I always think of Lent with joy. It is a time when we live with great simplicity, returning to our ‘primitive observance’. Everything superfluous is stripped away and we are able to renew our early zeal. In previous years I have written about St Benedict’s view of the subject and various aspects of the traditional Lenten disciplines (see links at the end of this post). This year, I thought I’d try a slightly different approach, but a word of caution first. If you are happy with Lent as you have always thought of it, and intending to do much the same things as you always have, don’t, for one minute, think that your offerings will not be pleasing to God. Whatever you do for love of him, whether your sacrifices be great or small, is truly acceptable. It is your love that God desires, nothing more, nothing less. This post is for those who feel the well has gone a little dry and would welcome a few thoughts from a fellow-pilgrim.
My starting-point is the question: what is Lent for? The only ansewer I find convincing is that Lent is for drawing closer to God, opening ourselves up to the grace he intends for us. Some honest reflection is needed as soon as we say that because we all know there are aspects of our lives that can prove obstacles to grace. They are not necessarily all bad things, either. Misplaced zeal can have consequences almost as deadly as deliberate sin; so can a tendency to exaggerate our wickedness. What we do see as faults may be no such thing, but most of us have an innate sense of some of our attitudes or behaviours not being quite what they should. With the help of our confessor or a wise friend, we may be able to penetrate more deeply into the origins of what is wrong. Then we must pray that we may be open to the grace of conversion, of metanoia; but we should not be surprised if, at some stage, we have to abandon a few of our old ideas and illusions about ourselves. A particular difficulty can arise with how we understand the way in which Lent is meant to operate in the life of the individual. We understand that what the Church does during Lent is a ‘given’, and that there is an important community dimension to Lent, but our own part can be confusing because it leaves much to our own judgement and decision.
Lent is frequently portrayed as a time of spiritual contest, or, in St Paul’s evocative phrase, as a war with the principalities and powers of this present age. While that is true, for those of us who are limping rather than running along the way of salvation, the idea of battling the devil has a touch of theatricality about it, or, at best, Desert-Father unattainability. We’d love to be spiritual athletes, praying unceasingly, fasting rigorously, brimming over with charity and compassion, but the truth is we have to squeeze our Lenten programme into an already full day and there’s only so much we can do. We’re B-team players, if you like; and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our asceticism has less to do with spectacular renunciations than just getting on with things as best we can — what the old monastic authors used to call mortification of the will or obedience, i.e. doing what we ought to do or have to do as well as we can, rather than what we choose/want to do. Even the idea of Lent as a time of penance can be awkward. We all know that penance, especially penances (pl), can lead us astray, with the best of intentions, of course. We start counting the number of psalms or rosaries we have said or the cups of coffee we haven’t drunk and get cross with ourselves if we fail to meet the target we have set. We confuse dieting with fasting or abandon our actual duty for something that makes us feel ‘spiritual’ but is, in reality, a form of self-indulgence, a little golden calf we have made for our own private worship.
We have to begin again, at the beginning. Jesus went out into the desert to be alone with God. That is what Lent is about for each of us, and we need to take Jesus’ desert experience as a guide for our own. We shall certainly be tempted, and if we do not meet the devil at some point, I fear we may be deluding ourselves. The first temptation to address is our lack of a real sense of sin. There is a reason for the Church’s recommending that we go to confession on Shrove Tuesday: to repent of sin we first need to acknowledge that we have sinned. Many of us find that surpisingly difficult. Either we suffer from scruples, seeing sin where there is none, or we airbrush away our real guilt and try to pin it on another as Adam did. We can even think our sins endearingly insignificant! If we could but see sin for what it truly is, we would not think like that. No, we all need to begin Lent by confessing our sins and making a firm purpose of amendment. That clears the decks, so to say, for the hard work that follows.
The first and most important thing any of us can do is to read and pray. There is no substitute for scripture, but rather than setting oneself an impossible schedule, why not aim at something do-able? For example, reading every day the lessons appointed to be read at Mass will take us through much salvation history and keep us one with the rest of the Church in our pondering and praying. Try to take away a word or sentence you can return to throughout the day, so that your reading becomes part of you. As to prayer, ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t’. As a Benedictine, I’m not a fan of multiplying prayers and devotions, but committing to spending a certain amount of time each day with the Lord can be a very helpful discipline (and remember, the word ‘discipline’ means teaching, we are meant to learn something from what we do during Lent). Opportunities to turn back to the Lord as the day progresses are numerous. Going from one room to another, a (silent?) grace before and after eating, even a prayer for the irritation of the moment can be a way of recollecting the presence of God in our lives. What matters is regularity rather than quantity: better ten minutes every day with occasional reminders than a whole hour now and then with oblivion in between.
It is with the disciplines of fasting and almsgiving that I think we usually have most difficulty. I am assuming all of us will be eating very plainly during Lent, observing the customary fasts and days of abstinence, and giving any money we save to the poor. But to fast from the wicked word, as Isaiah says, is a much greater thing than to deny oneself some small luxury. I have suggested elsewhere that refusing to be complicit in the denigration, detraction, rudeness and negativity that mark so much of our public discourse, online and off, would be a very good way of standing firm in Christ. It certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. After all, who likes to admit they may not be right about everything or accept correction from another? The wicked word is so easy and so seductive. It will always win us friends, although perhaps not the kind of friends we should really care to have. We could go further and try to find something or someone to applaud or celebrate whenever people are making false accusations or tearing others down. Our words matter. They hold the key to life and death but we use so many and so often that we rarely take that to heart. Perhaps this Lent we could try. ‘A good word is above the best gift,’ said St Benedict, quoting Sirach 18.17, when speaking of the cellarer or administrator of the monastery and meaning that we must be careful to speak not merely truthfully but also charitably, even generously.
With almsgiving, I think we come to the heart of what Pope Francis has been trying to teach the Church about translating faith into practice. To give alms is to be compassionate, to move ourselves from centre stage to stand with another, to become powerless in a world that values and exalts power. Again, Isaiah provides the image I need. To unfurl the clenched fist is a very good way, indeed the only way, of giving alms. A closed fist cannot give or receive; it is a sign of aggression, of wanting things for oneself alone. We all have to work out what we clench our fists over and resolve to change. It means becoming vulnerable, sharing, not even having the power of giving. Sometimes, it is material things we need to share; at others it is time, ourselves, in fact. One of the saddest things I have ever heard was a child saying, ‘I am invisible to my parents. I have everything I need and more, but what I’d really like is to sit down with them and talk.’ How many people feel like that child, invisible, worthless even? Unfurling the fist is open to misinterpretation, of course. It is much safer to take up our familiar defensive positions, yet that is precisely what Lent is meant to make us do, open us up to a new way of being, of becoming true disciples of Christ.
So, prayer, fasting and almsgiving as Lenten disciplines, but not necessarily as we have always thought or practised them. I am sure you will have your own thoughts and suggestions to make, so please share them with others in the comments section. Before Ash Wednesday I shall give details of the book of scripture the community and its oblates will be reading during Lent. This year I’m unable to give out individual recommendation as in the past, but, as always, you will be accompanied throughout Lent with the prayers of the community. Please pray for us, too.
Through Lent with St Benedict