Lent is the liturgical season of preparation for Easter, similar in nature to Advent which is the time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. In the early days of the Church, individuals who planned to be baptized at the Easter Vigil service spent the 40 days of Lent in prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Their preparation to join the family of the faithful followed the pattern set by Jesus himself during his 40-day fast in the desert. As Mark’s gospel records it, this time came immediately following Jesus’s baptism – literally the first thing he did as he began his ministry. The gospels also record Satan’s attempts to sabotage the fast, trying to take advantage of a hungry stomach and a mind playing tricks in the desert heat. Satan didn‘t appreciate that fasting was an experience of spiritual nourishment and refreshment for the Savior as he prepared to undertake his mission. We too can find nourishment and refreshment in our Lenten observance, if we approach the season as a time for listening for what God wants us to hear from him.
The last Sunday before Lent is observed as Transfiguration Sunday. That Sunday’s Gospel story of Jesus on the mountain, appearing before Peter, James and John in dazzling white clothing, and talking with Moses and Elijah, culminates in the spoken message from God: “Listen to my Son.” That’s all. Listen. No mention of working miracles or healing the sick or preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth. Listening is what God expects. We may think that sounds too simple, but it really isn’t because “just” listening isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Most of us have experienced the frustration of someone misinterpreting something we’ve said, or failing to acknowledge it. What do we say to that person? “You weren’t listening to me!” Not being listened to is insulting and emotionally hurtful, and has the potential to damage close relationships. The person who wasn’t listening may have heard the words that were said, but he may still not have an accurate impression of the intended meaning. That’s because the process of listening depends not only on our auditory function, but also on the cognitive and emotional components that interpret meaning and intent. All of those elements are also involved in listening for what our Lord has to tell us, plus one more crucial component: the spirit. The Bible often refers to it as “heart.” Many well-known thinkers have written about what the heart perceives that the mind and senses cannot; for example:
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart. – Helen Keller
Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye. – H. Jackson Brown, Jr. (author of Life’s Little Instruction Books)
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. — Blaise Pascal
The first step, then, is listening for God is to open our hearts. The Psalmist in Psalm 51 asks that God transform the sin-stained heart that has led him astray into a new, clean heart. We need to join the Psalmist in his humble request, because we cannot cleanse our hearts on our own. Thus we follow our Lord to the desert – figuratively, of course: taking six weeks out of our lives to become temporary hermits it isn’t practical for most of us! However, each of us can commit to giving special attention to a discipline like prayer, spiritual reading or meditation during the 40 days of Lent.
Spending even a short amount of time in quiet on a regular basis, listening for what God is communicating to us, will begin to open our hearts. We may not receive clear messages right away. Think about the many years of training and practice that counselors and pastoral caregivers undergo, and still they don’t hear everything perfectly every time. Listening, like other skills, improves with repetition. One key is to be open to receiving a message in any one of several forms, because God speaks to different people in different ways. Some people report ideas that perhaps quietly or perhaps more dramatically enter their minds, apparently from out of the blue. Others say that other people in their lives have transmitted messages, and still others speak of an unmistakable “sense” or awareness that permeates their consciousness. No matter what form God chooses to communicate with you, it’s well worth the time and effort to practice regular listening, and the season of Lent is an ideal time to begin.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
1. Most of the time, is your heart closed or open to receiving messages from God? How do you know?
2. What steps can you take to set aside a time and space conducive to opening your heart to God’s communication?
God, please cleanse my heart from all of the worldly attachments that distract from and shut out what you’re saying to my spirit. Open my heart to you and to your will. Amen.