One of the many things I love about the Lord’s Prayer, the subject of today’s gospel (Matthew 6. 7–15), is the fact that it reminds us that we are all poor, all equally undeserving of God’s love and care. It is He, and He alone, who gives us everything. When we pray, it is because He has first poured prayer into our hearts. When we do anything at all, it is because He has given us both mind and body with which to think and act. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we are mere robots, programmed by some super intelligence to perform certain tasks in a way determined for us by another. On the contrary, we have been given free will. We have been enabled to choose for ourselves. That leads to a paradox. We stand before God with empty hands, the undeserving poor, yet, at the same time, we are blessed with a freedom the poor of this world do not know, the freedom to choose. We are both rich and poor at the same time. How we use our riches, and how we use our poverty, is up to us.
When my sight was restored last year, I went around marvelling at everything I had previously taken, not for granted exactly, but as part of the expected order of things, wonderful, but not so wonderful that I would stop and stare for minutes at a time. When a water-drop hanging from the kitchen tap (faucet) can hold one’s gaze, one knows one has never really looked before. Seeing a world in a water-drop, in a familiar indoors setting rather than outside, where the beauty of landscape, waterscape and skyscape attract our eyes, is unexpected, sudden, a moment of vision.
I think those who listened to Jesus speaking about the times they had or had not served him experienced something of the same (cf today’s gospel, Matthew 25. 31-46). Both those who helped and those who didn’t ask much the same question, but with one significant difference. The virtuous ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?’ They did not recognize or recall when they had served the Lord in others. The selfish ask, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?’ Unlike the virtuous, they seem to keep an inner tally of their good deeds and are convinced that they have not missed any opportunity. Both are blind: the virtuous to their own generosity; the selfish to their hardness of heart.
Our Lenten pilgrimage will confront us with many harsh truths about ourselves, but I think we can take encouragement from today’s gospel. We won’t know when we are being truly generous; we won’t necessarily know when we are meeting the Lord. But we can be quite sure when we aren’t — when we close our eyes and hearts to those in need. The need in question may not be material. The cup of cold water that revives the flagging spirits, the shared meal that puts fresh hope into the downcast, the warm welcome that transforms stranger into brother or sister: there are many ways of expressing these. It is up to us to search them out. Of one thing we can be sure, we shall never lack for opportunity.
One of the qualities St Benedict seems to have admired is fairness. The abbot is instructed to act fairly, not to make distinctions among the brethren; the monks themselves are not to allow previous rank in society or purely human considerations to affect how they behave towards one another. Then we come to the Mass readings for the first Sunday of Lent and realise, if we didn’t before, that the devil isn’t fair. If we’re fasting, he’ll tempt us with food, or at least whisper that it doesn’t really matter: God will provide what we need (which is true, but not in the way the devil suggests). If we’re giving alms, he’ll tempt us with the thought that if we give too much, we may not have enough for ourself — and look at all the things we could have if we didn’t give (all the kingdoms of this world, in fact). Finally, if we are trying to pray, the devil will tempt us with contemplation of how wonderful we ourselves are and the empty promises he makes to us, so that we end up worshiping self and the devil rather than God. Sound familiar? Then pity Eve, who did not have the experience of Jesus in the desert to guide her but faced the allurements of Satan alone and uncertain.
Most people, confronted with the narrative of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, tend to think they are so obviously wrong that no-one, least of all the Son of God, could fall for them. I am not so sure. The problem with temptation is that something in us finds it appealing. Take that first temptation. Jesus is in the desert, hungry, thirsty, worn out. He is no less a man because he is also God. There is no sin in him, but part of his humanity responds to the idea of bread or there could be no temptation. It is the same with us. It is precisely when we seem to be at our weakest that temptations crowd upon us. The devil knows how to play us. It may not be something as obvious as food that attracts us. It could be celebrity or fame or power over others. That is why the old monastic teachers lay great stress on knowing ourselves. They didn’t mean by that endless contemplation of ourselves, which can lead to narcissism, but something much more akin to what we call nowadays the process of discernment, discernment of thoughts. Seeing through our own justification for various acts, the ways in which we cloak our motivation, can be painful but is very necessary if we are to become truly free of the devil’s snares.
Fortunately for us, the devil does not have it all his own way. As St Paul reassures us in the Letter to the Romans, grace abounds. We have only to stretch out our hands to receive it. That is a heartening thought for the first Sunday of Lent. But I think there is something more heartening still. Jesus meets temptation with the Word of God. That is why familiarity with the scriptures is so important. Reading and praying the scriptures (lectio divina) is something we can all do, whatever our circumstances, and is particularly helpful in the matter of temptation. If we do nothing else this Lent, let us deepen our knowledge and love of scripture. It is our surest defence against the devil’s wiles, our passport to life.
Genesis 2. 7-9, 3.1-7; Romans 5. 12-19; Matthew 4. 1-11
I am fascinated by the different ways people view Lent. I can understand those who think of it in terms of giving up, of small penances intended to make an offering to the Lord, and I feel confident that the Lord accepts them for what they are — pledges of love and devotion. In the monastery we are much more inclined to take things on, to add to our daily commitment to prayer and service. The fast is stricter, the silence is (or should be) more profound, and our almsgiving more generous. It’s positive Lent versus negative Lent, if you like, though the end in view is the same: to come closer to the Lord. Then we read Isaiah 58. 9-14 and are made to think about Lent in a slightly different way.
Doing away with the clenched fist and wicked word is a challenge to most of us. We know that a clenched fist is unable to give or receive, it is simply a sign of belligerence, cold and closed, but it has its attractions. We can claim it as a sign of solidarity with the oppressed and ignore its limitations. Just what we need during Lent! The wicked word trips off the tongue easily enough but can do lasting damage — just as much as a clenched fist, in fact. It is particularly effective when used to express anger. Vicarious anger, when we whip up our fury at what we perceive to be another’s wrongdoing and label it justifiable or righteous is particularly seductive during Lent. It allows us to be angry and say what we like, with a warm glow of conscious rectitude.
For many of us, especially those with a little more self-knowledge or more candid family or friends, Lent will be a struggle with our inner demons, trying to control our emotions of anger and the temptation to lash out at others. Discouragement will soon set in, of course, as the failures mount up. Even worse would be to feel we were succeeding. The pride that does not know or admit its own weakness or sinfulness is very much like a clenched fist or a mouth spewing empty boasts. Horrible!
Isaiah does not limit what he says to control of hand and tongue, however. He goes on to speak of rebuilding the ruins. Have you ever thought of Lent as an opportunity to rebuild the ruins of your spiritual life, to lay new and better foundations for the life of grace? Put like that, I think St Benedict’s portrayal of Lent as a time of joy and hope may become much more immediate, much more personal to those who do not live in monasteries. But note this: when Isaiah speaks of rebuilding the ruins, he links it very closely to almsgiving, to sharing with others freely and gladly, and reverence for the Lord.
Almsgiving often seems to me to be forgotten when people talk about Lent, or restricted to CAFOD’s Family Fast Day and donations to some good cause or other, yet it means so much more than that. It comes from the Greek word for compassion, to feel with, suffer with, another; to show mercy. I think there may be something there worth pondering as we consider how to rebuild whatever is ruined in our own life or the lives of others; and the reverence with which we set about the task will surely draw us closer to the Lord we seek. I hope so.
The Friday after Ash Wednesday generally sees the first little wobble in our Lenten discipline. The fast begins to bite; our ambitious plans for holy self-improvement are less attractive than they looked a week ago; and the nay-sayers who think we are motivated by a mixture of fear and sanctimonious priggishness are starting to get under our skin. Then the Church’s Mass readings deliver the coup de grace. Isaiah 58. 1–9 and Matthew 9. 14–15 are both about fasting, and leave us absolutely no wriggle-room. Giving up wine or chocolate or some other luxury isn’t the point at all. Our first duty is to fast from sin. There should also be restraint in our use of food and drink, because we need to feel in our flesh the commitment to conversion that we make through prayer. As always, however, the third element in our Lenten discipline, almsgiving, needs to be part of our fast. Giving up food and drink and giving generously to others are intimately connected.
So, what if you have decided to give up something other than food and drink, social media, say? That may be a very good thing for you to do if you find that you are becoming addicted, but it may also have an impact on others you do not intend. For example, yesterday I saw that one of my Facebook friends who, for various reasons to do with health, etc, relies on social media for many of her social interactions was sad that several online friends were going offline for the duration of Lent. For the person concerned, that means six weeks without the interaction and support online friendship can bring. It isn’t straightforward, is it? Perhaps that is why so many of us opt for the obvious.
Perhaps we could let Robert Herrick examine our conscience on the matter and maybe even re-consider some of the choices we have made.
IS this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
From fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
The platter high with fish?
Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
A downcast look and sour?
No ; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
Unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
And that’s to keep thy Lent.
Tonight, when we sing First Vespers of Palm Sunday, Holy Week begins but my guess is that most Christians will already be thinking about Holy Week and many will be actively preparing their churches and choirs for all that is to come. It is a very human tendency to want to live either in the past or in the future and avoid the present altogether, but the truth is, the present is all we ever have. So, today, on the eve of Palm Sunday, I think we are invited to take stock of where we are now. Whatever our plans for Holy Week and Easter, the Lord has a way of subtly re-writing them. We may be faced with something unwelcome or simply unexpected, but in the midst of it all we must find peace. Today’s first Mass reading, from Ezekiel 37, sets the tone: the Lord will make an eternal covenant of peace with us; he will be our God; but we must do our part, too. We must allow ourselves to be cleansed of our sin and defilement.
We tend to think in terms of our seeking forgiveness, of our making amends, of our being determined to ‘avoid the occasions of sin’ as the old prayer has it. How rarely do we appreciate that being freed from sin is something we must consent to, that in every case God takes the initiative? As I wrote a few days ago, putting the emphasis on our own activity leads to unproductive feelings of guilt and failure. What we must cling to more than ever is the grace of God. We must believe that he wills our salvation, he wills our freedom; and he wills it now. Therefore, we must not let our gaze be so fixed on tomorrow that we fail to see what today offers. During Holy Week we shall mark hour by hour the journey of our Saviour to the Cross and Resurrection but today we are with him in Ephraim, a town bordering on the desert (cf John 11. 45-56). We are hidden with him, and we trust that God is powerfully at work. We do not see; we walk by faith — and that is the best preparation any of us can make as Holy Week draws near.
For the past few months life at the monastery has been distinctly challenging. About Cor Orans and its implications I’ll write at a more suitable time. It is enough to say that it continues to cause a great deal of heartache and eats into our time and resources in a way many find baffling. We’ve also had a lot of administration to deal with that has taken us well beyond our comfort zone being both unfamiliar and time-critical; and there has been the problem of my health. I have just returned from a fortnight in hospital, delighted to find that I am still alive and humbled by the generosity and kindness with which I have been treated (to say nothing of the skill and devotion of the team at the Churchill Hospital). It has made me reflect on what our Lenten journey is about. When life is pared down to the essentials and cannot be presumed upon to continue, one is forced to face what at other times one may try to hide from — and the utter transcendence of God is one of those things. But big words and big concepts can themselves be a form of evasion, so let’s think more directly about Lent.
We can take Lent too seriously. By which I mean that we think what we do is what matters: our prayers, our fasts, our almsgiving. It is all about me. But, of course, it isn’t. It is when our plans are upset and we find ourselves drifting from the shore into unexpected currents that we begin to learn what it is really about. Forget that pledge to say 150 psalms standing in the sea as the Celtic monks did — a smile at someone who is being tiresome may actually be harder but I guarantee it will bring its own reward. If the Lent book lies unread and fasting fell down at the first chocolate muffin hurdle, don’t waste time feeling guilty. Try an act of kindness or generosity that you weren’t expecting but which has come your way. In other words, don’t take Lent seriously in the sense that it has to fit your programme but take it very seriously indeed in the sense that it has to fit God’s programme.
This is the time of year when we are asked to pray especially for those preparing for baptism or reception into Full Communion at Easter; for those who are to be married, ordained or make religious profession during the Easter season; those who will be confirmed at Pentecost, and so on — all joyful things. It is also a time to pray for the dying, for those who are grieving while everyone else is singing Alleluia, for all the sadness that humanity endures. The only way we can do that is to allow our prayer to become one with that of the praying Christ. During these last few days before entering on Holy Week, therefore, may I suggest that we look closely at how Jesus spent this peak period of his life on earth? There was solemnity, yes, but also light-heartedness with friends. Our Lenten journey must follow the same pattern. So, do not waste time over failures, as they may appear to us, but concentrate on the ‘now’ of Lent. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord. What is asked of us is that we listen and respond today — not as we might have yesterday or as we might do in the future, but today.
One of the many blessings of Lent is the profound silence that marks the community. Conversation is reduced to what is strictly necessary (not always the case at other times, I must confess) which allows us to weigh our words and try to avoid any that wound or are unprofitable in other ways. The constant backdrop of noise that many live with is something we rarely experience. But before anyone gives way to envy, let me mention something that may be found more challenging. If we are silent, we can be lonely. We may have to deal with anxiety or distress or any other negative feeling or concern without voicing it to anyone else. That is not because we cultivate a stiff monastic upper lip but because the kind of silence I am describing forces us, as it were, to take everything to God. It is meant to lead us to prayer, and it usually does.
Silence is often described as a discipline, something that teaches us. It is because it has a purpose that it is so highly valued in monastic life— and why it takes a lifetime to learn the difference between being merely taciturn and being truly silent, waiting for the Word to speak.
We are back in the desert again, but this time not under the velvety star-studded skies of Advent but in the blazing noon-day heat of Lent, alongside a weary Jesus who, after forty days and nights of fasting, is being tempted by Satan.
There is a line in today’s gospel (Luke 4.1–13) I find arresting : ‘During that time he [Jesus] ate nothing and at the end he was hungry.’ I wonder how often we hurry over the fact of Jesus’ hunger in our eagerness to reflect that temptation always assails us when we are at our weakest. From there it is but a short step to stripping the gospel of much of its power. Turning stones into bread is one of those miracles that hasn’t much appeal for us because most of us in the West never experience real hunger. We are much more interested in power and wealth and may even experience a frisson of excitement at the thought that we might be deluded into believing that the devil might grant us what God will not. Yet a hungry Jesus has something important to teach us about Lent and its traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, especially, I think, fasting.
Fasting has, unfortunately, got a bad press nowadays. It has become synonymous with dieting (which it isn’t) or associated with things that have nothing to do with it (e.g. people ‘fasting’ from Social Media). Very often it has been reduced to a token foregoing of some luxury or indulgence such as wine or chocolate, or the Christian fast is compared unfavourably with the Moslem by those unfamiliar with either. There is a vague idea that fasting somehow unleashes spiritual power, but that has become mixed up with and diluted by the notion that it is primarily a penance, an expiation of sin rather than a means of drawing closer to God.
Now, please do not mistake me. I am quite sure that any offering made out of love of the Lord is immensely pleasing to him, but I would argue that we all need to think more deeply about fasting as the Church has understood and practised it for centuries. I know that some Catholic commentators have already begun to make the same point, but I hope that a word or two from a monastic perspective may be helpful, too.
Fasting is meant to make us hungry. Obvious, I know, but how often do we forget that! Hunger does not mean a passing feeling of emptiness that is easily put right or mere boredom with eating plain food. No, it means actual hunger: the gnawing pain of being utterly empty, weak. It is such a powerful thing that the Church has always been very careful about the rules she sets for it. The young, the old and the sick are not permitted to fast with the rigour allowed to healthy adults in their prime, and even they are required to be prudent (folly, you remember, is a sin).
In the monastery those who fall into the category of healthy adults fast every day during Lent (Sundays are not included). That means that what we eat and when we eat are carefully regulated, and as Lent progresses, our hunger grows. By the time Holy Saturday comes, the prospect of soft white bread and butter on Easter morning is sweet torture. But we aren’t fasting in order to prove that we are spiritual athletes or out of some masochistic desire to make our bodies suffer. We are fasting to become closer to Jesus, and our fast is not a matter we decide for ourselves but a ‘given’, something determined by the superior of the community who must always take into account individual weaknesses and the needs of the community as a whole. The monastic fast is thus never rigorous enough for some though, if my own experience is anything to go by, it isn’t the easiest of disciplines.
Fasting makes us realise our dependence on God in a way that many of us in the West have forgotten. It makes us aware of our bodies and the fact that it is the whole person that is redeemed, not just the mind or soul. Above all, it makes the link between prayer and almsgiving clear and direct. We cannot fast properly unless we pray; fasting is not doing its work in us if it does not make us want to pray more and to be more generous towards others. ‘During that time he [Jesus] ate nothing and at the end he was hungry.’ What a tragedy it would be if, at the end of Lent, Jesus was still hungering for our love and devotion.
Ash Wednesday is only a week away, and I realise I shall probably still be in the throes of post-chemo yukkiness while everyone else is smiling bright, purposeful smiles as they tackle their Lenten penances. Thank goodness we Benedictines don’t go in for that sort of thing. I can limp into Lent with a good conscience. St Benedict does indeed say that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, but when one analyses what he means by ‘Lenten’ it is reassuring to find that he concentrates on purity of life and the basic disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — but without any competitive striving. We are not being asked to be heroic, just fully what we should be at all times but often aren’t. (cf RB 49)
In previous years, I have examined what some of the traditional disciplines of Lent might mean for each of us and I see no reason to change anything I’ve said before, though it may be useful to re-state them.
Prayer is the fundamental Lenten discipline because Lent is all about letting God become close to us. Sometimes people decide that ‘more is better’ and set themselves a daunting routine of extra prayers to be said each day. I think myself that that is self-defeating. Either one cannot keep it up, in which case one feels a fraud and a failure, or one does somehow manage it, and is tempted to sneak a little admiring glance at oneself now and then. Much better just to be simple and try to be whole-hearted about one’s prayer as it is.
For a Benedictine, prayer is intimately connected with lectio divina, and in the past I have written about the usefulness of the Lent Book — the book of scripture each of us is given to read during Lent. Not, please note, one we have chosen for ourselves but one we have been given, the one that, however unpromising it may look to us, has something important to say. If we do not have a kindly superior or community to choose a Lent book for us, there is always the rich sequence of readings to be found in the Mass lectionary. In fact, I would always suggest starting with them, because to pray with the rest of the Church is the best way of ensuring that we do not go off on some unfruitful byway of our own.
Fasting, like prayer, is best done with the mind of the Church. It isn’t the same as dieting, and giving up what Isaiah calls ‘the wicked word’ is much more important than some trifling sacrifice of wine or chocolate that half the world cannot afford anyway. It is, however, necessary to introduce an element of plainness into our food, and to curb the self-indulgence of other times. Whatever we save in our spending on food here at the monastery goes to a relief agency, and I think that is important. Fasting is meant to simplify our life and make us more attentive to God and other people. Feeling in one’s own body a little of the hunger that many experience daily is good at many levels, but it must not get in the way of spiritual alertness or the practice of charity. So, if fasting becomes just a covert way of improving one’s waistline or one’s bank balance, stop, think again. And if fasting turns one into an angry, hot-tempered dragon, belting fire and brimstone at all and sundry, stop, stop, STOP! Better to eat a slice of bread one didn’t intend to than chew one’s brethren to bits.
As to the other things St Benedict suggests we might fast from — unnecessary conversations that can easily turn into gossip or scurrility, for example — we must each find our own way. For some people, it might even be a case of becoming more, rather than less, conversational: greeting the concierge with a smile and a kind word, for example, rather than passing them by as though they did not exist.
It is telling how often, in the West, almsgiving as a Lenten discipline is forgotten. It is not that people are not generous, but somehow the connection between giving alms — showing love — and the pilgrimage towards Easter is broken or not understood. We are all capable of giving to others, and often it is giving what we never thought of giving that proves the most costly gift of all. So, for example, being patient, with ourselves as well as others, is as valuable as a monetary gift to a Charity that appeals for help. Not being able to do some of the things we’d like to do during Lent can be an offering in itself. For instance, I doubt I shall be well enough to fast ‘properly’ on Ash Wednesday, but I can offer my sadness and regret instead. Again, we must each find our own way; and that brings me to my main point.
Preparing for Lent
For each and every one of us, Lent will be much more fruitful if we spend a little time beforehand thinking and praying about it by way of preparation. In the monastery we have the wonderful practice of the Lent Bill in which we set out what we intend to do (or not do!) during Lent and show it to another for evaluation and permission. I think that helps keep us on the right track. We do not always see ourselves clearly enough to make wise decisions. To ask the advice of another, to be humble about our choices, is to enter into the dynamic of Lent. For forty days we are asked to accompany the Lord along the way to Jerusalem and we cannot do that unless we are prepared to follow rather than lead. Some of us will run along the way; others will limp. It doesn’t matter which, provided we get there in the end.