We cannot go back to the past nor forward to the future: the present is all we have; but often we are reluctant to admit as much, or see the present as some sort of interruption, more or less unwelcome, to what we really want — which is always unattainable, something ‘out there’ that is perfect in the way that we conceive perfection. To recognise the perfection of the present we have to be willing to let go of our own ideas, slow down a moment, be silent and still. We have to allow the present to embrace us. If we do, we realise that much of what we strive after is rather ridiculous. Israel worshipped a golden calf because it wanted a tangible sign of God’s presence but failed to see the promise written in the stars and grains of sand. We can be like that. Perhaps today we could spend a little while thinking about the idols in our own lives, the ones that keep us from living fully in the present and allowing God to embrace us with his love and forgiveness.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent, traditionally known as Laetare Sunday (from the first word of the introit) or Mothering Sunday, is almost riotous in its joy. Rose vestments, flowers, musical instruments — after the plainness of the Lenten liturgy hitherto, these burst upon our senses. Yes, we rejoice, and how! There is a problem, however, and it is all to do with the conflation of several ideas about motherhood. I have touched upon this in earlier years, notably here and here. Seeing the Church as mother is intensely difficult for some; the sentimentality that surrounds the celebration of human motherhood is also difficult. I make no secret of the fact that I find this day difficult myself, but the fact that something is difficult does not mean that we can ignore it. Indeed, the harder we find something, very often the more necessary it is to engage with it. This morning, those following Cycle C in the lectionary will have a powerful help, but it isn’t an obvious one.
The parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:1—32, is a beautiful statement of God’s unfailing love and forgiveness for his wayward sons and daughters. I find I can identify both with the younger son, the complete wastrel, and the elder son, the envious sourpuss. I love poring over every detail. But it must have struck you, as it has often struck me, that one person is curiously absent: the prodigal’s mother. In fact, there aren’t any women in the story at all, if we except the elder brother’s pointed allusion to the women he assumes featured in his brother’s life of debauchery. For a Jew to tell a story about family forgiveness and reconciliation without mentioning the mother strikes me as odd. However, Luke’s story is the version that has come down to us; so that is the one with which we must engage.
If we look at the way in which the prodigal’s father is portrayed, I think we can note several characteristics we tend to identify with mothers rather than fathers: keeping a perpetual look-out for the missing child when everyone else has presumably given him up for lost; running to meet him (an absolute no-no for any dignified paterfamilias of the time); fussing about clean clothes the moment he steps over the threshold; throwing a party to welcome the prodigal home; and, perhaps most telling of all, noticing the elder son’s grumpiness and reassuring him that he too is loved. To me, this is yet another indication that God transcends all ideas of male and female, and the Church too, in the way in which she is to mediate forgiveness and mercy, is to transcend all divisions.
So, what are we to take with us from today’s celebration? I would like to suggest that all of us need to become more like the father in the parable. Each one of us is to show love, mercy and forgiveness to others, and maybe allowing ourselves to see some motherly charcteristics in the prodigal’s father may help us to think more deeply about what the Church is and how she acts in the world. The Church is not an abstraction, any more than we are abstractions. And love, mercy and forgiveness are not abstractions, either.
Lent can be tough. It has its own particular hazards in a monastery because there is no escape. Everyone is so horribly fervent — save, perhaps, for the dog. The fasting, the unaccompanied singing which means we go flat even more frequently than usual, the fact that we aim to clear the decks, so to say, to give more time to God and the things of God but discover, every year, that what we intend isn’t quite what God intends — these can all take their toll. A friend’s death, an unexpected rudeness from someone, a few aches and pains we hadn’t expected, and we are thoroughly miserable. Gloom and doom! We are in the belly of the whale with Jonah and never expect to see daylight again.
Then, early one morning, we hear a blackbird singing, see a burst of daffodils by the hedge, read something that strikes us as new-minted, or someone says or does something kind or generous, and life is transformed. A fleeting melancholy is recognized for what it is: fleeting. We come out of the belly of the whale and find ourselves safe on the sea-shore.
At the risk of stretching the analogy too far, we need to remember that Jonah was saved for a purpose. He had a work to do, and so have we. Sometimes we have to know what it is to feel really ‘down’, to experience vulnerability, in order to be truly compassionate. There is a link between misery and mercy. So, if this morning you are feeling a little bit miserable, a trifle glum, try showing mercy to yourself and to others. It won’t change the world, but it will change you.
Recently, I have been wondering about the problem the media seem to have with Christianity. I am not referring to mere religious illiteracy (about which I have written more than enough already) but to a fundamental inability to accept that Christians, of whatever denomination, actually believe what they say they believe. The little furore caused by the C_of_E’s recent tweet about praying for Richard Dawkins is a case in point. All Christians believe that we have a duty of prayer for others, irrespective of what those others believe/do not believe or whether we like/dislike them or agree/disagree with their views. Indeed, Christians have a special duty of prayer for those who are their enemies or wish to do them harm. But it was interpreted by many as mockery or trolling of a sick man, which is a perverse interpretation, if ever there was one.
We now have the media poring over the friendships of John Paul II and suggesting, oh so craftily, that there was something wrong with the pope’s having friends of both sexes — and especially one who was, horrors, not only another philosopher but a married woman, too. While conceding, a little reluctantly, that there is no evidence that either broke their vows, the commentators hang their salacious hints in the air. It is character assasination by innuendo. At the heart of it is something both sad and troubling: the assumption that all friendship is sexual, and that a marriage vow is trifling and a promise of celibacy lightly to be put aside. One does not have to be a Catholic to know that is nonsense, and an injustice to the millions of men and women who have lived faithful, loving lives and enjoyed the gift of friendship over the centuries. It seems that cynicism rules. People do not mean what they say.
The trouble with the media view of Christianity is not just that it is false but that it is becoming pervasive. If we are constantly being told that people don’t believe what they profess to believe, we will create a culture in which distrust reigns supreme. Lack of trustworthiness is something we have already registered in many different areas of life. Isn’t it time those of us who claim to be Christians challenged this perverse narrative before it becomes universally accepted? Lent is a time of spiritual warfare. To arms, then, in the service of Truth!
Lent is a very simple business. It is human beans who try to make it complicated. I think the main problem is that you all talk too much. You have too many words! Dogs have no words, but we do have language. From the tip of our nose to the end of our tail, we are all doggy expressiveness. That is very important when it comes to prayer. I don’t say extra prayers like some of you human beans, I just pray. I look at God; he looks at me; and everything is tickety-boo. He knows I love him, and when he sees me stretched out before the altar or prowling round Them while They sing the Divine Office, he knows I’m happy just to be with him, which is all he really wants — our being with him, and being happy.
Fasting is a bit of a toughie for a dog. We were made to be easy to please and it is in our nature to scoff everything in sight. But we do our bit during Lent by being grateful for our daily rations and showing our gratitude by going into ecstasy when the same, boring old kibble plops into our feeding-bowl. We don’t need elaborate plans for giving up X or Y. We have no choice; and it is only because human beans have choice that you get so complicated about it. I sometimes want to say, ‘Don’t waste time thinking about how good you are to be giving up sweets, try a bit of self-forgetfulness and gratitude instead. Grace before and after meals is much better than chocolate.’ Mind you, it wouldn’t hurt some of you to cut back and give what you save to your local Food Bank, but do it because you love God and other people, not because you want to get your waistline in better shape. (Dogs are much better for that, anyway: walkies is good for you as well as us.)
Finally, almsgiving. Now that I’m getting old and grey(ish), I realise that this is simple, too. Yes, if you can, there are lots of opportunities for human beans to be of service to one another, but sometimes just being with someone is a gift in itself. I know that whenever I accompany BigSis to the hospital, I cheer lots of people up just by trotting along beside her. They seem to find me comical, for some reason. And when visitors come to the house, I give them my very special PBGV look, then they don’t feel lonely or sad any more. There are lots of lonely and sad human beans in the world, and they aren’t all lucky enough to have a dog to be friendly with. See what you can do instead.
So, that’s that. Lent in three easy steps. Or, how to be good made easy. 😉
The life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, says St Benedict, and whatever we offer up should be done with the joy of the Holy Spirit as we look forward to the holy feast of Easter with joy and spiritual longing. (RB 49 passim) So, why the sudden gloom, the slightly ostentatious switching off of Social Media, the corkscrew placed out of sight, the lentils and the chickpeas to the fore? There are three possible reasons.
One is, we have got it all wrong and actually enjoy being miserable, so we try to ensure we (and everyone else) is as miserable as possible. The second is, we may be using Lent to address some problem, real or presumed, in our lives, e.g. confusing dieting with fasting, or see Lent as some sort of endurance test, so the more awful, the better. The third is, we have got it all right, and these trifling little offerings are our way of saying, ‘I love you, Lord. This is my way of trying to show it and learn how to love you better. I may get confused and set off on the wrong track at times, but I trust you to lead me back.’
Lent is an opportunity we do not want to waste but, if my experience is anything to go by, it is not the penances we set ourselves that matter but the totally unexpected ones the Lord sends that will scour us out and prepare us for Easter. As we begin Lent, therefore, let us ask for the grace to be attentive, to be courageous . . . and to be cheerful.
Today is the day when the ‘joy and spiritual longing’ St Benedict associates with Lent come to the fore. This is the day for confessing our sins, for the restoration of a right relationship between God and ourselves, and between ourselves and everyone with whom we are in any way at odds. It is the day for being freed from our sins, and freeing others from anything that holds them ensnared. Clearing our larders of eggs and butter and making pancakes is secondary. It is the spiritual preparation for Lent that matters most; but, happily, Catholicism has never been a dour religion so we can carnival (eat meat) and toss our pancakes with gusto, inverting the usual order of things by ushering in the great fast with a great feast.
Today, if not before, we will also think about the form our prayer, fasting and almsgiving should take. If you look back on this blog, you will find several suggestions, but today I would like to mention just one monastic discipline: the Lent Book, a book of scripture chosen by the superior and assigned to each member of the community after some prayer and thought about what he/she would find most helpful or challenging. A hundred members of our online community have already received a personal recommendation, but for those of you who didn’t, but who would value a suggestion, I’m going to invite you to read the Book of Exodus.
With the mass migrations sweeping across Europe, Exodus is a timely reminder of what it means to be a slave then an exile; to be set free by the Lord, then search for the fulfilment of a dream, a promise. But Exodus is much more than a conveniently contemporary account of the dynamics of oppression and freedom. It is a record of the Lord’s tender love for his people, the covenant he established in the desert and ultimately sealed with the blood of Jesus on Calvary. The experience of wandering in the wilderness is one we can all relate to in some measure, along with the experience of sin and failure. The story of Exodus filled Jesus’ last days on earth and helps interpret his final actions and sayings. As such, it is a wonderful preparation for Easter — which is what Lent is all about.
Tips on Reading
As always, pray before you begin to read; read the text as addressed to yourself; and give thanks when you have finished, because grace grows in proportion to gratitude. At some point you will become weary and want to give up, or you’ll seek diversion in concordances and commentaries, but try just to stick to the text and let God speak to you through it. You can delve into the commentaries later to enrich your understanding but don’t let them become an excuse not to engage with the text.
Yesterday I posted on Facebook a couple of links to resources on this blog and our main web site about preparing for Lent (see below). This morning I’d like to mention a monastic practice that others beyond the monastery may find useful: the poverty bill.
Once a year every nun draws up a list of everything she has in her room or for her own use and submits it to the superior or, in the case of the superior, to another nun. It encompasses everything and acts as a check on any tendency to luxury or excess. You’d be surprised how easy it is to start the year with, say, two biros and end with twelve! Here at Howton Grove we take it further. Every year we assess what we think we genuinely need to live a monastic life and be of service to others. Anything we regard as excessive or anything we haven’t used in the past year is scrutinised and usually either given away or sold and the proceeds put to better use. Of course, that isn’t true of every single item. We didn’t use our fermenting bin to make apple wine last year, but we may this year; so it will stay. And I regret to say there is still stuff we haven’t unpacked from our Hendred years which needs a similar scrutiny.
The point is, this annual check on possessions is a very good way of bringing some reality into our Lenten observance. It is easy to make a nominal sacrifice of some food or trifling self-indulgence; it is easy to make a small donation to Oxfam or some other good cause; it is even easy(ish) to add some prayer or reading to our regular routine; but to cast a ruthless eye over what we have, and make decisions about what we really need, takes a certain amount of steeliness and generosity. It is not merely a stripping away but also, and more importantly, a giving to others. Otherwise it is just ‘decluttering’, which can be selfish, a way of organizing space just how we want it with no thought of anyone’s good but our own.
So, as we prepare for Lent and think about the form our prayer, fasting and almsgiving should take, may I suggest spending a few moments thinking about our everyday surroundings, the things we have, the things we may not even notice so accustomed have we become to their presence, and ask ourselves whether we are putting them to good use and whether there is a better use still.
If you would like some more suggestions about Lent, these two links may be helpful:
The first is fairly general: http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/02/11/preparing-for-lent/
The second pulls together various resources on fasting, prayer, almsgiving, etc. http://bit.ly/1L3BhjN
Lent will soon be upon us (yes, really, Ash Wednesday is 10 February!) and I shall begin posting on Lenten themes. In past years a number of people have found it helpful to have a book of scripture assigned to them, just as it is in the monastery, which they read through during Lent. Sometimes the choice is congenial; sometimes it isn’t; but St Benedict gives us this task for a reason (cf RB 48.14–16) and expects us to work at it. As St Jerome says, ‘Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ,’ and Lent is a time when we try to know our Lord and Saviour better than ever.