Ash Wednesday 2016

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.

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Shrove Tuesday 2016

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.

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Preparing for Lent 2016: the Poverty Bill

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

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An Offer You Cannot Refuse?

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.

If you would like me to assign you a Lent book, please use the link below and I will do my best to respond before Lent begins. I can’t guarantee that you won’t get a book you’ve had assigned to you in previous years, but if that happens, comfort yourself with the thought that the mistakes the Holy Spirit helps us to make are usually not mistakes at all. Please note that this offer is limited to the first hundred persons to apply USING THE FORM BELOW! (If you can’t see the form, it could be that you have disabled JavaScript.)

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