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
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
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.

Almsgiving
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.

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Preparing for Lent 3

One of the features of St Benedict’s chapter on Lent, RB 49, is its insistence on our not trying to ‘go it alone’. Everything we take on or give up for Lent is subject to the superior’s judgement (or in her case, that of another nun). That is why an important element of the monastic Lent Bill is the submission of our ideas to another’s scrutiny, but our starting-point has to be ourselves and the way in which we are living our Christian vocation here and now.

The Lent Bill gives us an opportunity to think about our personal Lent, as distinct from our community observance. Each of us takes stock of her life and thinks about what needs to be addressed. For one, it may be a tendency to talk too much; for another, it may be a tendency to avoid engagement with people; a casualness may have crept into our lectio divina; or we may have noticed ourselves daydreaming or half-hearted or otherwise deficient in our service. The chances are that the same faults and weaknesses will appear year after year on our Lent Bills, because human nature does not change very much. What matters is the love and devotion with which we try to put right some of the negligences of other times.

What the Lent Bill does not allow us to do is indulge in heroics. We may think that fasting every day on a bowl of porridge will bring us to sanctity quickly and effectively. Granted, it is pretty certain to lead to an early grave, but such extreme fasting smacks more of self-will and the vainglory Benedict cautions against than it does of a genuine desire to restrain unruly appetites. I am sure you can think of other examples of excessive and imprudent zeal for yourselves. By contrast, it can be humbling to see that one’s superior will not allow us to go without sugar in our tea, or whatever other token offering we want to make, because she knows it will leave us crotchety and bad-tempered, and the penance we take on is meant for us not the community as a whole.

For those who are not members of a monastic community, it can be harder to implement the thinking behind the Lent Bill. However, I think it is always wise to talk things over with someone who knows us well and on whose common-sense we can rely. Tomorrow I hope to begin saying something about the traditional disciplines of Lent but for now I think it is important to get our thinking straight, as it were, about how we are going to approach prayer, fasting and almsgiving and the other aspects of our Lenten practice. Our goal is Easter. We go into Lent with the joy of the Holy Spirit, and because it is the joy of the Holy Spirit, we go humbly, ready to be corrected, looking beyond ourselves towards Jesus and the Resurrection.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Constant Failures

How is Lent going? Are you still full of enthusiasm, or are you ruefully beginning to count how many good intentions have fallen by the wayside? Has there been a little fudging on the fasting front, perhaps, or sudden blindness/deafness when confronted by someone in need? And all that extra prayer you promised yourself, where did that go?

Note I said, ‘promised yourself’. The trouble with Lenten resolutions is that very often they are about us. It is an old joke in the monastery that the Lent Bill written by God bears no relation to the one we ourselves write. We were going to do great things for God but, strangely, we find we can’t do the little ones he actually asks. Being patient with X or curbing the withering reply, no, that’s too much to ask. We are tired and hungry and our temper is uncertain. Let’s get on with the Bigger Programme we set ourselves and leave these trifling details to others. Well, NO.

I freely admit that my Lent has, so far, been a constant failure. Everything I set myself to do and be has collapsed around my ankles. I’m not proud of that, I’m certainly not happy about that; but I think it may be the lesson I need to learn — yet again. I am constantly failing, but the emphasis should be on the constant not the failure. What God asks of us is that we try, and go on trying no matter how often we fail. Today’s gospel, Matthew 7. 7–12, is one I find very challenging. To treat others as one would be treated oneself, yes, I can see how that would be not merely a Lenten programme in itself but, as Jesus says, ‘the meaning of the Law and the Prophets’. Pray for me as I do for you, that together we may arrive at the great feast of Easter, still failures in the ordinary sense of the word, no doubt, but definitely constant, standing firm on the rock that is Christ.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Lent: a little background to the season

Since Anglo-Saxon times we have used the lovely word Lent (meaning springtime) as a translation of the Latin Quadragesima (a reference to the forty days which make up the season of Lent). Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are traditionally associated with this season and show clearly the Jewish origins of the Church. They are the means by which we show our repentance from sin and firm purpose of amendment for the future.

Historically, probably the most notable feature of this period is the Lenten fast which is a preparation for Easter. Scholars continue to debate its origins, although the length of forty days is presumably drawn from the example of Moses, Elijah and Jesus himself. There may also be a reference to Jesus’ forty hours lying in the tomb. The Early Church kept the fast in many different ways. For example, in sixth century Rome, Lent lasted six weeks but, according to the Church historian Socrates, there were only three weeks of actual fasting. In Alexandria, Lent also lasted six weeks, but there was only one week of fasting (very severe fasting, it is true) during Holy Week.

By the time of Gregory the Great (590-604), there was some complicated number symbolism becoming associated with Lent, Gregory, for example, writing of the thirty-six days of fasting (Sundays were never fast-days) as being a tithe of the year offered to God. Later the importance of completing forty days of fasting meant that some extra days had to be added to the customary six weeks; so that the Roman custom is now to begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent. The Church of Milan held out against this innovation and until recently always marked Lent as beginning on the first Sunday of Lent.

As you might expect, there has been an equally wide divergence in the nature of the fast. Most commonly, the rule was to have only one meal a day, in the evening, and to abstain from luxuries such as meat and wine. St Gregory the Great, writing to St Augustine in England, tells him to abstain not just from meat and wine but also from eggs and dairy produce. This became the common practice. Remnants of the custom are found today in our practice of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday before Lent begins, and eggs at Easter, when it ends. Of course, there were mitigations and exceptions were granted to those who were sick or elderly. In time these spread more generally.The most frequent was the allowance of two snacks, known as collations, in addition to the daily meal. The name comes from the practice of allowing in monasteries an evening drink at the time that the Collationes or Conferences of Cassian were read.

On Maundy Thursday evening began the Paschal fast, usually of greater severity than the Lenten fast. Often it was limited to dry bread and vegetables so that when Easter finally came it was celebrated with great relish. Today the Church continues to encourage fasting and abstinence during Lent but only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are ‘statutory’ fast days. The young and the elderly are not obliged to fast even on these two days. In monasteries, however, the usual practice is to fast every day during Lent, Sundays excepted.

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration are burnt and the ashes sprinkled on the heads or foreheads of churchgoers with the reminder, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.’ We begin Lent by recalling our creatureliness, something Adam and Eve forgot and which led them into sin. We may not wear biblical sackcloth, but at least we wear ashes as a sign of our penitence. We also mark the day by fasting and abstinence: they are a mark of our sorrow for sin and desire to return to the Lord who is ever ready to forgive and welcome us back.

In the monastery a special chapter is held in the afternoon, during which the Lent Books are distributed and each person receives back her Lent Bill (do a search in the sidebar for the meaning of these). We are reminded that the point of our Lenten observance is that we should ‘look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing’ (RB 49.7) and everything we offer up or do by way of penance should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ (RB 49.6).

Lent Books (updated)
I have finished emailing the first 50 to have asked for a Lent Book suggestion. For anyone who disn’t make it into the first 50, may I suggest you read  1 and 2 Peter: they will lead you naturally to think about Easter. The advice I’ve given others is this: Pray before you begin and read slowly, trying to find a word or sentence you can take away with you and meditate on through the day. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to rush to a Concordance or Commentary (good though they are). Just try to spend time with God’s word and let him speak to you. Don’t be surprised if you feel bored or feel you are getting nothing from the reading. Sometimes it can take weeks, months, even years for something to percolate. May God bless your Lent and make it fruitful.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail