Ash Wednesday | St Valentine’s Day

I was taken to task this morning for not mentioning St Valentine in my first tweet of the day, which is always a prayer tweet. I daresay  many will be celebrating him, or rather the popular romantic parody of him we have in the West, but 1.2 billion Catholics and millions of Reformed and Protestant Christians will be keeping today as a holy fast in honour of the Lord. We shall be doing our best to look cheerful, and many will be wearing a smudge of ashes on their foreheads as a reminder that we were created from dust and to dust we shall return.

With Ash Wednesday comes a wonderful freedom. Whatever we have decided to ‘do’ for Lent, we do with the joy of the Holy Spirit (RB 49.6). We are indeed ‘looking forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing,’ as St Benedict says (RB 49.7). The particularities of our penances melt into insignificance beside the fact that the Lord has invited us to make a Lenten journey with him and to him. He has spoken to us the words of the prophet Hosea, ‘I will lead her into the wilderness, and there I will speak to her heart.’ All he desires is our love.

I was thinking about those words of Hosea and realised that, without being soppy or sentimental, the gift of Lent can be seen as a kind of Valentine from the Lord in which he reaffirms his infinite love for us, and we try to respond as fully as we can. We know that parts of Lent will be hard, that the penances the Lord sends us will be much more demanding than anything we have taken on ourselves, but we have faith and hope that the journey will lead us closer to him. So, be of good cheer. Ash Wednesday gives us a fresh start and the assurance that the Lord will never abandon us. Let us set out boldly in his footsteps.

Lent
If you wish to know more about Lent and some of its practices, you may find this link useful: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/lent.html 

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Ash Wednesday with the Joy of the Holy Spirit

A little smudge of ash from last year’s palms to remind us that the victory is already won; a fast to clear our minds and focus our hearts; and the sense of a fresh beginning as we turn back to the Lord from whom we have strayed: Ash Wednesday is here. With it comes a wonderful freedom. Whatever we have decided to ‘do’ for Lent, we do with the joy of the Holy Spirit (RB 49.6). We are indeed ‘looking forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing,’ as St Benedict says (RB 49.7). The particularities of our penances melt into insignificance beside the fact that the Lord has invited us to make a Lenten journey with him and to him. He has spoken to us the words of the prophet Hosea, ‘I will lead her into the wilderness, and there I will speak to her heart.’

We know that Lent will be hard. It will have its longeurs, times when we feel empty, tempted to abandon everything. We shall have some spectacular failures. Some of them we may not even register because it is when we think we are doing ‘all right’ that we are most in danger of getting things wrong. But it won’t matter provided we hold fast to this simple truth: God desires our love more than anything else. He is in charge of our Lent, and his ideas are infinitely bigger than ours. We will certainly find that the ‘penances’ he gives us to deal with are much harder, but also more fruitful, than anything we might think up for ourselves. Our job is just to go on, lovingly, patiently, attentively, as best we can. We cannot cut out any part of the journey on which we start today. We must enter Jerusalem with Jesus in a moment of fleeting triumph; we must pass through the agonies of Gethsemane; die on the Cross with him; experience the bleakness of the tomb with him. Then, on Easter morning, before the sun is truly risen, we must rise with him and know, as if for the first time, the joy of the Resurrection and life everlasting. That is where Ash Wednesady leads. That is why we begin Lent with such great joy.

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Lent: a little background to the season

Since Anglo-Saxon times we have used the lovely word Lent (meaning springtime) as a translation of the Latin Quadragesima (a reference to the forty days which make up the season of Lent). Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are traditionally associated with this season and show clearly the Jewish origins of the Church. They are the means by which we show our repentance from sin and firm purpose of amendment for the future.

Historically, probably the most notable feature of this period is the Lenten fast which is a preparation for Easter. Scholars continue to debate its origins, although the length of forty days is presumably drawn from the example of Moses, Elijah and Jesus himself. There may also be a reference to Jesus’ forty hours lying in the tomb. The Early Church kept the fast in many different ways. For example, in sixth century Rome, Lent lasted six weeks but, according to the Church historian Socrates, there were only three weeks of actual fasting. In Alexandria, Lent also lasted six weeks, but there was only one week of fasting (very severe fasting, it is true) during Holy Week.

By the time of Gregory the Great (590-604), there was some complicated number symbolism becoming associated with Lent, Gregory, for example, writing of the thirty-six days of fasting (Sundays were never fast-days) as being a tithe of the year offered to God. Later the importance of completing forty days of fasting meant that some extra days had to be added to the customary six weeks; so that the Roman custom is now to begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent. The Church of Milan held out against this innovation and until recently always marked Lent as beginning on the first Sunday of Lent.

As you might expect, there has been an equally wide divergence in the nature of the fast. Most commonly, the rule was to have only one meal a day, in the evening, and to abstain from luxuries such as meat and wine. St Gregory the Great, writing to St Augustine in England, tells him to abstain not just from meat and wine but also from eggs and dairy produce. This became the common practice. Remnants of the custom are found today in our practice of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday before Lent begins, and eggs at Easter, when it ends. Of course, there were mitigations and exceptions were granted to those who were sick or elderly. In time these spread more generally.The most frequent was the allowance of two snacks, known as collations, in addition to the daily meal. The name comes from the practice of allowing in monasteries an evening drink at the time that the Collationes or Conferences of Cassian were read.

On Maundy Thursday evening began the Paschal fast, usually of greater severity than the Lenten fast. Often it was limited to dry bread and vegetables so that when Easter finally came it was celebrated with great relish. Today the Church continues to encourage fasting and abstinence during Lent but only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are ‘statutory’ fast days. The young and the elderly are not obliged to fast even on these two days. In monasteries, however, the usual practice is to fast every day during Lent, Sundays excepted.

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration are burnt and the ashes sprinkled on the heads or foreheads of churchgoers with the reminder, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.’ We begin Lent by recalling our creatureliness, something Adam and Eve forgot and which led them into sin. We may not wear biblical sackcloth, but at least we wear ashes as a sign of our penitence. We also mark the day by fasting and abstinence: they are a mark of our sorrow for sin and desire to return to the Lord who is ever ready to forgive and welcome us back.

In the monastery a special chapter is held in the afternoon, during which the Lent Books are distributed and each person receives back her Lent Bill (do a search in the sidebar for the meaning of these). We are reminded that the point of our Lenten observance is that we should ‘look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing’ (RB 49.7) and everything we offer up or do by way of penance should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ (RB 49.6).

Lent Books (updated)
I have finished emailing the first 50 to have asked for a Lent Book suggestion. For anyone who disn’t make it into the first 50, may I suggest you read  1 and 2 Peter: they will lead you naturally to think about Easter. The advice I’ve given others is this: Pray before you begin and read slowly, trying to find a word or sentence you can take away with you and meditate on through the day. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to rush to a Concordance or Commentary (good though they are). Just try to spend time with God’s word and let him speak to you. Don’t be surprised if you feel bored or feel you are getting nothing from the reading. Sometimes it can take weeks, months, even years for something to percolate. May God bless your Lent and make it fruitful.

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Ash Wednesday 2014

There’s a phrase St Benedict uses in his chapter on Lent that I have always found very helpful: cum gaudio Sancti Spiritus/’with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ (RB 49. 6, alluding to 1 Thessalonians 1.6). Whatever we do or don’t do by way of Lenten offering or penance is to be accompanied by this joy. Moreover, we are encouraged to ‘look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.’ (RB 49.7) What exactly is this joy, and how are we to find it in the midst of all our penitential gloom?

I think the answer lies in what St Benedict says very clearly Lent is all about: living with great purity. It is not so much a question of adding on or giving up this, that or the other as seeking to be more focused on whatever it is we are asked to be or do by virtue of our vocation or state in life, listening for the word of God in any and every situation, giving Him time in a way that we do not always do. Lent is a joyful season in the monastery because we live it with great simplicity. All the accretions of other times fall away. Yes, it can be difficult. We can feel cold and hungry and terribly tetchy. We have to plumb depths of self-knowledge we would much rather not know about. But we also have the opportunity of going out into the interior desert of our lives and learning to know and love God as if for the first time. It is a great and joyful privilege. May you be blessed with the same joy in your own life.

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A Few Resources for Lent

As I’m not sure from day to day whether I’ll be able to blog or not, I thought I’d provide readers with a few links to previous posts about Lent and Lenten themes. You can add to them, if you wish, by using the search box in the sidebar.

 

First, I am a great believer in preparing for Lent, thinking about what it means and what would be most helpful for the individual as well as the community:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/02/11/preparing-for-lent/

 

As a Benedictine, I find that re-reading what the Rule has to say is especially helpful, so here are four posts that go through Benedict’s teaching on Lent:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/27/through-lent-with-st-benedict-1/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/28/through-lent-with-st-benedict-2/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/29/through-lent-with-st-benedict-3/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/03/01/through-lent-with-st-benedict-4/

 

You will notice that Benedict’s views on books for Lent are different from those we are probably more used to holding:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/24/a-book-for-lent/
In previous years, I have always tried to respond individually to requests for a Lent Book (last year there were well over 100 requests, I think). This year I can’t do that, so anyone wanting to share our community practice may like to choose between
the Gospel of St John (being read by Digitalnun) or
the Book of Genesis (being read by Quietnun).

 

The traditional disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Most of this blog is about prayer in one way or another, but these posts may be worth re-reading:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/08/01/prayer-the-simple-thoughts-of-a-simple-nun/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/03/05/the-versicles-of-the-divine-office/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/01/10/prayer-is-not-a-production-line/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/10/27/reverence-in-prayer/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/10/27/reverence-in-prayer-rb-20/

 

On the subject of fasting, these may be useful, especially as some points are repeated:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/21/shrove-tuesday-2012/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/03/20/food-and-drink/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/01/04/feasts-fasts-and-fasting-diets/

 

For almsgiving, may I suggest

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/03/11/almsgiving/

I suspect that there is more than enough here from one perspective. For more general information about the historical development of the seasons of Lent and Easter, you might try our main website’s article:

http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/lent.html

If you have any energy or time left after that, there are always our podcasts!

 

May God bless your Lent and make it fruitful.

 

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From Ashes to Roses (and possibly Back Again)

‘The time is out of joint,’ said Hamlet, and we know it. St Valentine in the secular calendar topples SS Cyril and Methodius from their place in the liturgical calendar, and with today’s unconfirmed reports that Oscar Pistorius has accidentally shot dead his girlfriend, the strangeness of this week, which has seen a pope announce his retirement from office, Carnival, and Ash Wednesday, continues.

But is it really so strange? We human beings tend to live life in linear fashion, going from one event to another, forgetting what has gone before unless it was particularly pleasant or unpleasant. Memory and forgetfulness are two sides of the same coin. The past is only as secure as our own or collective memory make it; the future is unknown. We must live in the present, and that surely is what Lent drives home to us. This is the day of salvation, the moment when we must choose good rather than evil; and without being too fanciful, I think we can understand it in terms of a movement from ashes to roses (and possibly back again).

Yesterday we wore ashes as a sign of repentance and the desire for conversion. Today many a rose will be offered as a sign of love and devotion. If our repentance is real, there must be the same rhythm in our own lives, the dynamic of love and forgiveness at work. You may not have anyone to whom you would wish to offer a rose today, but I daresay there is someone to whom you need to say sorry. It may be someone living or someone dead; it is, at any rate, someone you have bound in the chains of unforgiveness and whom you must set free. Saying sorry may be as dust and ashes in your mouth, but it will make something beautiful flower in your heart.

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Ash Wednesday 2013

Ash Wednesday, marked for most of us with a smudge of ashes on the forehead (or in the case of nuns, sprinkled atop the veil), is a reminder of our creation ‘from the dust of the earth’, a symbol of the cleansing from sin we hope to undergo. Ash plays so many roles in our lives, both figurative and literal: it nourishes our crops, is a component of some of our soaps and is the stuff our hopes turn to when they are disappointed. Ash Wednesday, however, is more than all these: a day apart, a day of prayer and fasting, a day of returning to the Lord. The ashes we use were burned from last year’s palms. They remind us that the victory is already won, although we have not yet attained its fullness in our lives.

St Benedict in his Rule prescribes that Vigils, the greatest prayer of the Divine Office, should always begin with the same invitatory, Psalm 94, and its urgent, ‘TODAY, if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ That really is the key to making a good Lent: do not harden your heart, listen out for the voice of the Lord and follow his promptings. It isn’t complicated or difficult, but, like Naaman bathing in the Jordan, its simplicity sometimes affronts our sense of what ought to be. Perhaps we all need to become simpler this Lent. How else shall we turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel?

May your Lent be blessed.

Books of the Bible for Lent
Later today I hope to distribute Lent books to those who asked after I had gone offline last night.

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