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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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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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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