Preparing for Lent 2016: the Poverty Bill

Yesterday I posted on Facebook a couple of links to resources on this blog and our main web site about preparing for Lent (see below). This morning I’d like to mention a monastic practice that others beyond the monastery may find useful: the poverty bill.

Once a year every nun draws up a list of everything she has in her room or for her own use and submits it to the superior or, in the case of the superior, to another nun. It encompasses everything and acts as a check on any tendency to luxury or excess. You’d be surprised how easy it is to start the year with, say, two biros and end with twelve! Here at Howton Grove we take it further. Every year we assess what we think we genuinely need to live a monastic life and be of service to others. Anything we regard as excessive or anything we haven’t used in the past year is scrutinised and usually either given away or sold and the proceeds put to better use. Of course, that isn’t true of every single item. We didn’t use our fermenting bin to make apple wine last year, but we may this year; so it will stay. And I regret to say there is still stuff we haven’t unpacked from our Hendred years which needs a similar scrutiny.

The point is, this annual check on possessions is a very good way of bringing some reality into our Lenten observance. It is easy to make a nominal sacrifice of some food or trifling self-indulgence; it is easy to make a small donation to Oxfam or some other good cause; it is even easy(ish) to add some prayer or reading to our regular routine; but to cast a ruthless eye over what we have, and make decisions about what we really need, takes a certain amount of steeliness and generosity. It is not merely a stripping away but also, and more importantly, a giving to others. Otherwise it is just ‘decluttering’, which can be selfish, a way of organizing space just how we want it with no thought of anyone’s good but our own.

So, as we prepare for Lent and think about the form our prayer, fasting and almsgiving should take, may I suggest spending a few moments thinking about our everyday surroundings, the things we have, the things we may not even notice so accustomed have we become to their presence, and ask ourselves whether we are putting them to good use and whether there is a better use still.

If you would like some more suggestions about Lent, these two links may be helpful:

The first is fairly general:

The second pulls together various resources on fasting, prayer, almsgiving, etc.


Historical Fiction and Fictional History

You might think a lapsed medievalist like me would be enthralled by all the history currently available in Britain today, but I have to admit to very mixed feelings about it. The portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall as a much nicer man than the records suggest bothered me more than I thought it would. I know too much about More to subscribe uncritically to the idealised portrait of A Man for All Seasons, but I can’t shake off some of Geoffrey Elton’s severer comments about Cromwell, either. At what point does historical fiction cross the line into fictional history?

We are seeing something of the same with the re-interment of the bones of Richard III. I have no particular feelings about him and have recommended interested parties to read Eleanor Parker’s excellent blog post on the subject, Relics, Reburials and Richard III, but I confess to being uneasy about some of the razzmatazz surrounding events in Leicester. I suppose I like my history a little cooler, a little more serious. For me, history is ultimately about truth and understanding (which is why it is so fascinating) and I don’t really like the introduction of fake elements or fundamentally modern interpretations of what, to a historian, is perfectly intelligible within the thought-patterns of an earlier age. I wonder, for example, how many people will be praying for the repose of Richard’s soul today or have any sense of his re-interment forming part of a long Christian tradition of translatio.

When we turn to today’s Mass readings, Genesis 17.3–9 and John 8.51–9, we are brought up against the difference between truth and untruth rather abruptly. Just as Abram becomes Abraham and is initiated into an eternal covenant with God, so Jesus speaks of his identity with the Father and shocks his listeners to the core. The history of the Jewish people traces the consequences of fidelity to that Abrahamic covenant; and the history of Jesus traces the consequences of fidelity to that union between Father and Son.  Today we might think about what that means for us. By baptism we have been born into the covenant Christ sealed with his blood on the cross. We are called to live as children of truth and light. How shall we do so?



Praying to Oneself

Do you ever find yourself praying to yourself, like the pharisee in today’s parable (Luke 18.9–14)? Luke is very hard on the pharisee. Most pharisees were good people, and, far from being hypocrites, were devoted to the Law, charitable and upstanding members of society. Unfortunately, being ‘good’ can sometimes get in the way of being truly open to God; and that is exactly what happens with the pharisee in today’s gospel. Instead of praying to God, he addresses himself; and rather than acknowledging his sinfulness, he gives thanks for his virtues. The tax-collector, by contrast, knows he is a sinner through and through and simply asks for mercy.

Being honest about oneself does lead to a great simplification in prayer. There is nothing to say except, Lord, have mercy on me a sinner. The pharisee, alas, has obviously read too many books about self-worth and that has led him onto dangerous ground, making comparisons between himself and others (to their detriment). Clearly, being honest about oneself shouldn’t mean denying the gifts God has given, but it should make us realise that they are indeed gifts, not something we have earned or have of ourself.

We can all take something away from today’s reading, but I guarantee it won’t be comfortable.


Worry and Trust

What we worry about is highly revealing — and I do mean worry, not what we make the most noise about. It is possible to be vociferous about the poor, for example, and yet not really care whether others have adequate food, shelter, clothing or sense of their own dignity. We can use anything or anyone to feed our own ambition. But the things that keep us awake in the small hours are more telling. That is when we worry about our family or community, our health, finances, even our own physical safety. I wonder, however, how many of us lie awake worrying about our souls: by which I mean, how we stand with God.

One of the things I love about the Book of Deuteronomy is the way in which it presents Israel’s relationship with God as the most important thing in life, full of love and tenderness. The brief passage we read at Mass today (Deut. 4. 1, 5–9) singles out the beauty and holiness of the Law as something to be celebrated and passed on to one’s children as a most precious gift. I sometimes wonder whether Christian parents view passing their faith on to their children with the same sense of  urgency and warmth. Many do, I know; but some are more lukewarm — and a lukewarm faith can never kindle fire in another.

Of course, worry is not itself a good thing. We pray that we may be protected from anxiety and know that the cares of this life are as likely as excessive wealth or luxury to choke the life of the Spirit within us. Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t seem to prevent our worrying. Indeed, it can end up making us worry about worrying! I think that is one of the reasons St Benedict exhorts us to keep death daily before our eyes. (RB4.47) He wasn’t being morbid, or wanting to put a damper on human pleasure or delight, but trying to make us take a longer view of things. How many of us can remember what we were worrying about this time last year? When we think about death, many of our worries fall into place. We let go of those that aren’t important and give time to those that matter. Usually, that brings us back to worries about our nearest and dearest and the rueful acknowledgement that we can’t do much about them except entrust them to God.

Trust is difficult, but it can be learned. During Lent, and more especially during Holy Week, we trace the journey which led Jesus to the Cross and that final abandonment to the Father, full of love and trust. Perhaps we could spend a few moments thinking and praying about that whenever we find ourselves worrying. It won’t change our circumstances, but it might eventually change us.


The Challenge of Thinking in God’s Way

Recently our community marked a significant anniversary: twelve years since our setting out to live monastic life in a new and different situation from the one with which we were familiar. It was very much a case of putting our hand into the hand of God and trusting he wouldn’t let go. We had very little in material terms, but we had very good friends who were generous with help and encouragement, and a firm determination to do our best to live as Benedictines should. Like Naaman in today’s first reading at Mass (2 Kings 5. 1–15), or many a novice since time immemorial, we found it was often the little things that proved difficult.  The big things — the insecurity, living in an unsuitable and rather uncomfortable building, having to work long and hard to keep everything going — were not a problem. But having to adjust to a lack of private space and parish, as distinct from monastic, liturgy cost us dear. Even now, when we live in a truly beautiful monastery on the edge of the Golden Valley, we sometimes catch ourselves stumbling over something small and not seeing the vista ahead. Why is that?

I think part of the answer is that we human beings are not very good at letting God deal with things his way, rather than ours. We expect God to behave as we think he should, and when he doesn’t, we are put out. That is why we have such difficulty with his servants, the prophets. Unless they speak the words we think a prophet should speak, we reject them. We see something of this in the Catholic Church today, with the squabbles over the ‘correct’ interpretation of Pope Francis’s words and actions. Like all family squabbles they tend to generate more heat than light, but one could be forgiven for thinking that infallibility is claimed by all and sundry, just not the pope!

Lent is a good time for marvelling at the way in which God uses the circumstances of our ordinary life to heal us of sin and make us whole. We may find ourselves tripping up over something small, something that doesn’t fit our plan. That’s when we have to learn to let go and simply trust God. The ordinary is for us where we learn to become holy. Jesus’ words in the synagogue at Nazara nearly cost him his life then and there because he challenged his audience to lay aside their prejudices and preconceptions and think in God’s way (Luke 4.24–30). It is a challenge we too must take up, and not just in Lent.


Rich and Poor and Purity of Heart

As we draw closer to the General Election, politicians of every stripe are anxious to be seen as good guys. Unfortunately, that often seems to mean bandying around claims and counter-claims about poverty and wealth which foster division and envy. We do not have to hate the rich in order to be concerned about the poor. We do not have to despise the poor in order to desire a prosperous society. Dives and Lazarus in today’s gospel (Luke 16.19–31) are not to be interpreted in black and white terms. Wealth is not condemned nor is poverty commended as such. Dives is in agony because during his life on earth he failed to be charitable, not because he was rich. Lazarus enjoys bliss because he was patient in adversity and never railed against God, not because he was poor.

Very often at the monastery we are invited to support some good cause or other, and we have learned to be wary. Sometimes the cause isn’t good; sometimes it is presented in a way that makes us uneasy. It is possible to do an ostensibly good deed in a way that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Bitterness, envy, hatred, jealousy — these are not Christian values but they can be the wellspring of our actions. St Benedict borrows a verse of the psalmist to remind us to be on our guard about our own motives: ‘my every desire is before you,’ he says, and that includes those we prefer not to acknowledge. It would be a useful Lenten exercise to spend a few minutes thinking prayerfully about the things that matter to us and, without becoming tied up in knots about it, scrutinising our own intentions. A pure heart is only attained through constant watchfulness.


Pushy Mum (and Dad) Syndrome

We are all familiar with Pushy Mum Syndrome: the mother whose energies are entirely devoted to advancing her child’s chances in life. All her ugly ducklings are swans, if only the world would see; and how hard she works to make sure the world does see! Pushy Dad Syndrome also exists but can be harder on the little chip off the old block, who is expected to be everything his father never was — and more. I wonder whether Mr and Mrs Zebedee would recognize themselves in that description, the pushiness and the fiery temper being among their traits passed on to their sons. When the mother of James and John approached Jesus to ask a special place in the Kingdom for her sons, I daresay both parents justified their ambition by claiming it was not for themselves. They were only interested in the good of their children. The put-down Mrs Zebedee received must have delighted the other disciples, though they may have shivered at what Jesus had to say about servanthood (Matthew 20.17–28).

Today’s gospel alerts us to two things most of us would rather not think about: the way in which we can deceive ourselves about our true motives — doing things for the good of others is surely irreproachable — and our reluctance to embrace the sacrifice that following Jesus necessarily involves. Scrutinising our own motives isn’t easy and often requires someone else to show us what we would rather not see. It can be painful, but we need to remember that truth is ultimately not only freeing but healing, too. As to sacrifice, we are surely far enough into Lent for everyone to realise that it is not the little sacrifices we take on ourselves that count, but the unexpected ones God sends us that matter. If that sounds rather severe on this lovely spring morning, there is something more we could reflect on. God desires only what is best for us, genuinely so. In him there is no trace of Pushy Mum or Pushy Dad, only infinite love and goodness.


The Inferiority of Women

A chilling trailer on the BBC website for a programme to be broadcast on Sunday, 8 March, makes difficult reading. Even those of us who live in the so-called civilised West know perfectly well that some of the attitudes expressed there are commonplace here, though sometimes given a discreet veil of ‘hunour’ or irony. If one is a woman, one knows that the expected way of dealing with such views is with a shrug and a smile. To challenge anything is to prove one is a humourless old biddy, not to be taken seriously. Even an intended compliment can turn awkward, like the Pope’s reference to female theologians as ‘the strawberries on the cake’.

I seem to have spent long hours of my life wondering why women should be thought inferior and come to no very sure conclusion. Even today, I find some of my friends will cheerfully lecture the women of their acquaintance in ways that they would not normally address their fellow men. But although I cannot explain this phenomenon, I think there are a few conclusions we can draw from it that may be helpful this Lent.

Today’s gospel, Matthew 23. 1–12, reminds us that we are all brethren. To exalt ourselves, to lord it over others, is not the Christian way. Of course, some are teachers and preachers and have a duty to teach, preach, warn and correct; but not all of us. The one thing we ALL are, male and female, is servants. The root of that word is in the Latin for slave. Once one starts thinking about slavery, we are in a different territory, where concepts like inferiority and superiority count for very little. Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn this Lent is how we must stand together in Christ. Mutual respect and love go hand in hand. If there is anyone we think of as being inferior, anyone we look down upon or regard as of less value or account than ourselves, we have gone seriously wrong. Society exalts the concept of equality but rarely practices it, or rather, practises it selectively (which is a nonsense, if you think about it.) That isn’t an option for disciples of Christ. I gave this post the title ‘The Inferiority of Women’ because I know it will encourage people to read it. The tragedy is some will see it as being true.


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.


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.