During Lent the Church calls on us in a special way to prepare our hearts and to purify our souls so that we can be ready to commemorate the most important events in all of human history: the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our eternal destiny — whether we spend eternity with God or without Him, in happiness or in misery, in Heaven or in Hell — depends on how we respond to those events!
Let us use this season of Lent to get closer to God, maybe closer than ever before, so that you can be what God created you to be: living signs, living witnesses, living instruments of His infinite love to the world.
Lent is a time when there should be one thing at the forefront of our minds — the salvation of our immortal souls. We must ask ourselves: Do I really believe that only God can totally satisfy the desires of my heart? It is, has been, and forever will be the case that only God can give us the kind of true peace and joy and happiness that we are searching for. Material goods cannot do that. Money cannot do that. Human relationships cannot do that. Only God can do it! God wants us to experience His infinite love and mercy and to respond to Him in a spirit of Christian joy.
We live in a time of great uncertainty. In fact, a great deal of the instability we see in the news and in our own communities finds its source in the moral and spiritual confusion of our culture. Our civilization needs a spiritual revival.
This spiritual renewal, however, cannot be imposed from above: It has to begin with us. It has to begin in our humble and contrite hearts because the world is never going to change unless there is first a change in the human heart. The world is never going to change for the better unless we are good. More precisely, the world is never going to be good unless we are holy. That was the central message of the Second Vatican Council more than five decades ago, and it’s a lesson that has been lost by many Catholics today.
What is the best way to begin this process of individual spiritual renewal? If you haven’t done so already in the season of Lent, the best way to begin is by making a good examination of conscience and a good Confession. The state of grace, to which we are restored by the grace of the sacrament, is the starting point for any personal renewal — and therefore is the starting point for the renewal of the world.
How is your prayer life?
There’s no way any of us can reach our full spiritual potential as Christian men and women without a strong, deep life of daily personal prayer. True love demands union. True union with God comes only through the life of prayer.
I would be willing to bet that most Catholics could sum up their daily prayer life in half a minute or less. You might be one of them, and there would be nothing unusual about that. You might say a short prayer or two when you get up in the morning, then Grace before meals, then a few short prayers before bedtime. In the spirit of challenging you during this Lenten season, let me tell you: That is not good enough in the sight of Almighty God! God’s love is constantly searching and thirsting and craving for more and more of our love in return! He is not going to fully satisfy your spiritual needs, and you are not going to be entirely pleasing to Him, unless you make the time and the effort to have a strong, deep life of daily personal prayer.
God told the prophet Jeremiah something that He intends for all of us to hear, understand, and never forget: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer. 1:5). Think about that for a moment. Our coming into this world was not an accident but an act of the Will of God. God in His infinite knowledge and wisdom has known each and every one of us from before time began. God created us out of nothing because He wanted us to have life. He wanted us to know the joy of being because ultimately He wants all of us to share perfect eternal happiness with Him in His heavenly kingdom.
It was not by accident, but by the creative Will of God that each one of us came into this world at a certain time, in a certain place, in a certain way, and in a certain family. God did not bring us into this world to abandon us. We know this because in the Gospel He has revealed Himself to us. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is also in the book of the prophet Jeremiah:
I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes. (Jer. 29:11–14)
God has a plan for your life that is going to end in eternal glory — if only you will cooperate with the graces He wants to give you. The Apostle St. Paul said, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom. 8:28). And who are the ones who love God? Four times at the Last Supper Jesus said to the Apostles, “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21).
But Jesus also said:
Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 7:21)
Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46)
For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matt. 22:14)
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those
who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matt. 7:13–14)
The Lord is clear that, contrary to popular belief, it is not quite as easy to get into Heaven as we’ve often been led to believe. This points us to three very basic truths of the spiritual life. First, no one can be saved without conforming his or her life to God’s Will. There is only one way to get to Heaven and that is by loving God, and the only way we can definitively demonstrate that we love God is through our obedience to His holy wisdom and Will. All of us are called to holiness of life. Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Holiness, which is that alignment of the human will with the Will of Almighty God, is not an option, but a command from Our Savior.
Second, it is impossible for any of us to do God’s Will without the help of God’s grace. Human nature is weak, having been wounded by Original Sin. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). All of us feel the attractive power of sin in our lives in many ways. We cannot make it alone.
Third, God’s grace comes to us first through the sacraments, but most often through the life of prayer. Therefore, no one can be saved without prayer. Prayer is the key to salvation. The whole mystery of human salvation — your whole future, your whole relationship with God — depends entirely on how much and how well you are willing to pray. The saints became saints because they understood the incomparable power of prayer! They knew that prayer has the power to change our lives and the lives of others — and they proved it with their lives.
God is a loving Father, Who always wants to share the endless treasures of His grace with us and with the people we love. But the question is this: If prayer has this kind of power; if God uses prayer to direct the course of events in our lives; if prayer is absolutely essential to our wellbeing both now and for all eternity, then why do we pray so little? How is it that so many of us always seem to have time for everything but prayer? If we can sit for hours in front of the television watching a movie or a ball game and think nothing of it, how can it be that even five or ten minutes of personal prayer each day is too much of a burden? God gives us so much! Why do we give Him so little of ourselves in return?
There are many reasons prayer ends up being a low priority in our lives. Sometimes it’s simply because we don’t have enough faith. We don’t really believe that God is going to hear and answer our prayers. We don’t really believe that God is infinitely wise and infinitely in love with each and every one of us, and that He hears and answers our prayers in the way He knows is truly best for us.
Sometimes we fail to pray because we aren’t willing to wait for God to give an answer, and we don’t have the patience to persevere. In our society, people want and expect and demand instant gratification. We think life ought to be like a fast-food restaurant! We want what we want when we want it. We don’t want to persevere in prayer like the widow in Jesus’ parable who pestered the unjust judge until the judge ruled in her favor (Luke 18:1–8).
And then sometimes we don’t pray because we are just too proud to admit we need God’s help. We think we can make it alone, but we’re always kidding ourselves. We often hear that the American spirit is characterized by rugged individualism, fierce independence, and self-sufficiency — and in many ways those can be admirable traits. But when those ideas get carried over into one’s relationship with God, nothing good can come of it. That kind of “individualism” cuts us off from Christ, and our relationship with Him wastes away. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. . . . Apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers” (John 15:5–6).
But I think that most of the time we neglect prayer because we think we are just too busy. We’re too preoccupied with the cares of the world and the hectic pace of our lives, so we don’t make the time or the effort to pray the way we should. We can always think of a million excuses not to pray. But let’s take Our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount and turn them around. Think of them in the negative. “Don’t ask and you won’t receive. Don’t seek and you won’t find. Don’t knock and it won’t be opened to you” (see Matt. 7:7). The cost of neglecting prayer is much higher than the cost of putting off that housework or project or television show.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say that most people look at prayer like a parachute. Think of the way a pilot looks on a parachute: He always keeps it with him, but he hopes he’ll never have to use it. He’ll use it in an emergency, of course, but other than that, he’ll ignore it. That’s the way most people look at prayer. Many people, tragically, turn to God only when they want something for themselves or when some crisis comes up in their lives. They pray only when they feel like it — and rarely do they feel like it. And once they get what they want and their troubles blow over, they stop praying altogether, and God won’t hear from them until the next time a problem arises.
God is not a parachute. He is not like roadside assistance, always waiting for your call and ready to leap into action. He is not obligated to make instant miracles for you. Indeed, He is under no obligation to hear or to answer the prayers of those who have made themselves strangers to Him.
Prayer and suffering
We are living in a world filled with suffering souls desperately in need of God’s grace. Just log on to the Internet or scroll through social media, and you’ll see how many lives and souls are hanging in the balance at every moment. How many could still be saved if only more people like us would pray in charity for them? Our Lady of Fatima said, “Pray, pray very much. Make sacrifices for sinners. Many souls go to hell, because no one is willing to help them with sacrifice.”
Prayer is essential for salvation, but that does not mean it will make our lives perfect in this world. It’s easy to think that, once we begin to make time for daily prayer and practice the spiritual life in earnest, everything in our lives ought to go beautifully. But anyone who has read the lives of the saints knows how false that is. God invariably permitted the saints to be tried like gold in the fire of suffering, tribulation, and persecution; by these means He gave them the opportunity to practice heroic virtue. They bore the heaviest crosses until the day, the hour, and often the moment they died. If you read the Bible from cover to cover, nowhere will you find God promising anyone perfect contentment and fulfillment here and now. He makes that promise to us only in the life to come — and then only for those who are faithful, who keep the Commandments, who pray.
Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). And we have to pray for the grace to bear that cross with patience and a spirit of self-sacrifice and Christian love. God will never permit a cross to come into our lives that is too heavy for us to bear. Further, when we offer our daily sufferings in the form of prayer — when we unite our daily crosses with the suffering of Christ on Calvary — our sufferings take on a tremendous redemptive value. These prayers obtain for us and for others many special graces. Therefore, when we offer our daily burdens to God, nothing that we suffer will ever be in vain. All of it is turned into a most powerful prayer.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Making a Holy Lent: 40 Meditations to Prepare You for the Church’s Holiest Season, which is available through Sophia Institute Press.