Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon for Ash Wednesday: Lent is not a time for ascetic exploits, but for a merely and truly Christian life.


Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
Fontgombault, February 26, 2020

Convertimini ad me.
Be converted to Me with all your heart.

Joel 2:12

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,

The Holy Forty Days of Penance are back, days both dreaded and desired.

Dreaded, for they remind us that it is our duty to convert, to turn around. What is at stake in this turnaround is perhaps not the ultimate orientation of our lives, yet, it does demand a true effort on such or such point, which we have to discern and acknowledge. It’s never something easy to give up habits that have grown old at the same pace as we have. What a token of love if we do that! What a merit!

These days are also desired, for they will end up in the light of the Risen One. The Easter night encounter is like the magnet reorienting the compass of our lives during Lent.

Encountering and receiving the Lord cannot be improvised. Remember the Gospel part about Martha and Mary. The Lord has entered His friends’ home. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Martha is busy with the preparation of the meal, and she grows impatient with her sister’s inactivity. Jesus, while He acknowledges that Martha is busy with many things (for that matter, He doesn’t ask her to give up cooking), tactfully reminds her that one choice only is good, truly good. This good part consists in receiving Jesus in one’s heart.

Jesus’ answer points out what a true Lenten path should be. It doesn’t mean we should take up Carthusian observances. It means that, while we remain faithful to our duty of state, to our humdrum everyday routine, we should receive again, or receive better, Jesus into our own lives.

Lent is therefore not a time of training for ascetic exploits, which might fulfill the ardent expectations of a youth more prideful than holy. During this holy time, the Church invites her children to lead a merely and truly Christian life, in a concrete, renewed, and persevering practice of the love of God and our neighbors.

The aim of life is the encounter with Christ. If St. Benedict invites his monks to keep ceaselessly death before their eyes, it is because the tipsy headiness of our life — and yet, it is far removed from a worldly life — might make us forget this step which all of us will have to cross. Seen in the context of the whole of our life, the time of Lent appears as a reminder that our path will meet with an end, requiring a preparation.

The Paschal mystery, center of the liturgical year, is not the mere yearly commemoration of a two thousand year old event. The remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ invites us to an encounter, that of our lives with Christ.  

To sum up, the relationship between Lent and Easter is the same as that between our life and the day of our death, namely, the day of our encounter with Christ. St. Benedict writes, at the beginning of the chapter in his Rule dedicated to the observance of Lent: 

The life of a monk ought always to be a Lenten observance. However, since such virtue is that of few, we advise that during these days of Lent the monk guard his life with all purity, and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the shortcomings of other times. (Rule, ch. 49)
So, what should we do during this Lenten time, or more precisely, how can we remain with Christ during Lent?

God’s mystery is unfathomable. He who would give up seeking God, striving to know Christ deeper, could not claim to remain with Christ. During this time, let us not disregard the great richness of the liturgical texts. The Church has set them to prepare the catechumens for baptism. On the path leading towards God, we always remain novices. Why wouldn’t we take a sufficient amount of time to meditate these texts?

It is not enough to know Christ. We also have to live with Christ, and our own lives should take their roots in His life. Two places are offered to us: first, our own life, which always keeps needing to be evangelized; then, the community or the communities in which we live: first and foremost, our family or religious community, and also the school, the university, the workplace, the places of entertainment.

Evangelizing the places is not enough, we also have to evangelize over the long term, evangelize time. On the threshold of Lent, we feel the need of a humble and realistic soul-searching, without fear nor compromise.

We should not rule out the risk of despondency. If an examination of conscience is necessary, an “examination of trust” would perhaps be as urgent, concerning our fervor, the depth of our faith. How can we understand the fact that so few Christians radiate their faith in evangelizing? To ward off any potential despondency, the texts of this first day in Lent are full of references to God’s mercy. It is the divine trait which encourages us to ask with the Church the help of God, when we are in hardships and when sin keeps us captive in its snares.

Let us remember that if the burden of the day is heavy, if our past is accusing us, nonetheless God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wants them to turn from their ways and live. This will of God transfigures the past. It is a foundation of hope for the future. Above all, it points out to the present time as the place for a concrete answer to the will of God. This answer is our conversion.
As a token of our will to answer the Lord’s call, we have received on our foreheads the sign of the Cross, drawn with ashes.

Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments and turn to the Lord your God. (Joel 2:12-13) 

If today’s texts mention God’s mercy, they also invite us to practice the virtue of humility. The humility of the Nazareth Virgin conquered the heart of the Lord.

Last, the Lord assures us that we are protected by the holy angels. Let us especially pray them during this holy period. Through almsgiving, fasting, and prayer, let us open up our hearts to the expectation and light of the Risen Christ, in renewed faith, hope, and charity.

Have a holy and joyful Lent.