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.

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Preparing for Lent

For the past few weeks the cyberworld has been full of excellent suggestions and resources for Lent. May I suggest one more, which has the advantage of being over fifteen hundred years old and has stood the test of time? I refer, of course, to the Benedictine practice of the Lent Book — a book of the bible chosen for one by another and read straight through in its entirety? You’ll find some previous posts on the subject if you do a quick search in the sidebar of this blog, and I recommend your reading RB 48. 15–20 and RB 49 for a fresh perspective on Lent in general.

To read scripture slowly and prayerfully requires discipline and application, especially when the choice is not one’s own. It is, in fact, a valuable form of ascesis. In previous years I have invited people to email me using the webform on this site or on our monastery site for a Lent book, without restriction of numbers. This year I am having to put a limit on the numbers and say I will respond to the first fifty requests only; but if you would like to share this ancient monastic practice, do please get in touch, using the webform. Some people have found it very helpful.

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On Being a Bucolic Benedictine

A smattering of Greek and an Anglo-Saxon weakness for apt alliteration determined the title for today’s post. I have spent much of the last few days in delicious idleness, watching the calves over the way. They are Herefords, all legs and eyes and bumbling charm. Seen through the drifts of plum blossom, they are enchanting. If I were more religious (!), I’d probably quote the psalms and their references to stall-fed cattle, bulls of Bashan and the like; but we are in rural England in springtime, and the dust and heat of ancient Israel seem very far away. All that will change in an instant on Palm Sunday, when we become one with those following Jesus into Jerusalem and trace, step by step, the events of that momentous week. Today, however, it is life, new life, that surrounds us here at the monastery and reminds us of the everlasting creativity of God.

One of the biggest temptations we face is to believe that everything has been done: that from here on, everything goes downhill, gets worse, ends in dissolution and decay. It is a fundamentally pessimistic view of life, one that cramps both mind and spirit. Many physicists of the nineteenth century believed, by and large, that their subject had been exhausted. There were just a few loose ends to tie up. No physicist today would say that. We are on the brink of discovering so much more. Every day seems to reveal more and more wonders, opens up vistas we had never dreamed of, invites us to go further, deeper.

The calves over the way may strike the casual observer as a symbol of all that is unchanging in the countryside, but anyone with an eye for cattle or even the most cursory knowledge of the breed will tell you that the size of the Hereford has changed enormously over the past century. At one time they were bred very small, so that being shipped out to South America they fitted the cargo pens to which they were consigned. Today’s Hereford stands taller, stockier, a much more substantial beast than his 1950s counterpart. I wonder what they will look like a century hence. Of one thing, I’m sure: they will have changed; and as my vow of conversatio morum daily reminds me, I too must change. Being a bucolic Benedictine is not an opting-out but an opting-in to living by grace and being transformed by it.

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Pain is Our Friend

Most of us spend most of our lives trying to avoid pain, with good reason. Suffering is not necessarily redemptive, nor is experiencing discomfort or loss in itself admirable. Acceptance of pain is another matter, and as Holy Week approaches it may be useful to consider where we are on our Lenten journey. Pain is our friend, because it reveals to us truths we might otherwise reject or never even come to know. It opens us up to that which is above and beyond our power to control; and Lent is very much about ceding control over our lives to God in ways that we don’t dare at other times of year.

If our prayer isn’t making us feel the pain of God’s absence — and even more, the agony of his presence — are we still too focused on ourselves, on what we do/say in prayer, rather than stretching out to embrace the mystery of God’s silence? If our fasting isn’t making us feel hunger, are we playing at sacrifice — giving up little things in order to avoid the greater surrender of self which can seem so daunting? If our almsgiving doesn’t hurt, is it because we are limiting our giving to what we think we can comfortably manage, rather than letting God determine what the measure of our giving should be?

The trouble about asking these questions is that it can induce guilt or scrupulosity, but that is not my intention. I think Holy Week is so intense, so full of Christ’s pain, that it can be overwhelming. We can be numbed at second-hand, as it were, and perhaps miss the point. It is not Christ’s death that redeems us; it is his obedient acceptance of that death. In these few days before Palm Sunday, it would be good to reflect on the difference. I still say that pain is our friend, but only because Christ has made it so by first embracing it himself as a necessary part of his loving obedience to the Father.

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On Being an Outcast

Has it ever occurred to you how many of the women mentioned in the Gospels are outcasts — people who do not conform to the norms of polite Jewish society but are, in some sense, rule-breakers? Even the Lord’s own mother came dangerously close to being ‘put away’ for the sin, as it might appear, of unchastity. The household at Bethany was unusual, to say the least, with Mary daring to sit at the feet of Jesus among the men, and Martha taking charge of rather more than the dinner arrangements. Then there is Mary Magdalene, from whom seven demons had been cast out; Joanna and the other women who broke with the usual social norms to follow Jesus and his disciples and provided for them out of their own resources; the woman with the issue of blood, who broke the rules of cultic purity; the notorious sinner who washed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee; the woman taken in adultery; the Syro-Phoenician who dared to ask a favour of a Jewish rabbi; and the Samaritan of today’s gospel, who has done more for our faith than many who led lives of blameless orthodoxy.

One could argue that the presentation of women in the Gospels merely reflects the prejudices of the men who wrote them, but I find it interesting that so many of the women are portrayed as courageous, insightful and much more attuned to Jesus’ message than many of his male disciples. There is a challenge here for the whole Church. It has nothing to do with questions of ordination or non-ordination; nothing to do with power or ecclesiastical politics, but everything to do with discipleship, how we follow Christ. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to go to Jesus ‘outside the camp’. I think we could all usefully reflect on what going outside the camp might mean for us today. To be an outcast, to be outside the conventionally respectable limits of society or Church, may not be what we thought discipleship would mean. Reading through the gospel passages where these women feature would be a very good way of asking ourselves how we measure up to the Lord’s command, ‘Follow me!’ For isn’t following Jesus what Lent is all about?

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Poverty and Riches

Contrary to the opinion of some, Christianity — at least in its Catholic form — regards neither poverty nor riches as a sign of God’s favour or disfavour. Why, then, is the ‘prosperity gospel’ proving so attractive? Yesterday, not for the first time, our email prayerline contained many requests for financial blessings. Some mentioned distressing situations: nowhere to live, not enough to eat, inadequate or non-existent healthcare, the inability to pay college fees, and so on. Others clearly regarded prayer as a means of obtaining everything the petitioner thought would make him/her happy: a big house, fast car, trophy girl/boyfriend, and so on. We may smile over these, agreeing sagely that money can’t buy happiness, but the fact remains that many people still think of wealth as directly related to God’s blessing and, more troubling still, a blessing that is in some way deserved. By contrast, those who lack anything are under God’s curse, and that is equally deserved. How did such a skewed view of things ever arise?

I wonder whether it is a reaction to centuries of various forms of Christian quietism. Upholding the status quo, not challenging the establishment, accepting that

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

is a self-evident truth (whereas it is nothing of the sort) may have played their part. On the whole, Catholicism has tended to exalt the value of being poor over the value of being rich, recognizing that material plenty can clutter our spiritual vision; but no one can argue that the Church has ever herself felt the need to be poor as an institution.

Lent is a good time to think through our attitudes to poverty and riches, especially as almsgiving is an essential feature of our Lenten discipline. Mercy and compassion aren’t the first qualities that spring to mind when we think of riches, but for Christians they ought to be. That is what we are asked to demonstrate with particular generosity throughout these days of Lent. Our almsgiving shouldn’t be token giving; it should be from the heart, and as much as we can give, whether we’re talking money or some other form of giving, e.g. time. But there is still the underlying attitude to consider. Do we give from a position of superiority, or do we share from the same level? In short, are we believers in the ‘prosperity gospel’ without realising it, or are we ready to accept that we are all equally God’s children and as such bound to one another? The answers may prove uncomfortable, but Lent is a time for being made uncomfortable.

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Care of the Sick

Chapter 36 of the Rule of St Benedict is about care of the sick which, according to Benedict, should come ‘before and above everything else, so that they may be truly served as Christ himself.’ Until recently I had never had to think about that from the point of view of the one who is served as I was always in the lucky position of serving. It makes a big difference. To be sick, to be reliant upon others, is to know dependence, weakness, anxiety and frustration. They are not qualities we aspire to, and they are very far from being comfortable to live with. Benedict’s strictures about not making excessive demands on others can make us unduly scrupulous. Dare we ask such and such; can we manage without this or that? The kindness shown us, the services rendered, cannot be repaid. We are now cast in the role of debtors where once we were creditors. That is what it means to be sick.

I cannot honestly say that I regard my illness as a blessing, but I don’t resent it, either. It is just part of me, something I live with; but it has helped me see Lent in a new light. We spend so much time putting up barriers to God, just as we do to other people. As long as we want to be always in the position of giving, we can never really learn how to accept. Effectively, we cut ourselves off, pretending to be self-sufficient, when, of course, we are nothing of the sort. Lent is an opportunity to allow God into our lives in a way we don’t normally permit. We can take down the barriers, admit our need, let him take over. Jesus not only shares our sickness, he is our healer too.

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Love, Liberty and Licence

Two events caught my eye this morning: the release of Glen Ford after half a lifetime on Death Row for a crime he did not commit, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s call for a kind of Magna Carta of the internet. A man unjustly deprived of liberty and a man arguing for less government surveillance may not, at first sight, seem to have much in common, but I think they do; and rather surprisingly perhaps, I think they have something to tell us about Lent as well.

Mr Ford’s conviction was legally unsound but appears (I use the word advisedly) to reflect a deep-seated fear of African American violence. We could say he was condemned to death to ‘protect’ other, overwhelmingly white, citizens. Sir Tim’s  plea recalls the high ideals with which the internet began as a highway for free information exchange, and the grubbiness that has invaded it since. Governments the world over seek to listen in to ‘protect’ their citizens — and their own vested interests. So much for liberty, we say; we have over-reacted because we are afraid, and when we are afraid, we clamp down. It is all rather negative.

There is a problem, however, when liberty becomes licence and loses all moral restraint. Violence left unchecked makes everywhere unsafe for all citizens; an internet without any limitations becomes equally dangerous, allowing terrorism and abuse of others free rein. That is why we have laws and  means of enforcing them. I don’t suppose Mr Ford would argue that law should be abolished just because in his case it was abused, any more than Sir Tim would argue that there should be a complete free-for-all on the internet. Common sense demands that we place some restrictions on our own freedom in order to guarantee the freedom of all.

Lent is rather like that. We limit ourselves in some ways in order to experience a greater freedom, a freedom of spirit we may not always enjoy. We fast, limiting our use of food and drink, to know our reliance upon God, to hunger for him both literally and figuratively. We give time to prayer in order to experience the love of God; and we give alms in order to share that love with others. Love, not fear, is our motive; and the checks we place on our freedom are not negative but liberating. Lent is a most joyful season when we revel in the freedom that is ours as children of God. More than that, we look forward to the freedom that will one day be ours for ever in the Kingdom of God.

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Lenten Simplicity

Yesterday I read through one or two suggestions for Lent that left me reeling. I really don’t think Lent is about giving up or taking on more, as such; rather, it’s about seeking God with more intensity of focus than we manage at other times. To do that we need simplicity— and we have become such complicated creatures that simplicity is more and more alien to us. That is why our lives need to take on a plainness they often lack. Our food is simpler and less copious; our prayer is simpler, too, reverting to more ancient forms, especially as we enter Holy Week. Our compassion — almsgiving — has, or should have, a wider spread; and all because we seek the Lord. Love is our motive, and Love himself our reward.

When Jesus went out into the desert it wasn’t to do anything complicated or self-serving. He went into the desert to simplify his life and commune with his Father. I don’t suppose he wasted time wondering whether he had fasted enough, or prayed enough, (and I’m pretty sure he didn’t read any books about either!). The one thing we know about his desert experience is that his love of his Father grew and enabled him to reject the temptations of Satan. More than that, when he came out of the desert he plunged immediately into that life of loving service of others which led him ultimately to the Cross. Our Lent will lead us along the same path. All we have to do is follow it . . . with great simplicity.

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The Importance of Almsgiving

At the risk of repeating myself, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of almsgiving in our Lenten discipline. On Ash Wednesday our focus tends to be on prayer and fasting, which is as it should be. Our awareness of personal sin and the need of individual conversion is uppermost. We mark the beginning of the penitential season with a rigorous fast and an exterior sign of our inner resolve. Today, however, the ashes are washed from our heads and we turn a beaming face to the world (‘let no one know you are fasting . . .’). What should be the one thing everyone notices? Not our small acts of self-denial or the extra time spent in prayer, surely? No, our compassion, our almsgiving, should be what everyone notices about the Christian practice of Lent.

It has been well said that if you want to know God, show love to your neighbour. When I was a young nun I thought the way to know God was to pray ardently and read deeply, but living in community showed me that, important though those are, the only way to know love fully is to show love oneself. The example of the old nuns taught me what my theology text books did not and could not. The small sacrifices we make during Lent only have meaning if they increase love. So, if you are giving up chocolate or wine as a small gesture of love for the Lord, don’t forget to give the money you save to those who cannot afford either. You will be repaid a hundredfold. Don’t forget the most precious gift you can give is your time. So, over and above any material gift, give your time to those who need it. That visit to someone you have been putting off, that letter you have been meaning to write, even the smile with which you greet the office bore, they are all forms of almsgiving which will enrich your life as well as that of others. They will allow God a way in.

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