Making a Splash?

Who does not love the story of Jonah? Every detail is perfect, with a rich vein of humorous exaggeration throughout. We’re told it took three days to cross the city of Nineveh, so this is conversion on a vast scale. Everyone, even the animals (!), put on sackcloth as as sign of repentance and joined in the general fast. Jonah himself comes in for some gentle teasing from the Lord, but it is clear he was an effective speaker and won the hearts of his listeners. Despite a regrettable tendency to run away and get cross when things didn’t turn out as he wanted, he was, ultimately, a success. We remember Jonah.

Jesus tells the crowds that ‘someone greater than Jonah is here’ but one wonders whether his rhetoric made as great an impression as Jonah’s is said to have done. Throughout the gospels we see him experiencing misunderstandings, opposition, and, ultimately, a kind of failure: death on the cross. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the failure was no failure at all; but at the time Jesus was not a big success. We remember Jesus, but we are conscious of the contradictions and the suffering that marked his triumph. The resurrection comes out of a dark place, darker than any whale’s belly.

And what of us? Do we want to make a splash, be celebrity saints, as it were? Someone once said rather cruelly of Thomas Merton that he was the kind of hermit who needed a neon sign outside his hermitage. We can be a little like that, wanting our good deeds to be noticed, especially during Lent, when we are trying harder to live holy lives. We can want to be remembered, have our fifteen minutes of fame as it were, but ideally without much hardship or contradiction. We forget that we are called to be followers of the Lord. We can never be holy except he makes us so, and that will always involve an experience of failure and, at times, discouragement. Let us pray for the grace to meet the challenge we face.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Lenten Fruitfulness

Today is the memoria of St Polycarp, whose name means ‘fruitfulness’ in Greek (you can read an earlier post specifically about him, St Polycarp and the Grace of the Elderly, with some thoughts on ageing and dying, here: https://www.ibenedictines.org/2016/02/23/st-polycarp-and-the-grace-of-the-elderly/), but it is today’s Mass readings that I want to consider this morning.

Isaiah 55.10–11 assures us that the word of God always attains its purpose, while the gospel, Matthew 6.7-15, gives us the text of the Lord’s Prayer and reminds us that forgiving others will secure our forgiveness in return. It is a circle of grace that begins and ends in God. How often do we overlook that and try to batter God into submission to our will through all the penances and good works we take on? As if we could!

Those autumnal apples pictured above remind me of Keat’s ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ (it’s his anniversary today, too) and the sheer abundance of God’s mercy. I think we forget how lavish God is in his care for creation, including us. Perhaps one of the things we need to do this Lent is to allow that amazingly generous, merciful God to replace the more niggardly, exacting image most of us have of him. That would make our Lent more fruitful — not easier, for more would be asked of us — but certainly more fruitful. Shall we try it?

Automated blog notifications
I have been experimenting with different ways of getting these to subscribers. Any feedback would be welcome, especially details of what emails you have received/which post notifications have come through. I apologize for duplicates. The problem has been caused by the malfunctioning of a software programme we installed (at some expense) to automate the process and which has proved unreliable.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

In the Desert with Satan and the Wild Beasts

יוסי אוד yossi aud Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The First Sunday of Lent

The first Sunday of Lent always sees us in the desert with Jesus, confronting temptation. This year we read Mark’s account, and as it is so brief, I’ll quote it in full:

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.  

After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’

Mark, 1. 12–15.

The first two sentences may be short but they are full of significance. The Greek verb used for the action of the Spirit is very strong. Jesus is, as it were, forced into the desert where his companions are Satan, the wild beasts and angels, none of them exactly comforting. Being looked after by an angel may sound better than being tempted by Satan or pursued by hungry leopards, but as soon as we think how angels are described in the Old Testament, our vision of charming little putti gives way to the awe-inspiring beings of fire and flame who surround the throne of God — not what one would call immediately reassuring.

The Temptations and the Public Ministry

Jesus in the desert is being exposed to the kind of radical insecurity few of us know in the West. He is to learn how to rely on God, and God alone. The temptations he faces, and which the other evangelists delight in detailing, are often used by preachers as an introduction to Lent. Indeed, I’ve used them like that myself, as many previous posts will attest. But Mark doesn’t allow us to linger in the desert or waste time speculating about Jesus’ experience. He turns our attention to John, the Forerunner, and the beginning of the Good News.

I don’t think that’s an accident. We are being asked to move in one swift bound from contemplation of the temptations Christ endured at the start of his public ministry to the purpose of that ministry. The temptations matter, of course, but not as much as the reason for Jesus’ life on earth taken as a whole. There is an urgency about Mark’s gospel that, more than anything else, convinces me of his belief in the importance of what he is saying. Our salvation is at stake; we cannot dawdle on the way. We must repent and believe, NOW.

Our Lenten Pilgrimage

Repentance has two aspects: being sorry for our sin, for (literally) missing the mark, and turning to the Lord — conversion, change. I think that turning to the Lord precedes being sorry for our sins because it is only in response to grace that we can even begin to see that we have sinned. Belief is similar in many ways. We have to be touched by God with the gift of faith before we can believe. We can’t argue ourselves into belief or will ourselves into belief. We have to wait for God to act, and most of us don’t like waiting for anyone or anything, not even God.

Lent can seem very long: forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Forty days of trying to come closer to the Lord. It is easy to want to give up, have a little rest by the wayside; but Mark will have none of that. Our pilgrimage to Easter starts now. Let us pray that we may be attentive to the Lord and follow his lead. We may meet Satan and a few wild beasts on the way, but there are those formidable angels, too. Perhaps they are a comfort, after all.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Photo by Luis Quintero on Unsplash

Lockdown and Lent

A number of people have got quite stroppy with me recently, saying that they are not giving anything up for Lent, they have suffered enough during lockdown, thank you very much, their aim will be just to get through each day. I cannot quibble with part of that. Some people have suffered hugely; but I would query the idea that Lent requires some form of self-imposed suffering. That would make God a monster, delighting in the pain of his children; and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying God is not like that. Lent is about becoming closer to the Lord, becoming more free, more joyful. Christian tradition has always valued prayer, fasting and almsgiving as means to that end, but they are not ends in themselves, nor should they be interpreted narrowly. An illustration may make this clearer.

Clenched Fists and Wicked Words

Today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 58.9–14, with its references to clenched fists, wicked words and sharing with others, is an excellent way of examining our conscience. What is more useless than a clenched fist, which can neither give nor receive? What is more pointless than a wicked word, which injures both speaker and hearer? Even if we have nothing material to share with others, we can rein in the others and share as much by not doing as by doing. There are days when my illness makes me think I’m incapable of anything more than just existing, can’t be ‘nice’ to others or contribute in any meaningful sense to the common good. That’s when the real work of conversion begins, when we realise that what we value may be reinforcing an idea we have of ourselves that is actually hindering us on our way to God, making it all about us again, not him.

A Different Approach

So, don’t worry about giving up wine or chocolate or saying an extra decade of the rosary or whatever you decided to do for Lent. Take control of your thoughts first. Cultivate kindness and generosity of mind: it will lead to action. Watch your speech: restrain that angry word, pause before you tap out your opinion on social media, make friends with those who think differently from you. Be honest with yourself and trust God for the rest. To be fair, I haven’t seen this working in myself yet, but I have seen it in others, so there is hope for us all.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Fasting and Greed

Being Thought Greedy

None of us likes to be thought greedy, so we make a 1,001 excuses for any unbecoming conduct we’re inclined to blush for, ranging from genuine need (‘I was starving’) to being misunderstood (‘I was just tidying things up’). The photo of the little boy with his head in a cake makes us smile, not recoil. It is how we like to think of our own weaknesses — endearing foibles rather than failings. Alas, it won’t wash. Greed isn’t just about food and drink or overindulgence in material things. We can be greedy for attention, comfort, celebrity status (by association, if nothing else), all kinds of things. We can be greedy for life itself at the expense of others.

Physical Fasting

I certainly believe in the value of actual, physical fasting from food and drink and I am grateful that, after a lifetime in the monastery, I can draw on the accumulated wisdom of generations of nuns. The monotony of our Lenten diet is part of our fast, but we don’t go in for extravagant gestures like the legendary religious sister (Order/Congregation discreetly veiled here) who decided she would eat nothing but one bowl of porridge every day during Lent and expired at the end of it. Nor do we confuse the physical fast with any other kind of ‘giving up’, e.g abandoning social media for a few weeks or foregoing a favourite pastime. Which brings me back to the subject of greed.

Greed

The antidote to greed isn’t fasting but generosity. Restraining ourselves from x or y can be a useful discipline, but it isn’t what the Lenten fast is about. Fasting, like everything else in Lent, is meant to lead us closer to God. The rumblings of our tummies are incidental. What we aim at is the clear-headedness and simplicity that will free our prayer and deepen our response to God, and experience shows that not being weighed down with too much food and drink is a help in that. Our greed, any tendency to possessiveness, to claim something or, worse still, someone, exclusively for ourselves requires more than a trifling sacrifice of a few morsels of food or drink to put right. It requires a complete change of attitude, and for most of us that is a longer and harder task. Maybe that is what Jesus is hinting at in today’s gospel. When the Bridegroom is gone from us, then we must fast in earnest and give of ourselves as he gave his life on the Cross. Lent is a good time for learning how to do that.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

False Gods

I hope my friend Elizabeth Scalia will not think I am borrowing too much from her excellent Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, but today’s first Mass reading, Deuteronomy 30. 15–20 made me think again about the idols we construct for ourselves and how they bar the way to God. It is not only, or even predominantly, the obviously bad things that lead us astray. Most of us agree that violence, selfishness, greed and so on are not the way to holiness and closeness to the Lord. The temptations of essentially good people are often ‘good’ themselves. I wonder how many people have woken up this morning determined to tackle a Lenten programme of self-improvement that would make a Desert Father wilt!

The clue, of course, is in the phrase ‘self-improvement’. Sometimes what we elect to do during Lent is about us, not God. Ash Thursday is a good day for taking a second look at what we have decided to do or not do during Lent. If what we are offering up places burdens on others (because we are tetchy or demanding) or is a covert form of achieving a secondary aim (e.g. mistaking dieting for fasting), then we need to re-think. The sole purpose of our Lenten observance is to draw us closer to Christ. That both simplifies and makes more joyful our pilgrimage to Easter, but it also requires us to let go some of our own ideas about what would be best. Smashing those false gods may be our first step on the way.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Under Starter’s Orders: Ash Wednesday Joy

Benedictine Joy

I don’t see how I could ever have been anything but a Benedictine since I’ve always instinctively seen Lent as a time of joy (cf RB 49). Unfortunately, that has led to my making some big mistakes. I tease those who regard Lent as gloomily penitential (i.e. a hardship to be endured) or complain about some aspect of life they consider ‘Lenten’ (e.g. lockdown restrictions). I should remember that many people take words at face value and do, indeed, have a negative view of what Lent is. For them, Lent is all about giving up something loved, taking on something unpleasant, and being nasty to ourselves. If that is our own view of Lent, we shall end up being nasty to everyone, not just ourselves, and our experience will be anything but fruitful!

A Joyful Beginning

Please take a look at the little boy in the photograph. He doesn’t know what lies before him any more than we know what to expect this Lent, but he is cheerful and living in the moment. His focus is not himself but something, more probably someone, beyond himself. That is the secret of Ash Wednesday joy. We are at the beginning of a journey, an experience, that will lead us to Easter and the Risen Christ. We are, as they say in the racing world, under starter’s orders. How could that be anything but joyful? Thomas Merton was of similar mind: ‘Ash Wednesday is full of joy…The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.’ Our dust isn’t negligible. It is, after all, shot through with ‘immortal diamond’ as Hopkins said; but it is given to us, a gift we receive with glad hearts. Let us receive Ash Wednesday with glad hearts, too.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Lent: Our Pilgrimage to Easter

A Benedictine Approach to Lent

As Benedictines we have the advantage of a whole chapter of the Rule devoted to the observance of Lent. It is clear, direct and joyful, so I suggest we begin by listening to what St Benedict has to say. It forms the basis of the posts to which I link below and will explain, I trust, why Lent is always greeted with joy in the monastery. The call to simplify our lives, discover God anew (or rather, allow God to discover us anew), is one we are apt to think harsh or difficult, forcing ourselves to become what we are not, whereas St Benedict sees the process as our becoming more and more what we are meant to be, a gracious flowering of the gifts given us at baptism. Our Lenten journey is thus a joyous pilgrimage towards Easter and total transformation in Christ.

The Rule of St Benedict, chapter 49, On the Observance of Lent

Here are four consecutive posts that deal explicitly with the teaching in this chapter, but you may prefer to pass on to the more obviously practical content listed under Preparing for Lent. All links open in a new tab.
1. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/27/through-lent-with-st-benedict-1/
2. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/28/through-lent-with-st-benedict-2/
3. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/29/through-lent-with-st-benedict-3/
4. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/03/01/through-lent-with-st-benedict-4/

Preparing for Lent

Here are five consecutive posts about preparing for Lent — all very simple and practical. You’ll find I don’t use the word ‘penance’ very often, and there’s a good reason for that.

  1. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/02/04/preparing-for-lent-1/
    The importance of prayer before we decide what we are going to do for Lent. Of course, what God decides to do for Lent may be quite different from what we intended or expected. You have been warned!
  2. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/02/05/preparing-for-lent-2-2/
    An introduction to the Lent Bill as a way of simplifying our lives. Lockdown has led to some decluttering of material things, but have you thought about the need to declutter spiritually, too?
  3. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/02/06/preparing-for-lent-3/
    ‘Going it alone’ is not a good idea. A friend who knows us well may give better advice than a confessor we see rarely.
  4. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/02/07/preparing-for-lent-4/
    A brief look at the three traditional disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — of which the most important and difficult is almsgiving.
  5. https://www.ibenedictines.org/2018/02/08/preparing-for-lent-5/
    The importance of the Lent book ‘read straight through in its entirety’. You can ignore the second half of the post which was for 2018. This year we invite you to join the community and our oblates in reading the Acts of the Apostles. We go through it in Eastertide but seeing it whole and studying it now will enrich that experience. It certainly has a lot to say about our current turmoil! Later this week I hope to post a few questions that may be useful to anyone reading the text as lectio divina.

There is just one more post I’ll add now, about the practice of lectio divina.
https://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/01/07/lectio-divina/
This particular entry is concerned with the Rule of St Benedict, but I hope it contains some helpful pointers about reading a Lent book or the daily Mass readings. Being humble before the Word of God is something many of us find at odds with everything we have been taught academically. We want to argue and tear meaning from a text; but it isn’t easy to do that on our knees, and, anyway, I have a suspicion that when we come to be judged, we’ll be questioned more closely about how we responded to the scripture and put it into practice than our brilliant hypotheses about authorship or anything similar.

As Lent Begins

I realise I have listed ten posts. There are many more, but it would be kinder to leave you to search them out for yourselves. You can use the search box in the right hand bar (large screen devices) or the pull-down menu on the left (small screen devices). Most of my own plans for February have been dashed because I made the fundamental mistake of forgetting that God is in charge. I didn’t expect to be unwell enough to be forbidden to go online, but now I am getting better I see the wisdom in that. I still believe that cyberspace has huge potential for good but our community involvement does lead to a lot of correspondence which can be draining as well as energizing (especially when I feel guilty about not keeping up!). I hope that I am now a little readier for what Lent offers. We shall be praying for you. Please pray for us, too. May we all be upheld by the joy of the Holy Spirit as we set out into the unknown, knowing that Easter and the Resurrection are at the end of our quest.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Quiet Time?

Primroses from Bro Duncan PBGV's Memorial Orchard
Primroses in Bro Duncan PBGV’s Memorial Orchard

One of the inevitable consequences of the world’s focus on COVID-19 has been the barrage of comment and advice, both good and bad, freely meted out online, via radio, TV and traditional print media. By this stage of Lent we generally want to be a little quieter, a little more intent on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but it seems we can’t. We had been hoping for some ‘quiet time’ but instead we seem to be steeped in even more noise and activity than usual. Then we remember. Christ’s ‘quiet time’ was spent in Gethsemane and Pilate’s palace, being questioned, mocked, abandoned by his friends. Then came the long, exhausting trek out to Calvary, where the taunting continued, and finally, death on the cross. Is our longing for quiet time just a touch self-indulgent, a protest against the turmoil in which we find ourselves?

It is difficult to answer that question honestly because we all have a way of  putting a good gloss on what we want to do, but I think we can take heart from the thought that desiring quiet, desiring to be alone with the Lord, is itself a grace. Circumstances may prevent our responding as fully as we would like, but providing the desire is there, the grace is there, too. To me that is a great encouragement. This year Lent is taking us down some unexpected paths but they are not all negative, far from it. We have something new to learn, some fresh flowering to experience.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail