There is a Jewish folktale Fr. Ron Rolheiser, theologian and spiritual writer, shares in his book Against an Infinite Horizon.
“There once was a young man who aspired to great holiness. After some time at working to achieve it, he went to see his rabbi.
‘Rabbi,’ he announced, ‘I think I have achieved sanctity.’
‘Why do you think that?’ asked the rabbi.
‘Well,’ responded the young man, ‘I’ve been practicing virtue and discipline for some time now and I have grown proficient at them. From the time the sun rises until it sets, I take no food or water. All day long, I do all kinds of hard work for others and never expect to be thanked. If I have temptations of the flesh, I roll in the snow or in thorn bushes until they go away, and then at night, before bed, I practice the ancient monastic discipline and administer lashes to my bare back. I have disciplined myself so as to become holy.’
The rabbi was silent for a time. Then he took the young man by the arm and led him to a window and pointed to an old horse which was just being led away by its master. ‘I have been observing that horse for some time,’ the rabbi said, ‘and I’ve noticed that it doesn’t get fed or watered from morning to night. All day long it has to do work for people, and it never gets thanked. I often see it rolling around in snow or in bushes, as horses are prone to do, and often I see it get whipped. But I ask you: Is that a saint or a horse?’”
Fr. Rolheiser comments, “This is a good parable because it shows how simplistic it is to simply identify sanctity and virtue with self-renunciation and the capacity to do what is difficult. In popular thought there is a common spiritual equation: saint = horse; what is more difficult is always better. But that can be wrong. To be a saint is to be motivated by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less”
Let me emphasize Fr. Rolheiser’s point here again, to be a saint is to be motivated by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less.
Jesus cautions his disciples to notice our attitudes and motivations when it comes to our Lenten practices. Jesus says, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
St. Michael’s Family, why do we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Why do we give up meat on Fridays? What is so important that we obey the Lenten practices? We do these easy rituals meant to make us reflect and shake us out of our everyday way of doing things, to take time and consider how grateful we are to God from whom the formidable gift of life comes, and to take time to deliberately care about others, specifically the less fortunate.
Family, on this day, Ash Wednesday we are called from the everyday, to be aware of the blessedness of the human lives around us, and to be a more thankful people, a people who do not take our life or the lives of others around us for granted.
During Lent, it is our duty to pray, fast and to perform acts of personal sacrifice to bring us into this new realization. Lent can be an opportunity to start our New Year’s resolution again. This can be a time to spend five minutes or more in prayer, perhaps with scripture or the rosary, if you only start with one Decade. Read and do the Lenten study and activities we have started. Lent can be time to aid the homeless or giving at a charity. Lent can be a time to make the effort to take part in some of our special devotions like the Stations of the Cross (Good Friday). There are as many ways to enter into Lent as there are baptized Christians.
We are called to complete spiritual exercises, not because we are horses. We do it because of our love for God, and because we are human. At times we humans need to be agitated from the ordinary, to be reminded that our time here is short, that “we are dust and to dust we will return”. We sometimes forget this great gift, life, can you imagine a world without you! I know the family here can’t.
We have so valuable little time to do our part for God, to give back just a meniscal of what He has given us. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, that time is fleeting, to shake us out of complacency and get to work on God’s Kingdom. We are all invited to accept St. Francis’ invitation to preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.