"Your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt 6:3).
The season of Lent begins with a clear reminder that interior conversion comes before any effective change of behavior. The three ritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving point us in the right direction but they do not make the journey. What God wants most of all is our total attention. "Turn to me with all your heart."
As in any relationship, this attentiveness requires setting aside distractions, simplifying our lives to focus on the beloved, listening and observing carefully and responding fully. We have important models. Mary was so intent on God's Word that it became flesh in her womb. She calls herself "the handmaid of the Lord," describing a servant who watches the hands of her mistress for the slightest gesture or command. The prophets are those who listen intently, day and night, and then say, "Here I am."
Jesus wants his disciples to be in this same posture of readiness. Habits of mindfulness, an eagerness to move immediately when called, free of the sluggishness of sleep and food, deep empathy for those around us, whose needs can signal God's presence, are part of our training.
Ashes on our foreheads affirm the absolute priority of God in our lives, for without God we are dust in the wind, without purpose or meaning. We live only because our Father sees us, remembers us, sustains us in existence. Nothing else matters if we do not nurture this intimate encounter with the source of our being. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit or they are abandoned houses, bare, ruined choirs. But if God dwells in us, we are wellsprings, gardens that welcome the thirsty, tired traveler, shade trees offering sweet refreshment to others.
Lent is about clearing away the tangle of competing desires and needs to uncover that the most basic choice we must make every day. "I put before you life and death: choose life." Let us enter the season of renewal to make God the center of our lives.