Lenten Back to Basics

I love Lent.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I take pleasure in fasting. And I don’t enjoy “giving stuff up” any more than the next guy. In my devotional life I can be a typical spoiled American.

But Lent, for me, is always a hopeful time. It’s my annual reminder that change is possible. More than that, I’m reminded that God wants me to change and wills me to change. So he’ll give me the grace I need to put away vice and put on virtue. All the readings at Mass reinforce those lessons. God calls Israel to repent — to cease its sinning — and to grow by means of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

I usually begin the season with a silent retreat, so that I can get back to the basics of the spiritual life. I’ll usually take a book with me; and this year I know which book I want to take. It’s Knowing the Love of God: Lessons from a Spiritual Master, by the Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.

This author defined “the basics of the spiritual life” for me, way back when I was a new Catholic. Father Garrigou-Lagrange was perhaps the most celebrated Catholic theologian of his lifetime (1877-1964). He taught for many years at Rome’s Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum), and among his illustrious students was a young Polish priest named Karol Wojtyla. Father Wojtyla (whom we now know as Saint John Paul II) completed his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Friar Reginald.

He is best known, however, for his foundational work of spiritual theology, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, which he wrote when he was young. That title, too, bears careful reading and re-reading. I cannot name — and can’t even imagine — a book more justly influential on the practice of spiritual direction.

But this year I will read Knowing the Love of God. It is Father Garrigou-Lagrange’s most mature work. In fact, its chapters are the meditations that he preached at retreats for his fellow friars.

Father Garrigou-Lagrange anticipated what Pope Saint John XXIII called the greatest teaching of the Second Vatican Council: the universal call to holiness. Father Reginald believed that ordinary Christians, by virtue of their baptism, were called to the mystical life and empowered for it. This doesn’t mean we’ll all be visionaries or prophets; in fact, it seems that God calls very few to experience such dramatic phenomena.

But we’re all called to enjoy a life of profound, prayerful, and intimate union with God. This is the ordinary vocation of Christians.

It is my vocation and yours, and we can certainly live it better. If you can’t join me on retreat this year, please join me at least in the pages of this book, which is now once more available after many years out of print. I consider it a privilege that I was invited to write the foreword for this new edition of the English translation.

I consider it a privilege, too, to count you as a benefactor. I am deeply grateful for your prayers, your encouragement, and your contributions to the Saint Paul Center. I ask you to remember our work as you pray more fervently in the coming forty days of Lent.

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