Ash Wednesday

Meditation from Divine Intimacy, by Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen OCD

At the start of Lent, we happily take on voluntary mortifications and good works, but we must not forget to offer them all to God by renewing our commitment to daily prayer – both vocal and mental. As we begin the ascent to Jerusalem – and Calvary – with Our Lord, we detach ourselves from the visible and external things of this world in order to focus on the invisible, interior life: the focal point of our relationship to God; the “good ground” of the gospel, outside of which nothing can grow to fruition.

Towards the end of his life, Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen OCD (1893-1953), began to compile and condense his life’s work, which covered all aspects of the spiritual life, into a book of meditations on the interior life for every day of the liturgical year. He was assisted in this task by the Discalced Carmelite nuns from the Monastery of St Joseph in Rome, with whom he worked closely in setting out this work, according to the method of mental prayer of St Teresa of Avila and the spiritual doctrine of St John of the Cross; both of which are oriented towards intimacy with God, through contemplation, in a spirit of love. After Fr Gabriel’s death, the community, completed the work which would become known under the title of “Divine Intimacy”.


Ash Wednesday


I place myself in Your presence, O Lord; illumine with Your light the eternal truths, and awaken in my soul a sincere desire for conversion.



“Dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return” (Gn 3:19). These words, spoken for the first time by God to Adam after he had committed sin, are repeated today by the Church to every Christian, in order to remind him of two fundamental truths – his nothingness and the reality of death. Dust, the ashes which the priest puts on our foreheads today, has no substance; the lightest breath will disperse it. It is a good representation of man’s nothingness: “O Lord, my substance is as nothing before Thee” (Ps 38:6), exclaims the Psalmist. Our pride, our arrogance, needs to grasp this truth, to realise that everything in us is nothing. Drawn from nothing by the creative power of God, by His infinite love which willed to communicate His being and His life to us, we cannot – because of sin – be reunited with Him for eternity without passing through the dark reality of death.

The consequence and punishment of sin, death is in itself bitter and painful; but Jesus, who wanted to be like to us in all things, in submitting to death has given all Christians the strength to accept it out of love. Nevertheless, death exists, and we should reflect on it, not in order to distress ourselves, but to arouse ourselves to do good. “In all thy works, remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin” (Ecc 7:40). The thought of death places before our eyes the vanity of earthly things, the brevity of life – “All things are passing; God alone remains” – and therefore it urges us to detach ourselves from everything, to scorn every earthly satisfaction, and to seek God alone. The thought of death makes us understand that “all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone” (Imitation I:1,4).

“Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die…then there will be many things about which you care nothing” (St Teresa of Avila), that is, you will give up everything that has no eternal value. Only love and fidelity to God are of value for eternity. “In the evening of life, you will be judged on love” (St John of the Cross).


Today’s liturgy is an invitation to penance. During the imposition of the ashes we chant: “Let us change our garments, and cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes; let us fast and weep before the Lord” (Antiphon). It is an invitation to the corporal penance which is especially prescribed for this season; but it is immediately followed by the invitation to be converted: “Let us atone for the sins we have committed.” The end of physical mortification is spiritual penance – humility, recognition of our faults, compunction of heart, and the reform of our lives. This is the predominant thought of the day. We read in the Epistle, “Thus saith the Lord: be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments” (Joel 2:12–19).

Compunction and conversion of heart hold the first place, because the corporal penance that does not proceed from a contrite heart has no value. On the other hand, corporal penance prepares the soul for conversion, insofar as it is the means of reaching it. We read in the Preface, “O God, by fasting You repress sin, elevate the soul, and give it strength and recompense.” One who wishes to reach the goal, which is the renewing of the spirit, must embrace willingly the means which leads to it, namely, corporal penance. At the same time, he must remember that compunction of heart gives value to corporal penance, which in its turn engenders and gives expression to compunction of heart. These two elements are never separated.

The Gospel (Mt 6:16-21) says further that all penance must be accomplished sincerely and joyfully, without vain ostentation, “When you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.” Vanity and pride make even the most austere penitential practices useless and sometimes even sinful; they destroy their substance and value, and reduce them to mere externals, empty of all content. Hence when you mortify your body, take care to mortify your self-love still more.


“O Jesus, how long is man’s life, although we say that it is short! It is short, O my God, since by it we are to gain a life without end; but it seems very long to the soul who aspires to be with You quickly…. O my soul, you will enter into rest when you are absorbed into the sovereign Good, when you know what He knows, love what He loves, and enjoy what He enjoys. Then your will will no longer be inconstant nor subject to change…and you will forever enjoy Him and His love. Blessed are they whose names are written in the Book of Life! If yours is there, why are you sad, O my soul, and why are you troubled? Trust in God, to whom I shall still confess my sins and whose mercies I shall proclaim. 

“I shall compose a canticle of praise for Him and shall not cease to send up my sighs toward my Savior and my God. A day will come, perhaps, when my glory will praise Him, and my conscience will not feel the bitterness of compunction, in the place where tears and fears have ceased forever…. O Lord, I would rather live and die in hope, and in the effort to gain eternal life, than to possess all creatures and their perishable goods. Do not abandon me, O Lord! I hope in You, and my hope will not be confounded. Give me the grace to serve You always and dispose of me as You wish” (St Teresa of Avila).

If the remembrance of my infidelities torments me, I shall remember, O Lord, that “as soon as we are sorry for having offended You, You forget all our sins and malice. O truly infinite goodness! What more could one desire? Who would not blush with shame to ask so much of You? But now is the favourable time to profit from it, my merciful Savior, by accepting what You offer. You desire our friendship. Who can refuse to give it to You, who did not refuse to shed all Your Blood for us by sacrificing Your life? What You ask is nothing! It will be to our supreme advantage to grant it to You” (St Teresa of Avila).

Conclusion by short acts of thanksgiving, offering and petition

“Divine Intimacy” by Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalene can be found here in its entirety.