Open your heart to the Spirit of God
“The twentieth century blows across it now but deeply it has kept an ancient vow.” Patrick Kavanagh, Irish Poet.
In the middle of Lough Derg, a small lake in County Donegal, lies a site which is associated with St. Patrick. From at least 500 AD there has been a monastery on this site above a cave. Irish legend recalls Jesus showed St. Patrick the site of this cave and told him that it was the entrance to purgatory. Since its earliest days there has been a penitential pilgrimage at this site where old Celtic monastic spiritual practices have been retained. These intense practices challenge the pilgrim to focus on listening for God’s voice and presence in their lives, to make a recollection and inventory of their lives, and to make resolutions to reform and change. ‘St Patrick’s Purgatory,’ as this site has become known since the eleventh century, became renowned across Europe, drawing intrepid pilgrims from as far away as Spain, Italy, and Hungary.
Even today the traditional three day pilgrimage is maintained which includes fairly rigorous spiritual exercises including: going barefoot on the island, keeping a twenty four hour vigil, fasting on frugal fare and drink, one meal a day made up of black tea/coffee, dry toast, oat cakes, water, sustained vocal prayer, and bodily prayer practices – kneeling, standing, praying with arms extended in the shape of the cross, “walking the rounds,” a series of stations on the island where pilgrims walk around a cross within a circle of stones a designated number of times. Generally, pilgrims depart on the morning of the third day having slept on their second night. They complete their pilgrimage fast at midnight the day of departure. Still today this pilgrimage attracts between eleven to thirty thousand people a year, mostly young, and from all over the world.
Fasting and prayer is not new, and it has a deep Biblical foundation. The great prophet and Lawgiver Moses fasted for three periods of fourth days when he was in the presence of God on Mount Sinai. Nehemiah fasted to help him confess his sins to God and turn away from them and to ask God for favor in the sight of the King of Persia to get permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:4). King David fasted to ask God to intervene because of injustice (Psalm 35:13). Jonah had the pagan city of Nineveh fast to prevent its destruction. The Prophet Isaiah (58:8-10) lists eight reasons for fasting: Your mind will be opened to greater understanding; Physical healing will come quickly to you; God will go before you as a defender; God’s glory will protect you; God will answer your prayers; When you cry for help God will be there; God will fill you with light; God will lift the gloom from your life.
Jesus, of course, is our great witness to fasting, prayer and alms giving. Not only does He go into the wilderness and fast for forty days and forty nights, He goes to a quiet place every day to pray. Also, before any major decisions or initiatives Jesus prays and fasts. He prayed intensely the night before His Sacrifice.
As we move our attention to Lent, and preparation for Easter, it would be a good time to reexamine our own relationship with God, to evaluate how we are carrying out the mission God has given us to do here on earth, and to examine our own lives and, if necessary, readjust our focus and direction. We can’t all go to Lough Derg, or make the Camino de Santiago, but we can all do something that helps us to take stock and find our direction.
Some spiritual exercises and opportunities that might help us this Lent could include: making a commitment to go to daily Mass, or an extra Mass each week, making a good examination of conscience and going to confession, making the Stations of the Cross in private or as a community exercise, making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or Adoration, fasting on Friday from meat or fasting during Lent from some food or pleasure we enjoy (limiting TV, alcohol, social media), take the opportunity to attend one of the special Lent events like The Shroud of Turin Talk (March 28th, OLV), Mike Davis Lenten Concert (St. Dominic, 15th March), Cincinnati artist Holly Schapker’s talk on the Passion of Christ and the Stations she painted (OLV, 9th March). We could also increase our personal prayer like offering the rosary for a good cause, praying for the Poor Souls, lighting devotional candles at church for the honor of God, Our Lady, the Saints, and for particular intentions. It was a custom during Lent to recite the great Litanies, Litany of Loreto, Litany of the Saints, Litany of the Sacred Heart, Litany of the Name of Jesus, Litany of the Precious Blood. We might pray as a family or enshrine a holy image for Lent and Easter. We might also spend time in charitable works, help provide for the poor, or give some time or treasure to support the cause of justice, peace, goodness, and life. Or we might support a parish event, donate time and talent around the church, school, parish grounds, or help a neighbor in need.
In all of this the point is not to do more stuff but to turn our hearts, minds, and lives to God so that God can fill us with His grace and blessing. Any opportunity given to God, or for God, God will not forget. If we open our heart to God, the Holy Spirit will enter in.