better' now to be had.” Jesus did not give us this parable to tell us about those sinners over there, yonder. This is a story about you and me — that Our Heavenly Father will accept us even when we’ve hit rock bottom. He waits for us in the confessional. All we can do is repent; meanwhile, God supplies the grace to cover our sins and inject life into the soul.

Now, having come face to face with the Father’s mercy, we surely feel that deep desire to return something to the Lord. What could possibly suffice? In Psalm 101, the Psalmist finds himself in a similar position of inadequacy.

“We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit, let us be received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.”

What could I possibly offer to the Lord to repay Him? After going through the possibilities among my material possessions, I am struck once again by the realization that I must daily offer Him my life, inadequate as it might be. It’s not a fair trade for Him, but it’s an exchange that Christ makes perfect.  

I pray for the Lord’s mercy as we approach the final days of Lent. Through the intercession of our Holy Father Dominic, may the Lord continue to mold us into holy preachers, intent only on the salvation of souls.

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Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Penance and Hope

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This is a reflection given at vespers at St. Albert's Priory. It is for the second week of Lent, a time when our practices of penance begin to wane. Although the virtue that is typically associated with lenten penances is temperance, this is a meditation on the connection between our acts of penance and the virtue of hope. When we practice penance for the sake of the kingdom of God, we do not merely grow in the virtue of temperance, which orders our desires for bodily pleasures according to right reason. We also practice the virtue of hope, hope for a world to come, and hope for the life of glory that surpasses what we could ever enjoy in this life through our bodily senses. The hidden secret to this season of mortification is the hope that springs from the promise of Jesus Christ.

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

Meditations on the Sixth Station

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He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)

Hanging on a wall in the Louvre Museum, you will find Christ Carrying the Cross, a painting by the Florentine artist Biagio d’Antonio. Dressed in red and adorned with a crown of thorns, Jesus is at the heart of the image. He is part of a large procession, making its way up a hillside. Walking behind him, we find Simon of Cyrene, pressed into service by the Roman guards and helping Christ to carry his heavy burden. To Simon’s left, we see a woman clad in brown, her hands clasped together in prayer -- the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose gaze is fixed intently upon her son. He stares back at her, a man of sorrows, his face bruised and beaten, as if to say, “Woman, behold your son.” Around them officials and infantry ride on horseback, directing the crowd, which includes: Mary Magdalene, John the Beloved Disciple, and the women of Jerusalem who weep for Jesus. Finally, almost out of frame, one notices a woman kneeling, holding in her hands a veil with the likeness of Christ’ face upon it. This is Veronica, whose merciful act we reflect on while praying the Sixth Station of the Cross.

The story of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus does not appear in the Gospels, but tradition tells us of a compassionate woman who came forward to wipe the blood and sweat from Christ’s face as he made his way to Golgotha, and how the piece of fabric she used came away with an image of the Lord’s face. Although we are not sure of the woman’s name, she came to be known as Veronica, since the cloth contained a true likeness (vera eikon) of Christ, and the word from which Veronica is derived, berenice, means “bearer of victory.” 

In Biagio’s painting, this bearer of victory is a counterpoint to the figure of Simon of Cyrene. He has been forced to carry the cross, so he looks up and away from Jesus, hiding his face, unwilling to esteem the man who will die for his sake. Veronica, on the other hand, kneels in humility, looking at Christ in the fashion of his mother, blessed to perform a small act of charity in hope of easing the Lord’s suffering. Her example is a reminder that we are to serve God in whatever way we can.

As we make our way this through Lenten season, may we be inspired by Veronica’s kindness, so that we might serve our neighbors in need, and in doing so, serve the Lord himself.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Penance and Happiness

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Flagellants

I once heard a priest ask his congregation, "What are you doing this Lent to make your self miserable?" He was half-joking, but I think that he said this because he really did dread Lent. And certainly I can identify somewhat with his sentiment. After all, the penitential aspect of Lent is not entirely "fun." On the other hand, is it really supposed to make us feel "miserable"? Should we measure the value of a penance by how much we hate it, by how terrible it makes us feel? Is that what Lent is truly about?

Hardly. Rather, Lent is—in the end—really all about happiness, not misery and sadness. But—you may be wondering—how can this be? Isn't penance, which we are especially supposed to focus on during Lent, all about self-denial, giving up things we enjoy, and doing those good things—like giving to the poor—that can feel so unnatural and are just down-right difficult to do? How can this be all about happiness?

Well, it all depends upon what we mean by "happiness," and, consequently, how we are supposed to attain it. Thus, the million-dollar question is....what is happiness anyway? And how can we become happy? Of course, these are not new questions, and certainly not trivial ones. In fact, our whole life depends upon them, precisely because happiness is the one thing that we all seek, in every single thing that we do, in every choice and act that we make. We all want to be happy.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized this when he posed the same questions in his well-known work, Nichomachean Ethics, in the 4th century B.C. He reasoned that the one thing sought in every human act is happiness. He first describes happiness rather generally as that ultimate goal "for the sake of which" all things are done. It is the ultimate "telos" (τέλος), the end, the goal, the purpose of human life and activity. And, in fact, he goes on to define happiness as a type of activity itself: "happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue" (Nich. Eth. I, 13). Contrary to many modern notions of happiness, he dismissed the idea that happiness could be merely a feeling; nor did he think that happiness is simply a passive state or condition of the human being. Instead, it is the perfection of the human being, a perfection fulfilled in the excellent activity of the highest powers of man. To be happy, then, we must act virtuously, we must live well: for that is what happiness is.

Now, it may seem odd, at first glance, to dwell much on what a pagan Greek philosopher had to say long before Christianity even existed, when discussing the true meaning of the Christian season of Lent. However, I point out Aristotle because I think he was onto something in his view of happiness which is relevant not only to the season of Lent, but also to the whole gamut of moral questions and problems that are discussed today. But not only for this reason is Aristotle worth noting here. He is also noteworthy because what sacred Scripture and Christian tradition have to say about happiness elevates what he had already discovered about it using the natural light of human reason. Faith and reason are in harmony here, and point in the same direction, although faith surpasses and transcends what reason can only begin to discover on its own.

For Aristotle, happiness consisted in an activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue; and the perfect, or highest virtue, was that of contemplation (Greek "theoria", θεωρία), to know deeply and penetratively the highest, most divine truths about reality. Aristotle, of course, did not believe in the Christian God, nor did he have any concept of a personal God at all. But Aristotle's idea takes on new dimensions when seen in light of the Christian faith, such as Jesus' prayer to the Father in John 17: "This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." The goal of human life, for Jesus, was knowing God. This "knowing" of God doesn't simply mean having God as an acquaintance, much less a mere understanding of great truths about God. Rather, it is a "knowing" which consists in intimate union with God; what Scripture often describes as "seeing" the "face" of God (1 Jn 3:2; Rev 22:4; cf. Ex. 33:11-23).1 The Catholic Tradition has called this the "Beatific Vision", or simply "Beatitude": the direct vision of God-in-Himself, knowing Him as he truly is, a union made possible by love or charity.

"That's great," you may be thinking, "but what does all of this have to do with Lenten penance?" The answer is: everything. Lenten penance is about happiness because it is all about preparing us to engage in that highest activity of the human soul which alone can make us happy: seeing God. How? By removing obstacles that obscure our spiritual vision, and by exercising the "ocular muscles" of our soul. Of course, this process is not always fun, much like going on a diet or exercising are not always fun. But we do penance and physical exercising for analogous reasons: because we know that the outcome will lead us to spiritual or physical health, respectively.

That physical exercise leads to physical health is obvious. But how does penance lead to spiritual health, namely, the vision of God? In three ways: (1) Almsgiving helps us see God in our neighbor, by loving those in need who are created in His image and likeness. (2) Fasting helps us to pay attention to our spiritual vision and hunger rather than their mere physical counterparts. By giving up certain attractive foods or other goods, we admit that there are even greater goods that we ought to seek, and train our souls to put the first things first. And (3) prayer puts us into direct communication with God Himself, the knowledge of whom is our happiness. Put another way, each of the traditional forms of penance attempts to respond to God's grace and overcome sin by restoring harmony in three different relations—with our neighbor, within ourselves, and with God.

So if Aristotle was indeed onto something when he thought of happiness as a perfect and perfecting activity of the human being—and if the Christian Tradition goes even further and says that the greatest "activity" is that of knowing God face-to-face, then Christian penance is all about training us to respond to God's grace, restore harmony within ourselves, with others, and with God, all of which prepare us to see God. It may, indeed, make us feel "miserable" for a short while; but that's not the point, nor should we measure the value of our penance by how awful we feel. Rather, we should endeavor to pursue those forms of penance which help us attune our spiritual vision toward God, rather than the fleeting pleasures of this life. For our happiness, our eternal life, is in knowing Him, and his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. This Lent, then, may we keep our "eyes" on this goal, this purpose, this "telos" of our works of penance, that we might do them with genuine love and devotion, fueled by that divine hope that one day, indeed, we may see God face-to-face, and know Him as he truly is.


Notes:

  1. It should be noted that both the Hebrew and Greek words meaning "to know", yada (יָדַע) and oida (οἰδα), have as their most basic and primitive meaning, "to see." The greek term οἰδα, in fact, is technically the perfect form of εἰδον (I saw) and thus literally meant, "I have seen," but came to used for the present form, "I know," since to have seen something is to know it. Thus "seeing" and "knowing", even in the Bible, are almost interchangeable. To "know" God is to have "seen" Him as he is, "face-to-face," which of course does not happen for us until heaven.
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Br. Andrew Dominic Yang, O.P.'s picture

Filet O'Fish

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Let me kick things off by being the first to admit that I’ve always been terrible at Lenten penances; as in, the whole process. My idea of a Lenten Friday usually consisted of drowning myself in Starbucks and McDonald’s Filet O’Fish Sandwiches for dinner. (Yes, I realize these sandwiches are mashed-up mystery fish parts from who-knows-where, but they're tasty!)

I mean, will God really love me any less just because I ate an extra sandwich, and a fish one at that? (“Hey no meat right?” and “They’re so small!”)

Filet O'Fish

Thankfully, the answer is "No, he won’t." Actually, He can't. It’s impossible for God to love us any less because He loves us infinitely. It is possible, however, for us not to love God. But I never really “got” that. But through God’s merciful providence and no real merit of my own, the virtues of religious life have forced me to see Lent in a whole new way.

Penance has seemingly been abolished from the everyday Catholic’s vocabulary, having been reduced often times to three Hail Mary’s after Confession. Similarly, I find that many Catholics now treat Lenten penances as some sort of Church-sanctioned New Year’s Resolutions event. Lent is now simply a time to lose weight, quit smoking, or eat Filet O’Fish sandwiches for cheap. Where is God supposed to be in all this?

Because our thoughts tend to dwell on the surface, we often fail to see the deeper spiritual journey that God has willed us to live through the Church. The Book of Exodus tells us how the Ancient Israelites went through this same process in the Desert as they departed Egypt for Sinai. The reality is that God was not simply bringing them out of a physical slavery in Egypt; rather, the Israelites were being brought out of slavery to sin and death and into a true freedom as a people consecrated to the Lord. As we know, this is never an easy process for us.

What is easy for me is to have little sympathy for the Israelites in the Book of Exodus. Many people today often claim that they would have faith if only they could see some proof of God’s existence. Now that’s a completely different problem altogether, but not only did the Israelites in the desert actually possess this luxury, they possessed it in a fantastic way. For “the Lord preceded them, in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way, and at night by means of a column of fire to give them light…Neither the column of cloud by day nor the column of fire by night ever left its place in front of the people” (Ex 14:21-22). And if that wasn’t good enough for them, there’s that whole tidbit about the Lord dividing the Red Sea in two. Now, the Israelites must have trained in the art of complaining during their time of slavery in Egypt, because in spite of the glory of God practically hitting them in the face, they were like you and me, Certified Professional Whiners®. “Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said, ‘Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians?.’” (Ex 14:12) Talk about ungrateful. But isn’t this the chronic human condition? Left to our own devices, we always prefer slavery to freedom, darkness to light, earthly things to heavenly gifts. We would rather live as miserable squatters on this planet than in our true, eternal home in Heaven. And even after we experience firsthand the glory of God in our lives, as the Israelites did when Lord crushed the Egyptians in the Red Sea, we still continue to hand God our Certified Professional Whiners® business card. Behold Exhibits A, B, and C:

“The people grumbled against Moses saying, ‘What are we to drink?’” (Ex 15:24)

“Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!” (Ex 16:1)

“Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” (Ex 17:2)

Of course, God never abandoned them, as He never abandons us, and He provided the Israelites with quail, manna from Heaven, and water from the rock. But we’ve heard the rest of this story, and we know that, slowly but surely, Certified Professional Whiners® are always promoted to Certified Professional Idolaters.® We end up worshipping the very things (____ ß your sins here) that we are supposed to sacrifice on the altar of God. The Israelites actually did this literally. God had commanded them to sacrifice a bullock on the altar, but as soon as Moses is gone, what do they do? Out of all the things they could have selected, they choose to fashion a golden calf to worship as the image of God. “Come, make us a god who will be our leader; as for the man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him” (Ex 32:1).

Given our horrible track record as humans, I guess we could always sit here in despair, clutching our now worn-out Certified Professional Whiners® business card. But God loves us too much to allow that, for He “proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). So what are we to do? St. Paul instructs us to “put on the armor of light… the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:12-14). In putting on Jesus, we are to imitate the life of our Lord in order to become alter Christus, other Christs, to the world. But if we are to do that – if we are to reverse our course of slavery to sin during this Lenten season – we must closely examine the actions of Jesus as He was tempted in the desert. Contemplation on Christ in the desert must be an essential part of our own journey of faith. Christ teaches us how to put aside our idols that keep us in slavery – the pursuit of physical pleasures, power, and glory – that prevent us from living in true freedom. Penance – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – serves as our weapon against these idols, reminding us that God alone is the path to happiness and meaning in our life.

Unlike Christ, we know that we will inevitably stumble in our Lenten journeys. We may forget that we gave up red meat, or that we shouldn’t have beer on Friday. We may pull out that old business card of ours, and make something other than God the center of our lives. The purification process will surely be difficult. But as we nervously venture into the desert, we should have immense hope: for we will surely find that God, just as He led the Israelites from Egypt, has already preceded us there through his Son Jesus Christ. So as we journey together through Lent, it is my prayer that we put our trust firmly in Christ, and walk boldly with our eyes fixed on Him who enlightens the way before us. 

The Sounds of Lent

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Lent musicIf you regularly attend our prayers at St. Albert's, then you probably have noticed some musical changes each time we enter a new liturgical season. Each season has its own "flavor", so to speak, and this is true especially of Lent. Below are recent recordings of some of our prayers whose music or text is unique to the season of Lent.

"O God, Come to my assistance...":

Media Vita:

O Rex & Nunc Dimittis:
I Peter Canticle:
In Pace:


Ave Regina Caelorum:


 

 

 

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