Fasting and Greed

Being Thought Greedy

None of us likes to be thought greedy, so we make a 1,001 excuses for any unbecoming conduct we’re inclined to blush for, ranging from genuine need (‘I was starving’) to being misunderstood (‘I was just tidying things up’). The photo of the little boy with his head in a cake makes us smile, not recoil. It is how we like to think of our own weaknesses — endearing foibles rather than failings. Alas, it won’t wash. Greed isn’t just about food and drink or overindulgence in material things. We can be greedy for attention, comfort, celebrity status (by association, if nothing else), all kinds of things. We can be greedy for life itself at the expense of others.

Physical Fasting

I certainly believe in the value of actual, physical fasting from food and drink and I am grateful that, after a lifetime in the monastery, I can draw on the accumulated wisdom of generations of nuns. The monotony of our Lenten diet is part of our fast, but we don’t go in for extravagant gestures like the legendary religious sister (Order/Congregation discreetly veiled here) who decided she would eat nothing but one bowl of porridge every day during Lent and expired at the end of it. Nor do we confuse the physical fast with any other kind of ‘giving up’, e.g abandoning social media for a few weeks or foregoing a favourite pastime. Which brings me back to the subject of greed.


The antidote to greed isn’t fasting but generosity. Restraining ourselves from x or y can be a useful discipline, but it isn’t what the Lenten fast is about. Fasting, like everything else in Lent, is meant to lead us closer to God. The rumblings of our tummies are incidental. What we aim at is the clear-headedness and simplicity that will free our prayer and deepen our response to God, and experience shows that not being weighed down with too much food and drink is a help in that. Our greed, any tendency to possessiveness, to claim something or, worse still, someone, exclusively for ourselves requires more than a trifling sacrifice of a few morsels of food or drink to put right. It requires a complete change of attitude, and for most of us that is a longer and harder task. Maybe that is what Jesus is hinting at in today’s gospel. When the Bridegroom is gone from us, then we must fast in earnest and give of ourselves as he gave his life on the Cross. Lent is a good time for learning how to do that.


Lent: Our Pilgrimage to Easter

A Benedictine Approach to Lent

As Benedictines we have the advantage of a whole chapter of the Rule devoted to the observance of Lent. It is clear, direct and joyful, so I suggest we begin by listening to what St Benedict has to say. It forms the basis of the posts to which I link below and will explain, I trust, why Lent is always greeted with joy in the monastery. The call to simplify our lives, discover God anew (or rather, allow God to discover us anew), is one we are apt to think harsh or difficult, forcing ourselves to become what we are not, whereas St Benedict sees the process as our becoming more and more what we are meant to be, a gracious flowering of the gifts given us at baptism. Our Lenten journey is thus a joyous pilgrimage towards Easter and total transformation in Christ.

The Rule of St Benedict, chapter 49, On the Observance of Lent

Here are four consecutive posts that deal explicitly with the teaching in this chapter, but you may prefer to pass on to the more obviously practical content listed under Preparing for Lent. All links open in a new tab.

Preparing for Lent

Here are five consecutive posts about preparing for Lent — all very simple and practical. You’ll find I don’t use the word ‘penance’ very often, and there’s a good reason for that.

    The importance of prayer before we decide what we are going to do for Lent. Of course, what God decides to do for Lent may be quite different from what we intended or expected. You have been warned!
    An introduction to the Lent Bill as a way of simplifying our lives. Lockdown has led to some decluttering of material things, but have you thought about the need to declutter spiritually, too?
    ‘Going it alone’ is not a good idea. A friend who knows us well may give better advice than a confessor we see rarely.
    A brief look at the three traditional disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — of which the most important and difficult is almsgiving.
    The importance of the Lent book ‘read straight through in its entirety’. You can ignore the second half of the post which was for 2018. This year we invite you to join the community and our oblates in reading the Acts of the Apostles. We go through it in Eastertide but seeing it whole and studying it now will enrich that experience. It certainly has a lot to say about our current turmoil! Later this week I hope to post a few questions that may be useful to anyone reading the text as lectio divina.

There is just one more post I’ll add now, about the practice of lectio divina.
This particular entry is concerned with the Rule of St Benedict, but I hope it contains some helpful pointers about reading a Lent book or the daily Mass readings. Being humble before the Word of God is something many of us find at odds with everything we have been taught academically. We want to argue and tear meaning from a text; but it isn’t easy to do that on our knees, and, anyway, I have a suspicion that when we come to be judged, we’ll be questioned more closely about how we responded to the scripture and put it into practice than our brilliant hypotheses about authorship or anything similar.

As Lent Begins

I realise I have listed ten posts. There are many more, but it would be kinder to leave you to search them out for yourselves. You can use the search box in the right hand bar (large screen devices) or the pull-down menu on the left (small screen devices). Most of my own plans for February have been dashed because I made the fundamental mistake of forgetting that God is in charge. I didn’t expect to be unwell enough to be forbidden to go online, but now I am getting better I see the wisdom in that. I still believe that cyberspace has huge potential for good but our community involvement does lead to a lot of correspondence which can be draining as well as energizing (especially when I feel guilty about not keeping up!). I hope that I am now a little readier for what Lent offers. We shall be praying for you. Please pray for us, too. May we all be upheld by the joy of the Holy Spirit as we set out into the unknown, knowing that Easter and the Resurrection are at the end of our quest.


True Lent (With a Little Help from Herrick)

The Friday after Ash Wednesday generally sees the first little wobble in our Lenten discipline. The fast begins to bite; our ambitious plans for holy self-improvement are less attractive than they looked a week ago; and the nay-sayers who think we are motivated by a mixture of fear and sanctimonious priggishness are starting to get under our skin. Then the Church’s Mass readings deliver the coup de grace. Isaiah 58. 1–9 and Matthew 9. 14–15 are both about fasting, and leave us absolutely no wriggle-room. Giving up wine or chocolate or some other luxury isn’t the point at all. Our first duty is to fast from sin. There should also be restraint in our use of food and drink, because we need to feel in our flesh the commitment to conversion that we make through prayer. As always, however, the third element in our Lenten discipline, almsgiving, needs to be part of our fast. Giving up food and drink and giving generously to others are intimately connected.

So, what if you have decided to give up something other than food and drink, social media, say? That may be a very good thing for you to do if you find that you are becoming addicted, but it may also have an impact on others you do not intend. For example, yesterday I saw that one of my Facebook friends who, for various reasons to do with health, etc, relies on social media for many of her social interactions was sad that several online friends were going offline for the duration of Lent. For the person concerned, that means six weeks without the interaction and support online friendship can bring. It isn’t straightforward, is it? Perhaps that is why so many of us opt for the obvious.

Perhaps we could let Robert Herrick examine our conscience on the matter and maybe even re-consider some of the choices we have made.

IS this a fast, to keep
                The larder lean?
                            And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
                Of flesh, yet still
                            To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
                Or ragg’d to go,
                            Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No ;  ‘tis a fast to dole
                Thy sheaf of wheat,
                            And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
                From old debate
                            And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
                To starve thy sin,
                            Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.


Limping Into Lent

Ash Wednesday is only a week away, and I realise I shall probably still be in the throes of post-chemo yukkiness while everyone else is smiling bright, purposeful smiles as they tackle their Lenten penances. Thank goodness we Benedictines don’t go in for that sort of thing. I can limp into Lent with a good conscience. St Benedict does indeed say that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, but when one analyses what he means by ‘Lenten’ it is reassuring to find that he concentrates on purity of life and the basic disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — but without any competitive striving. We are not being asked to be heroic, just fully what we should be at all times but often aren’t. (cf RB 49)

In previous years, I have examined what some of the traditional disciplines of Lent might mean for each of us and I see no reason to change anything I’ve said before, though it may be useful to re-state them.

Prayer is the fundamental Lenten discipline because Lent is all about letting God become close to us. Sometimes people decide that ‘more is better’ and set themselves a daunting routine of extra prayers to be said each day. I think myself that that is self-defeating. Either one cannot keep it up, in which case one feels a fraud and a failure, or one does somehow manage it, and is tempted to sneak a little admiring glance at oneself now and then. Much better just to be simple and try to be whole-hearted about one’s prayer as it is.

For a Benedictine, prayer is intimately connected with lectio divina, and in the past I have written about the usefulness of the Lent Book — the book of scripture each of us is given to read during Lent. Not, please note, one we have chosen for ourselves but one we have been given, the one that, however unpromising it may look to us, has something important to say. If we do not have a kindly superior or community to choose a Lent book for us, there is always the rich sequence of readings to be found in the Mass lectionary. In fact, I would always suggest starting with them, because to pray with the rest of the Church is the best way of ensuring that we do not go off on some unfruitful byway of our own.

Fasting, like prayer, is best done with the mind of the Church. It isn’t the same as dieting, and giving up what Isaiah calls ‘the wicked word’ is much more important than some trifling sacrifice of wine or chocolate that half the world cannot afford anyway. It is, however, necessary to introduce an element of plainness into our food, and to curb the self-indulgence of other times. Whatever we save in our spending on food here at the monastery goes to a relief agency, and I think that is important. Fasting is meant to simplify our life and make us more attentive to God and other people. Feeling in one’s own body a little of the hunger that many experience daily is good at many levels, but it must not get in the way of spiritual alertness or the practice of charity. So, if fasting becomes just a covert way of improving one’s waistline or one’s bank balance, stop, think again. And if fasting turns one into an angry, hot-tempered dragon, belting fire and brimstone at all and sundry, stop, stop, STOP! Better to eat a slice of bread one didn’t intend to than chew one’s brethren to bits.

As to the other things St Benedict suggests we might fast from — unnecessary conversations that can easily turn into gossip or scurrility, for example — we must each find our own way. For some people, it might even be a case of becoming more, rather than less, conversational: greeting the concierge with a smile and a kind word, for example, rather than passing them by as though they did not exist.

It is telling how often, in the West, almsgiving as a Lenten discipline is forgotten. It is not that people are not generous, but somehow the connection between giving alms — showing love — and the pilgrimage towards Easter is broken or not understood. We are all capable of giving to others, and often it is giving what we never thought of giving that proves the most costly gift of all. So, for example, being patient, with ourselves as well as others, is as valuable as a monetary gift to a Charity that appeals for help. Not being able to do some of the things we’d like to do during Lent can be an offering in itself. For instance, I doubt I shall be well enough to fast ‘properly’ on Ash Wednesday, but I can offer my sadness and regret instead. Again, we must each find our own way; and that brings me to my main point.

Preparing for Lent
For each and every one of us, Lent will be much more fruitful if we spend a little time beforehand thinking and praying about it by way of preparation. In the monastery we have the wonderful practice of the Lent Bill in which we set out what we intend to do (or not do!) during Lent and show it to another for evaluation and permission. I think that helps keep us on the right track. We do not always see ourselves clearly enough to make wise decisions. To ask the advice of another, to be humble about our choices, is to enter into the dynamic of Lent. For forty days we are asked to accompany the Lord along the way to Jerusalem and we cannot do that unless we are prepared to follow rather than lead. Some of us will run along the way; others will limp. It doesn’t matter which, provided we get there in the end.


Preparing for Lent 4

The three traditional penances of Lent are

  • prayer, which helps re-establish a right relationship with God;
  • fasting, which helps re-establish a right relationship with self, especially our bodily self;
  • almsgiving, which helps re-establish a right relationship with others.

St Benedict was keen on three-fold patterns, and we can see how this one addresses all the important activities of life.

When Benedict talks about prayer in the context of Lent, he concentrates on the idea of making good the negligences of other times (cf RB 49). We all know occasions when we have been half-hearted or done our best, like Jonah, to escape the Lord. Lent provides us with an opportunity to try to do better. For some that will mean trying to go to Mass daily or to pray some part of the Liturgy of the Hours in union with the rest of the Church. Even if it’s just the Benedictus in the morning and the Magnificat in the evening, we shall be trying to maintain a structure into which all other attempts at prayer will fit.

Setting ourselves an unrealistic target, a certain quantity of prayer to be got through every day as though we were engaged in some kind of competition, will quickly end in failure and disillusionment. So will piling on devotion after devotion. What we need to do is to quieten ourselves down, to listen; and to do so with regularity. Learning to love the Lord in silence and poverty of spirit is one of the gifts Lent offers us, and we should seize it gladly. In a later post I shall say something about the practice of lectio divina,  but for now it is enough just to highlight what our Lenten prayer is meant to do: bring us back to God.

Fasting is not dieting, although in our crazy world the two are often confused. To deny ourselves some food and drink, some pleasure of the senses, is to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God and our own dignity as temples of the Holy Spirit. The body we have been given is holy, perfect; but we do not always treat it as such, nor do we always exercise the kind of restraint that its holiness demands. Lent is a time to do just that. But our fasting isn’t meant to impose burdens on others (I will have just a little brown toast and honey, if you please, but it must be this kind of toast and that kind of honey, served on good china, etc, etc) nor is it meant to improve our bank balance. If we fast and save money or time, what we save should be given to others in almsgiving.

Even more than with prayer, fasting can be undertaken with one eye on its effect on others. It can become a source of what Benedict calls ‘vainglory’ — inordinate pride in our own achievements — whereas it is meant to remind us of our creaturely condition. Few of us in the West ever experience real hunger except by choice. That cuts us off from the lived experience of millions of people living in less fortunate conditions. It is good for us to be really hungry from time to time, but even if we can’t fast from food and drink, we can fast from some of the other little indulgences that make our existence comfortable. Think of the ways in which we waste time or are profligate in our use of resources. So, how about not speeding in the car, not spending so much time on Netflix or computer games, not leaving rubbish for others to clear up but dealing with it ourselves? Add to these fasting from anger and bad temper and all the other negativities to which we are prone, and you will see that the traditional discipline can be reinterpreted in ways which make painfully clear that (a) we are not self-sufficient and (b) we have a tendency to misuse the gifts we are given. What we mustn’t do, however, is to fall for the temptation to be vague about fasting, fasting in a general way. We need specifics, a firm commitment, something that challenges.

With almsgiving, I think we come to the most difficult of the three Lenten disciplines. It is comparatively easy to pray, or at least to observe times of prayer; it is comparatively easy to fast, or at least to omit something from our meals; but to give of ourselves, to go out to the other, to be generous, that requires much more. It means we have to be open to others, on the watch for opportunities to be of service, ready to take risks. Many use Lent as a time for planned giving to various charities, but it is the unplanned opportunities the Lord puts in our way that can be most costly. Small acts of kindness go a long way towards making people feel valued and loved. The trouble is, we have to be alert to the possibilities but how often do we lament, ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t realise.’ Perhaps we should all try to make this Lent one in which we keep our eyes peeled, as it were, for the needs of others.

The Joy of the Holy Spirit
One final note: Benedict says that everything we give up or take on during Lent should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to the holy feast of Easter.’ One of the great attractions of Lent for me is that in community we live with great simplicity, and that simplicity is always suffused with joy. Jesus in the desert was not plunged in gloom, nor should we be. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving set us free from what binds us at other times, and such radical freedom must surely be a joy. Allow it to be so.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Preparing for Lent 2017

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


Spiritual Warfare for Christians

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

There is a spiritual warfare that requires not a drop of blood to be shed, not a single angry word to be said, not one unkind thought to be thought. To put it in contemporary terms, you could say Lent is the Christian Jihad, when we oppose everything in our own lives that is hostile to God. The qualification is important. For the next few weeks we are principally concerned with following Jesus into the desert, allowing the searing light of truth into the hidden parts of our being, making us face up to the reality of who and what we are. We know it will be uncomfortable, but we were never promised a life of comfort when we became his disciples.

St Benedict tells his readers that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, and there are many places in the Rule where he refers to fighting for the true King, Christ our Lord, the fraterna acies or battleline of the community and the spiritual combat of the desert in which solitaries engage. But he never presents this spiritual warfare as something dour or grim. On the contrary, it is immensely joyful — because it brings us closer to Christ. His chapter on Lent, RB 49, is one of the most lyrical in the Rule and reminds us that we are looking forward to Easter ‘with joy and spiritual longing’, that everything we do, even the restrictions we place on ourselves, the things we ‘give up’ for Lent, is done ‘freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit’. In this, I think he is echoing the joy Jesus found in the desert, when he spent those precious forty days exploring the depth of his relationship with the Father. Yes, he was tested; yes, the temptation was real and urgent; but he was driven out into the desert by the Spirit — the Greek verb used is very strong, almost catapulted — and he was accompanied by angels, messengers of God. In other words, he was alone with the Alone.

For us, as disciples, our moments of being alone with the Alone can be very few and far between. In Lent we try to make more time for prayer, reduce the number of distractions (fasting) and seek to serve God in others (almsgiving). We know that we can sometimes be very self-regarding in all three, whereas what we intend is to forget ourselves. That really is the secret both of spiritual warfare such as I have described, and the joy that accompanies it. We need to stand aside, as it were, and let Christ be all in all — and that is so hard for us difficult, argumentative beings, who like to be in control all the time and find it virtually impossible to let go! The illustration at the top of this blog post may help change our perspective a little. It shows Christ carrying the Cross: the logical conclusion, if you like, of his forty days in the desert. The battle with Satan that began there reaches its climax on Good Friday, when Christ wins the victory for all time.

Christ has shed his blood for us, once and for all; so no more need be shed. He has borne every insult and angry word that has ever been uttered; so no more need be said. He has experienced all the contradictions of being human and transformed them so that now we can live the life of grace. Yes, Christ has triumphed and we live now with a vast opportunity before us. This Sunday is a good day for asking ourselves what we truly desire: God or something less, joy or endless sorrow?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Shrove Tuesday 2015: Praying for IS

Earlier today this tweet caught my eye: how can we pray for IS (or ISIS)? The tweeter is an Anglican bishop whom I admire, and the question he poses plunges us straight into what Lent is all about: conversion of heart, transformation in Christ. Like many others, I am increasingly hesitant about discussing IS (or ISIS) and its latest atrocities because publicity is what it craves. But the death of those twenty-one Coptic Christians whose only crime was to call on the name of Jesus makes the bishop’s question urgent. How do we pray for those whose every act seems to be evil?

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that we pray for IS as something ‘other’. We cannot identify with their mindset, still less their actions. But, if you think about it, very few of us are so in tune with others that we can identify with them completely. The fact that even our nearest and dearest sometimes seem to be worlds apart from us should give us pause. Even Jesus was to discover that his closest disciples were unable to keep watch with him in Gethsemane as he underwent his agony. I think the secret of praying for IS is to pray for them as we pray for ourselves, asking God’s mercy and enlightenment. The gift of conversion of heart sounds splendid — until we actually receive it in some small measure. In asking God to turn the hearts of IS to better things, we are asking for a hard and difficult grace that, if received, will shake them to the very core. God burns evil from our hearts and, say what you like about healing pain, it is always a searing experience.

Shrove Tuesday is a day when Christians take stock of their lives in preparation for Lent. In an earlier post I described it thus:

Shrove Tuesday: a day for being shriven (sacramental confession of our sins), for carnival (eating meat) and pancakes (clearing out the last of the butter, eggs and milk in the larder) before the Lenten fast begins — and for making merry, in the old-fashioned sense of rejoicing and having fun. It may be my warped sense of humour, but there has always seemed to me a marvellous inversion of the usual order of things on Shrove Tuesday. The Church traditionally kept the Vigils of great feasts with a fast; the Vigil of the great fast of Lent is kept with feasting. In both cases the purpose is the same: to impress upon us the solemnity of the occasion, its spiritual importance marked out by what we eat and drink and do.

Today we eat in honour of the Lord; tomorrow, and for forty days, we shall fast in honour of the Lord. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving: these are the foundation of our Lent, but probably the most obvious to ourselves and others will be the fasting. It is worth thinking what our fast should be.

Perhaps this year our fasting could include an element of denying ourselves the easy solution of thinking of others as different, ‘other’, so that we pray for them as for ourselves. Lent is often seen in negative terms, giving up this and that, making small sacrifices that, by the end of six weeks, seem enormous. We tend to overlook the fact that the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving unlock great spiritual power. They enable us to stand aside, so to say, and allow Christ to be all in all. Ultimately, it is only God who can solve the problem of evil in the world; but, as we are destined to learn again this Lent, he does so in a way none of us could have foreseen.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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:


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:


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


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


For almsgiving, may I suggest

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:

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


May God bless your Lent and make it fruitful.


Feasts, Fasts and Fasting Diets

The rhythm of feasts and fasts is so central to the Church’s year and her understanding of the spiritual life that it may be worth gathering together a few thoughts on the subject. At the outset, we ought to distinguish between fasting in the traditional Christian sense and the popular ‘fasting diet’.

At its simplest, fasting means going without food and drink in order to remind ourselves of our creatureliness and enable us to focus on God more clearly. One might say that it has nothing to with us, but everything to do with God; and the fast of Jesus in the desert is the model for all our own fasting. The Lenten fast makes this very clear. The current discipline of the Church prescribes that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we should limit ourselves to one meal and two collations (snacks). This is both a penance (denying ourselves some good thing to show sorrow for our sins and ask grace for amendment in the future) and a preparation for what is to come. In the monastery, of course, the fasts are more frequent and more rigorous (for example, we fast every day during Lent, Sundays excepted) but the intention is the same. We seek the spiritual freedom that will enable us to follow the Lord more closely. Our fasting is meant to help us forget ourselves and our own comfort so that we are more open to God and others. The money we save is given to the poor. Any physical and psychological benefits are incidental. We might say that fasting as the Church understands it is essentially altruistic. The ‘fasting diet’ by contrast is primarily concerned with the health benefits for the dieter and, as a practice, has no larger end in view (though the individual may well have other motives for dieting in this way.)

When we come to feasts, the difference between Christian practice and secular custom becomes even more marked. The liturgical calendar highlights different occasions that throw light on our understanding of the central tenets of our faith. Sometimes, these seem to put us at odds, or at least out of step, with the people around us. During Christmastide, for example, we are still celebrating when others have taken down their Christmas decorations because it is Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day itself, which opens the way of salvation to gentile Christians. The greatest feast of all, that of Easter, is ushered in by a fast so that we feel in our own bodies the movement from darkness to light, but it is a feast that has very little razzmatazz surrounding it. The great mystery of the Eucharist is a feast in which we share by means of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine transformed into the sacred Body and Blood of Christ.

As we approach the last few days of the Christmas season and the thought of Lent begins to appear on the horizon, perhaps we could spend a few moments reflecting on the nature of feasts and fasts and the way we ourselves live them. The Rule of St Benedict is written around the feast of Easter. Everything is referred to that, and the joy and spiritual gladness that should accompany our every action should ensure our lives have a continual Lenten quality. As our American friends would say, go figure.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail