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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