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JAMES BEHRENS: Lent ushers in a rich season, full of opportunity

Ash Wednesday arrived very early this year. The church sets aside these weeks of Lent in order to prepare for Easter. It is a time of penance, renewal and new beginnings.

We had a larger than usual gathering at Mass on Ash Wednesday. The abbot distributed the ashes immediately after his homily, applying ashes to the foreheads of the monks and those guests who were with us at Mass. We changed our psalters on the night before, putting away our Ordinary time books and retrieving our Lenten ones.

Lent is a rich season, a time of many opportunities. I like to think that it is a time to practice a bit of self-recovery, of getting back to the basics of who we are, who we aspire to be.

It is a time to ponder the gift of beginning anew, and taking the necessary steps in that direction.

Ironically, it is a time when we take to heart the importance of allowing God to draw near to us. It is not a question of our doing a lot of things to improve our status in His eyes. It is rather a willingness to trust that He loves us as we are, and to be open to the meaning of that love.

Lent encourages us to let go of our busy-ness and to allow the love of God to refresh us, deepen us, inspire us. It means putting aside those things that normally prevent us from discovering God's presence in the daily activities of our lives.

Every religious tradition shares a common need to set aside times of the year for renewal, for repentance. It would seem that despite their differences, the ways to God as these are laid out and practiced by the varied paths of faith share a felt need to foster ways for people to look into their hearts and begin anew.

Being human, our memories are short. Our daily activities are many and burdensome. Our days tend to be filled with activities that may seem far off the road to salvation. But it is in and through these activities that God's grace seeps into our lives.

Lenten practices and devotions have much to do with a re-examination of our attitudes toward family members, our friends, our associates at work, the people we meet in the average course of a day. Something as seemingly little as making an effort to not take them for granted can move us to find ways to make all sorts of new beginnings with them.

Expressions of gratitude can be given in many ways -- a letter, a phone call, a few words, an invitation to lunch, a small gift. Such little gestures can have huge impacts in human life. They revive a sense of what we are here for, and what we can mean to each other.

A Lent that solidifies our willingness to love ourselves and our neighbor will make for a true and significant Easter morning. For that morning is the new beginning in which we are called to share and through which our hearts have life and hope.

We all received ashes on our foreheads on Wednesday. I suppose that for some people the ashes are a reminder of the finality of life and the ultimate demise of all things.

But we are dealing with a God who promises life out of death. And that life can begin -- even earlier this year -- when we chose to die to all that keeps us from loving, from hoping, from living each day to the full.

Something is growing and coming to life all around us -- even in and through ashes.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is james@trappist.net.