Love is the Way to Lenten Joy
The Ecclesia Pudentiana or titulus Pudentianus was so called after the name of St Pudens (perhaps the senator mentioned in St Paul's epistles), and was built on the site of the founder's house, making it one of the most ancient in Rome. It seems to have been the residence of some popes during the 2nd century. In the 5th century it became a parish church of Rome and dedicated it to St Pudentiana who was believed to have been the daughter of Senator Pudens and sister of St Praxedis. The Italian bishops granted this ancient basilica to the Filipino people making it the national church of the Philippines in the Eternal City; Mass is celebrated here in English, Tagalog, Cebuano and Italian.
The recent celebrations of St Patrick's day and St Joseph's solemnity has come as a kind of relief from the austerities of the Lenten season. And there is more to come! This Saturday, we rejoice in the Annunication of the Lord and it is followed by Laetare Sunday when the Liturgy permits the use of rose vestments, organ music and flowers to adorn the altar for that one day as keynotes of joy. And yet, Fr Gerald Vann, O.P. suggests that Joy belongs altogether to the Lenten season and he explains how and why:
"We think of Lent as a gloomy season: it is because we do not love God enough. The same thing has happened to our word 'sacrifice': we think of it as something painful, repulsive, something which has to be done but which we do not pretend to like; we forget the idea of a 'sacrificium laudis', a sacrifice of praise and joy: it is because we do not love God enough. Who has ever found it repulsive to make sacrifices for someone he loves deeply? On the contrary, to give is precisely what love impels us to do. And we should think of Laetare Sunday not merely as brief respite from the rigours of Lent but as needed emphasis on the fact that it should be a time of Joy. 'Be not as the hypocrites, sad', said our Lord: that is the worst thing, to assume a glum and suffering appearance so as to impress the onlooker; but to let ourselves in fact be saddened by such sacrifices as God asks of us is still very imperfect: it means that we have not yet learnt to love because as yet we do not love to give...
But how can we acquire that perfect freedom? The power can only come from God: but we have access to that power because we are in God's house: the Lord is 'round about his people' (Ps 124:2)... We find the power only if we stop thinking that of ourselves we have any, only if we stop assuming a mastery we do not and cannot possess, only if first of all we try to be humble.
The two things, humility and joy, go together. If we think of the acceptance of the crosses that God sends us, or of the sacrifices we ourselves make, as something that we are doing, as of ourselves - 'I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I possess' - we are going in the wrong direction, away from the house of the Lord. A son, by definition, receives from his father; and, knowing that dependence, give it all back again in the form of love. If we think of our fasting and tithes as ours, then God will do as we wish, will leave us to our own devices; our austerity will become a form of self-regarding stoicism, and in the effort to live up to the plan we have set ourselves we may well become thin-lipped, gloomy, hard. St Francis, when he gave everything to God, even his clothes, burst into song; because his nakedness was not a feat of human endurance but a liberation of spirit, falling into the arms of God.
So in our Lenten prayer, we should try to make more real to ourselves the kingship of God, the nothingness of man. We can do nothing 'as of ourselves' (2 Cor 3:5). We might begin by reflecting on our obvious inability to give ourselves wholly to God with gladness. Some hard things we can take from him, perhaps, some sacrifices we can make; but we cannot do what Francis did, what all the saints do: we cannot put the whole of life unreservedly back into his hands, a total offering... so the saints sit down like children before the ultimate facts about God and man, about their own inability to serve God of themselves; they leave God, as St Teresa put it, to accomplish his will in them; and so they can be free and happy and at peace in his arms, and in his arms they find the power to do all things.
We for our part can hope to find there the power for our smaller purposes. It is not much use setting out to execute grandiose schemes of asceticism of our own choosing if at the same time we grumble at every little trial that God sends us. The first thing we can learn from the attempt to cast all our cares upon him is the ability to see his love in all that comes to us and so to accept it lovingly and if possible gladly. The gladness, we know, would be there if only our sense of God's providence and love of God's providence were deeper and stronger. The essential thing therefore is to try to make sure that we are going in the right direction, taking things in their right order: first the deepening awareness of our total dependence on God, then the correspondingly deep awareness of his constant care for us and the joy of being in his house, then thirdly the response which is thus called forth from us, the deepened gratitude for, and love of, that will in which his care is expressed at each moment as it comes, and so finally the ability to make of each moment a sacrifice of praise, something that we take humbly and gladly from the hands of God and, having done the best we can with it, return to those hands. Then in that setting we can hope that any sacrifices we try to make in addition to what comes to us not of our choosing will similarly be sacrifices of praise, similarly theocentric, similarly motivated and ensouled by love. And so we come back to the beginning: because if they are indeed acts of love they will certainly also be acts of joy."
I have come close to seeing this perfect Joy and Love evident in the lives of the poor Filipinos whom I lived and worked with (above): they seem to me to give without complaint, to accept their difficulties and trials with such hope and cheer and to have such child-like humility and trust in God's loving care and providence. It is fitting then that today's Stational church in Rome is also their national church in that Holy City.
Let us pray for the Filipino people, for their nation and leaders and let us learn from them how to have such joy in the Lord. May St Pudens and St Lawrence Ruiz, protomartyr of the Philippines pray for us all that we may follow their saintly example of total resting in God's arms, in His provident will.