As a freshman in college, I was excited about my new-found freedom. I had an innate sense that this was my time, the year I could start to be my own person and choose my own life. Above all else, like everyone else, I wanted to be happy. For a while, I tried joining my friends in their pursuits of happiness – in typical college fashion. I noticed pretty quickly, however, that even if a freshman did make his way into the best senior party with the best looking girls, he was still miserable the following weekend until he could do it all over again. It was pretty clear to me that most peoples’ goals would never result in actual fulfillment. At the time I was studying philosophy with Peter Kreeft, as well as breaking into John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility. I certainly made my share of mistakes, but these two helped me see what it was that we are really made for.
When God made us, he made our hearts to be like compasses. When working as they are meant to, these compasses point us toward him. Our hearts know when we are connecting with God or moving towards him. Something just feels right. Our hearts are also made with an infinite desire that can only be satisfied by something infinite. This is why St. Augustine says; “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
This desire can be really uncomfortable when it is unfulfilled, and so it feels like restlessness as St. Augustine described. As humans, we are fairly wimpy when it comes to putting up with discomfort, and so we find ways to distract ourselves from this restlessness and unfulfilled desire. We come up with finite pleasures (even good ones) that give temporary relief to our restlessness. It may take a whole lifetime, but usually we realize we are still unfulfilled and know deep down that our hearts are seeking something that only an Infinite Being could provide.
Lent is a time for putting our distractions on hold. When we pause these distractions for a short time, we allow the deepest longings of our heart to reveal themselves. The barely audible still small voice that whispers our need for God in the normal chaos of daily life can grow to a loud and clear declaration crying out in the desert, “my Lord and my God!” Sometimes that cry will be longing, sometimes gratitude or praise, and sometimes anger or despair, but it will always be the genuine cry from the depths of our hearts.
One really effective way of focusing on the desire in our hearts for God is to meditate on the presence of God. God is outside of space and time, and so we can say that he exists in a sort of “eternal now.” We live in space and time, and so our now is not eternal but immediately changing – we exist moment to moment. Our now, the present moment, is where we can connect with God. God is in an eternal moment, and we are in finite moments, but in each moment we can connect with God as he is.
Our brains do not naturally rest in the present moment. Especially in the western hemisphere, we are a society of critical thinkers and problem solvers. We are constantly replaying and evaluating our past and trying to anticipate our future. Sometimes these modes of thinking can get out of control leading to anxiety and depression. Sometimes problems need to be solved and it’s good to figure out “where we went wrong,” but for the most part all we ever really need to do is be aware of the present moment. Union with God is not in our past or present (though he was in our past when we were there, and he will be in our future when we get there).
Two things happen if we can direct our awareness away from the thoughts of past or future things in our head and to the present moment. First of all, our brain comes out of critical thinking mode, a process that naturally relaxes the body. Second, and more importantly, we can rest in a place where we are connecting with God. Our connection naturally arises from an awareness of who we are – who we really are at this moment, in this space – and who God is, as the infinite loving Being accessible to me now.
This connection with God will not always be a comfortable experience. Our limitations become clear, and our need for someone other than ourselves becomes an unavoidable reality. That’s ok. It’s actually good to experience this discomfort. It will propel us towards God and our ultimate fulfillment in the vocation that he created us for, to love and be loved.
Giving things up for lent is not supposed to be an exercise in suffering just for the sake of suffering. We use this time to “offer up” the things that we let get in the way of our experience of God as he created us. Just as Israel had to sacrifice the animals the Egyptians worshipped in the place of God, we can give up the things that take God’s place in our hearts.