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.