“LET’S GET STARTED!”
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Lk 13:1-9)
1. Listening to the Gospel
THE CALL TO CONVERSION
Here is a rather motivational gospel passage because it asks many questions. Toward the end of the previous chapter, Jesus declared, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Lk 12:50) Thus, he offered us his way of living with suffering. When we experience suffering, Jesus invites us to go through it as a baptism, that is to say, by freely desiring to open ourselves up to the Spirit. Let’s not forget that when we hear the word baptism, we are hearing an invitation to let ourselves be guided by the Spirit as Jesus did. Jesus also tells us that there will be an end to trials, but we cannot anticipate it or decide the ending by ourselves. But—and this is very important to know—there will be a time of fulfillment.
The following questions and responses will shed light on the disconcerting gospel of this Sunday, which, according to Jesus, invites us to conversion. A tragic event is reported to Jesus and we also ask ourselves these questions: where does this come from and why is there such misfortune? We seek to answer these questions, and we may find ourselves at an impasse once more.
Jesus invites us to stop focusing on the past and to look instead to the future: this is a profound conversion that quite often we should ask the Holy Spirit to grant us since we are so entangled in the bonds of the past.
Jesus calls us to stop trying to understand and control things; instead, he calls us to commit ourselves to act in ways that are focused on the future! Therefore, we have to get involved and prepare for our future. And how? By desiring a change of heart! Everything starts there! The main object, which needs to keep us here, is conversion. So, instead of looking to lay the blame on me or others—and here the list can be long—I am invited to let go of this need to blame someone and to give priority to one question: What can I change in my heart to make things a little bit better? It’s not a matter of getting to that point right away, but of accepting that the question has arisen within me. Then, because it has grown deep within me, I can ask the Holy Spirit for help in enlightening me and enabling me to set out on a new journey with a new heart.
God’s mercy is able to change bad into good and therefore transform our broken hearts into living hearts. Let’s choose to offer this broken heart to his mercy and ask Jesus to graft his heart within us.
FROM THE FIG TREE TO THE GARDENER
From this desire for grafting, we now turn to an agricultural situation: a fig tree that has not borne fruit for a long time. Perhaps it’s my heart that has difficulty in desiring conversion? Maybe it has been this way for quite some time? But when we read Jesus’ parable, perhaps we are confused: we could think that it speaks to us of a fig tree that, despite all the care given to it by the gardener, doesn’t bear fruit. In reality, the parable speaks to me of my ingratitude—perhaps it’s reminding me of my habit of hoarding all that I have received. Everything that God gives me has a hoped-for fruit: to allow me to enter into the logic of giving. To receive the gifts of the One who only knows how to give, to recognize them in order to learn, with the donor’s help, to give myself: that’s the issue!
Also, the parable invites me not to contemplate the poor fig tree or even the owner threatening to cut it down, but the gardener! What about him? If we look at the story more closely, it’s surprising! He opposes the master’s order to cut down the fig tree; he wants to take care of a fig tree whose possible fruits in the future may not even return to him. He asks the master’s permission to work even harder for a barren fig tree. To top it all off, he asserts that he, the gardener, will never cut down this fig tree: if anyone is going to cut it down, it will be the master who’ll do it!
What a profound portrait of Jesus! It’s as if this distressing parable only exists to make us recognize, by means of contrast, the limitless goodness of Jesus’s mercy. Will we choose to trust such a friend?
At first, we might have doubted the connection between these two stories—these stories of disasters and that of this gardener who is so devoted, hoping for everything and trusting in everything, including the power of fertilizer. As we contemplate the gardener, he shows us how to fight the good fight: to believe, no matter what happens, that there is a Good Gardener who takes care of the fig tree that I am, no matter how convinced I am of being barren. The parable also teaches me to look to the future, which will show how much mercy’s gracious care in me has transformed me within my deepest center and has produced a ripe fruit: my poverty offered without resistance to mercy.
2. Lawrence of the Resurrection, poor witness of Mercy
THE LIFE OF BROTHER LAWRENCE (1614–1691)
Brother Lawrence is perhaps less familiar to you. I’d like to present a short introduction before listening to his testimony and experience of divine mercy:
Nicolas Herman was born in 1614 in Lorraine, France to a deeply Christian family. At the age of 18, he had a decisive spiritual experience when he contemplated a tree that had been stripped bare in winter: he found himself meditating on the Life that would bring back its greenness and fruitfulness in the spring. From then on, God the Creator was for him a personal and living being. Nicholas then chose the life of a soldier in the service of the Duke of Lorraine; twice he came close to death, and at the age of 21, a wound forced him to leave his military career. During his convalescence that followed, he decided to devote his life to God; he became a hermit but he didn’t find the peace he was looking for. Nicolas then left for Paris where he became a servant for a king’s advisor. At the age of 26, he decided there to enter the convent of the Discalced Carmelites on the rue de Vaugirard as a lay brother, and he received the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. For fifteen years, he was the community’s cook and then shoemaker. His first ten years of religious life were spent in spiritual darkness, with a strong sense of his sins. But he surrendered to the Lord and practiced living simply under God’s gaze in all things and in every moment of the day. He found peace living this way. A radiant period then began: he received many visitors, like the famous François Fénelon. Brother Lawrence thus consumed his life in a simple relationship with God, to Whom he went on February 12, 1691, at the age of 77. A biography written by one of his friends would quickly make him known for his message on the practice of the presence of God. This teaching would spread very widely—even beyond Catholicism—especially in English-speaking circles where Brother Lawrence’s influence has been lasting.
As we have just mentioned, the first part of Lawrence’s life was very difficult. He was confronted with many internal and external trials; and as he entered the Carmelite convent in Paris, the internal trials troubled him, notably a deep awareness of his sin. Here is someone who speaks the truth and can propose a simple and sure pathway. Let’s listen to him at length and see what route he proposes. The difficult thing is to accept the interior and exterior realities as they are, without expecting to change them immediately, so that at all times, starting from this sometimes-painful experience, we might surrender ourselves to mercy: our poverty and our misery become invitations to surrender to mercy. That’s what really counts!
“I consider myself as the most miserable of all human beings, covered with sores, foul, and guilty of all sorts of crimes committed against my King; moved by sincere remorse I confess all my sins to him. I ask him pardon and abandon myself into his hands so he can do with me as he pleases. Far from chastising me, this King, full of goodness and mercy, lovingly embraces me, seats me at his table, waits on me himself, gives me the keys to his treasures, and treats me in all things as his favorite; he converses with me and takes delight in me in countless ways, without ever speaking of forgiveness or taking away my previous faults.” (Letter 2 to a spiritual director, 1682–1683)
This excerpt from one of his letters offers us a very profound summary of our situation and the direction we are invited to take.
CONFRONTING OUR MISERY
First of all, Lawrence doesn’t attempt to downplay his sinfulness in any way. This is a tendency we have—we try to minimize our responsibility and the reality of our misery. We are like someone who is sick and suffering but doesn’t confide in the doctor.
This is what Lawrence chooses: I submit without shame, I show God my situation, and I simply ask him to do with me what he wants and what pleases him: I rely on him, on his plan, his desire, his love, his goodness, what he is, and how he wants to reveal it within me.
This attitude is decisive and—here’s the difficult part—it must be practiced with perseverance every day. It’s a matter of turning to God, starting with what is truly ours: our misery. It’s true: not only are we miserable, but everything that isn’t misery within us comes from God. In this sense, all the misery is ours.
This offering to God of our many kinds of miseries—spiritual, physical, moral, etc.—serves to reveal the heart of God and his unchanging attitude towards us. We must agree to take up this journey again, starting out from the point of our poverty because God doesn’t just remove my weaknesses and “my previous faults.” Simply put, from now on we don’t experience them in the same way! We make use of them so that the goodness and mercy of God may be revealed in us and through us as God desires.
Let’s listen to Lawrence encourage us again on this way of trust and abandonment:
“Let us often recall […] that our only concern in this life is to please God, and that everything else is folly and vanity. We have spent more than forty years in religious life. Have we used them to love and serve God who in his mercy has called us to this?
I am filled with shame and embarrassment when I consider how, on the one hand, God ceaselessly gives me such great graces, and how, on the other, I make such poor use of them and fail to profit from them along the way of perfection.
Since in his mercy he still gives us a little time, let’s take advantage of it! We can make up for lost time and return to this Father of goodness with complete trust. He is always ready to receive us lovingly. Let us renounce […] and renounce completely for the sake of his love all that is not God; he deserves infinitely more. Let us think of him continually. Let us put all our trust in him, for I have no doubt that we will soon reap the benefits and know the abundance of his grace, with which we can do everything and without which we can only sin.” (Letter 8, 28 March 1689)
This week with Lawrence, let’s get started!
fr. Denis-Marie Ghesquières (Paris convent)
Pray each day of the week
with Lawrence of the Resurrection
Monday, March 21: The joy of salvation
“Wash, and be clean.” (2 Kgs 5:13)
“My God, I am all yours; Lord, fashion me according to your heart.” (Letter 1)
Let’s ask the Lord: “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” (Ps 51:10,12)
Tuesday, March 22: Come to my assistance!
“Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in yoour patience and in your abundant mercy.” (Dn 3:42)
“Ah! If we only knew how much we needed God’s graces and help, we would never lose sight of him, not even for a moment.” (Letter 3)
Let’s not hesitate to call upon the Lord with humility: “God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”
Wednesday, March 23: Fulfilling the law of love
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mt 5:17)
“Believe me and count as lost all the time not spent in loving God.” (Eulogy 48)
Today I will practice at least two acts of unconditional love towards God and/or my neighbor.
Thursday, March 24: Let’s get started
“They did not listen to me, or pay attention, but they stiffened their necks. They did worse than their ancestors did.” (Jer 7:26)
“Since in his mercy he still gives us a little time, let’s take advantage of it! We can make up for lost time.” (Letter 8)
We’re halfway through Lent. Let’s choose something to convert that will be known only to Jesus.
Friday, March 25 The Annunciation of the Lord: To be entirely His
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (Lk 1:28)
“May he do with me as he pleases, for I seek him alone and want to be entirely his.” (Letter 2)
With the Blessed Virgin Mary, like her, we too are filled with graces. Let’s express our gratitude for the work of salvation accomplished by Christ, our Redeemer.
Saturday, March 26: To converse with Him
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13)
“I consider myself as the most miserable of all human beings… guilty of all sorts of crimes committed against my King… I ask him pardon and abandon myself into his hands… This King, full of goodness and mercy… converses with me and takes delight in me.” (Letter 2)
Let us believe firmly in our God who forgives all our offenses without growing weary and let’s dare to take one, humble step towards Him.
Lent 2022 Online Retreat © Copyright 2022, carmes-paris.org, and © Copyright 2022, Teresian Carmelites in Austria, All rights reserved. Published in collaboration with:
ICS Publications (Washington DC),
Teresianischen Karmel in Österreich ,
Edith Stein Gesellschaft Österreich, and
Marienschwestern vom Karmel.
Translations provided by North American members of the Discalced Carmelite Secular Order.