A Few Resources for Lent

As I’m not sure from day to day whether I’ll be able to blog or not, I thought I’d provide readers with a few links to previous posts about Lent and Lenten themes. You can add to them, if you wish, by using the search box in the sidebar.

 

First, I am a great believer in preparing for Lent, thinking about what it means and what would be most helpful for the individual as well as the community:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/02/11/preparing-for-lent/

 

As a Benedictine, I find that re-reading what the Rule has to say is especially helpful, so here are four posts that go through Benedict’s teaching on Lent:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/27/through-lent-with-st-benedict-1/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/28/through-lent-with-st-benedict-2/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/29/through-lent-with-st-benedict-3/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/03/01/through-lent-with-st-benedict-4/

 

You will notice that Benedict’s views on books for Lent are different from those we are probably more used to holding:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/24/a-book-for-lent/
In previous years, I have always tried to respond individually to requests for a Lent Book (last year there were well over 100 requests, I think). This year I can’t do that, so anyone wanting to share our community practice may like to choose between
the Gospel of St John (being read by Digitalnun) or
the Book of Genesis (being read by Quietnun).

 

The traditional disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Most of this blog is about prayer in one way or another, but these posts may be worth re-reading:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/08/01/prayer-the-simple-thoughts-of-a-simple-nun/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/03/05/the-versicles-of-the-divine-office/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/01/10/prayer-is-not-a-production-line/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/10/27/reverence-in-prayer/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/10/27/reverence-in-prayer-rb-20/

 

On the subject of fasting, these may be useful, especially as some points are repeated:

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/21/shrove-tuesday-2012/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2013/03/20/food-and-drink/

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/01/04/feasts-fasts-and-fasting-diets/

 

For almsgiving, may I suggest

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/03/11/almsgiving/

I suspect that there is more than enough here from one perspective. For more general information about the historical development of the seasons of Lent and Easter, you might try our main website’s article:

http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/lent.html

If you have any energy or time left after that, there are always our podcasts!

 

May God bless your Lent and make it fruitful.

 

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Lent, Popes and Plain Speaking

Depending on your preferred online reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lent had been forgotten amidst all the riot of discordant opinion about Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI.* To say that is a pity is an understatement. We are approaching the holiest time of the Christian year and we need to focus. Inevitably, there is a lot of interest in both Francis and Benedict, but if we are busier scooping up fascinating details about them or speculating about their intentions than living Lent, we may forget what really matters: preparing heart and mind for the solemn feast of Easter.

So, instead of getting into a fret about what may or may not be happening in the Vatican, why not ask yourself some hard questions to which you, and only you, know the answers. How is your prayer, fasting and almsgiving going? Does your Lent still have the purity of intention with which you began? Are you more aware of your own sin and the immense forgiveness of God? The next questions are trickier, and only those around you will be able to judge, if at all, the progress you have made. Have you become more charitable, more patient, in a word, more like our crucified Lord? Or have you been blessed with a grace so glorious and overwhelming that you have forgotten self entirely in your wonder and awe at the infinite goodness of God?

Sometimes a little plain speaking at this point of Lent is all we need to get us back on track. I would not dare to ask these questions had I not already asked them of myself and blushed at the answers I gave.

* I myself find attempts to exalt either pope at the expense of the other profoundly distasteful. I believe the papacy of both men to be important for the Church, but we lack perspective at present. I’d be grateful if readers would not use this blog to air derogatory opinions/engage in an argument which, by its very nature, can have no resolution. Prayer would be much more to the point.

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Another Thursday in Lent 2013

Today is just another Thursday in Lent, except that it isn’t. For about 1.2 billion of us it is the day when Pope Benedict XVI lays down his office and we enter a period of fervent prayer for the next successor of St Peter. It is a day out of time which paradoxically anchors us more firmly to time while pointing towards life beyond time, to eternity. By one of those wonderful coincidences which are really not coincidences at all, it is also sixty years since Crick and Watson’s discovery of the molecular structure of DNA (for the moment we must leave aside the unfair treatment of Rosalind Franklin as it is not germane to my argument). We are poised, as it were, between these two hinges, the natural and the supernatural, between our frail and imperfect humanity and the transformations of grace and the Holy Spirit.

Francis Crick was not, I think, a modest man, but anyone who heard him speaking of the beauty of the double helix could not fail to be moved. He was entranced, taken out of himself by the miracle of life. Benedict XVI is, by nature, much more reserved but when he speaks of the things of the Spirit he does so with the sureness of one who knows. In his own quiet way, he reminds us that to set one’s sight on the kingdom of heaven does not mean any less love for the things of earth. One cannot despise or disparage the beauty and holiness of what God has created when one seeks God himself.

Today is not a day for sadness or negativity but for hope and confidence in God. He is the true guide of the Church. He works with and through our humanity, not against or in spite of it. We are privileged to live through this moment, but with the privilege comes the duty. Now is the time for renewed prayer, renewed searching, renewed trust. God will never fail or forsake us.

 

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Ash Wednesday 2013

Ash Wednesday, marked for most of us with a smudge of ashes on the forehead (or in the case of nuns, sprinkled atop the veil), is a reminder of our creation ‘from the dust of the earth’, a symbol of the cleansing from sin we hope to undergo. Ash plays so many roles in our lives, both figurative and literal: it nourishes our crops, is a component of some of our soaps and is the stuff our hopes turn to when they are disappointed. Ash Wednesday, however, is more than all these: a day apart, a day of prayer and fasting, a day of returning to the Lord. The ashes we use were burned from last year’s palms. They remind us that the victory is already won, although we have not yet attained its fullness in our lives.

St Benedict in his Rule prescribes that Vigils, the greatest prayer of the Divine Office, should always begin with the same invitatory, Psalm 94, and its urgent, ‘TODAY, if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ That really is the key to making a good Lent: do not harden your heart, listen out for the voice of the Lord and follow his promptings. It isn’t complicated or difficult, but, like Naaman bathing in the Jordan, its simplicity sometimes affronts our sense of what ought to be. Perhaps we all need to become simpler this Lent. How else shall we turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel?

May your Lent be blessed.

Books of the Bible for Lent
Later today I hope to distribute Lent books to those who asked after I had gone offline last night.

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Holy Saturday: a Day out of Time

An early Christian writer once described Holy Saturday as being a day of great quietness and stillness as earth awaits the Resurrection. It is a day out of time — no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no warmth or colour to assuage the interior desolation, no activity to distract us or give us a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent.

Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the Cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. And just as when Jesus was laid in the tomb he entered into a world outside time and an activity beyond our apprehension — the harrowing of hell — so we too, with our Holy Saturday faith, enter into a dimension of reality we cannot truly comprehend, a kind of little death that prepares us for the death we shall all one day undergo. In this state we can do nothing; God must do everything.

Holy Saturday prepares us for the newness of life that comes with the Resurrection. The silence, the stillness, the apparent inaction of this day out of time — it all sounds rather monastic, doesn’t it? Perhaps that is why I find it my natural environment, so to say. Monastic life has been described as a continuous Lent, a continuous preparation for Christ’s coming at Easter. One of the first monks expressed this very beautifully, ‘A monk’s cell is like Easter night: it sees Christ rising.’ That is a striking phrase, made the more striking by remembering that the monk’s cell is, first and foremost, the cell of his heart. Today, each of us must prepare to receive the Risen Christ into our hearts; and the only way we can do that is by allowing God to do all the doing.

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Assumptions

Recently I was a little taken aback to be told that I know nothing about Benedictine monasticism. It wasn’t put quite like that, of course, it never is; but I was left in no doubt that my interlocutor (not himself a monk) thought he knew better than I. He may be right; indeed, deep down, I think he is right, for I feel know less and less the longer I try to live this kind of life; but neither of us can claim absolute certainty. Yet isn’t that precisely what we all do much of the time? We haven’t time for qualifications and nuance so we make assumptions instead, even though it means we make assumptions that can be cruelly wrong at times. (Just think of all those people who dress differently from us and whom we avoid on the grounds that they ‘may’ be dangerous . . .)

I was thinking about this in connection with the Jesus portrayed in the gospels. The number of times someone gets him ‘wrong’, assumes that this inspiring teacher is a mere rabble-rouser, intent on destroying everything that first century Judaism held precious! We still get him ‘wrong’ today, wanting him to be the Jesus we would like him to be rather than the person he is. That is one reason prayer is so essential. Without that regular laying aside of our own ideas and opening ourselves up to the reality of God, we can become too complacent that we have got him ‘sorted’, confined his immensity in our own littleness.

Our assumptions about others, their motives especially, can be just as wide of the mark, as I indicated earlier. Perhaps a useful Lenten exercise would be to examine some of our assumptions about the people closest to us and the way in which those assumptions work for their good — or not.

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Lenten Transfigurations

I like the fact that we read the gospel of the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday of Lent, and that the collect of the day invites us to feast interiorly on the word of God. That feasting on scripture is such a stark contrast to the fasting from food that marks ferias in Lent, while the revelation of God’s glory shining through our human flesh and blood is such a powerful reminder both of what we are now, God’s children, and what we are to become when we see him as he truly is.(1 John 3.3) St Paul caught the wonder of this when he wrote of our being changed from glory to glory. (2 Corinthians 3.18)

Mark’s account ends, ‘And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one with them anymore but only Jesus.’ (Mk 9.8) Isn’t that what Lent is about? All our observances are meant to help us see Jesus more clearly, and because we see him more clearly, we reflect his beauty and glory more perfectly in our lives so that others can see Jesus in us. That is the Lenten transfiguration we aim at: becoming true icons of Jesus Christ.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 4

Today we come to Benedict’s ‘last word’ on Lent, but it isn’t in the chapter he devotes to Lent itself (RB 49) it’s in the one before, On Daily Manual Labour (RB 48):

During the days of Lent, they should devote themselves to reading from the morning until the end of the third hour; and from then until the tenth hour they should do the work assigned to them. In these days of Lent they should each receive a book from the library, to be read straight through in its entirety. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent.

Aha, you may think, she has already commented on that in an earlier post, A Book for Lent. Indeed I have, but here I want to draw your attention to some other aspects of this text.

Prayerful reading, lectio divina, is the characteristic activity of the monk. In a sense, it guarantees that we shall be in touch with God and he with us. When we pray or work we can go wrong; we can be so full of ourselves that we chase after our own ideas and end up making a mess of things. Not so when we listen to God. We may not ‘meet God’ in our work or prayer, but we can be quite sure we shall meet him in our reading because scripture is the word he has spoken definitively to the Church.

So, Lent without reading of this kind is a nonsense. Moreover, you notice where Benedict places his teaching on Lenten reading? In his chapter on work. Lectio divina doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it; and Benedict expects us to devote a sizeable chunk of time to doing so.

Why is that important? The emphasis on reading scripture is a reminder of what I call the ‘slow down and shut up’ approach to the spiritual life. Lent is a time for focusing, so we read one book, not zillions of them, and we read slowly, allowing God to speak to our hearts. We have to keep in mind that Benedict’s way of reading was different from ours. We skim, speed read, forget most of what we have just read. Benedict, by contrast, expected his monks to commit to memory much of what they read so that they had a rich inner library to which to return again and again in the course of the day. That is not a bad idea for us in the twenty-first century, when we are bombarded from dawn till dusk with all kinds of information clamouring for our attention.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional practices of Lent but they all rest upon the supposition that we are familiar with the Word of God. In his insistence on the importance of reading, Benedict reminds us that even if the more ‘active’ side of Lent is impossible, we can be attuned to what God wants of us through our practice of lectio divina. Our word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin word obaudire, meaning to listen carefully, listen hard. He knows well enough that anyone who truly listens to God will enter into a dialogue of love and union with him that is beyond all words and all doing. He will enter into the silence of God himself.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 3

Today we reach the final section of RB 49, although it is not Benedict’s last word on Lent (we’ll look at that tomorrow):

Each one, however, must tell his abbot what he is offering up, for it must be done with his blessing and approval. Whatever is done without the spiritual father’s permission is to be attributed to presumption and vainglory, unworthy of reward. Everything, therefore, must be done with the abbot’s approval.

I wonder how many readers of this blog consulted anyone before deciding what to give up or take on for Lent? In community we write a Lent Bill — a statement of what we propose to do — and hand it to the prioress, asking her permission and blessing. It is not unknown for something to be added or taken away, and very humbling the experience can be!

The point Benedict is making here is important: we are not always the best judges of ourselves, nor do we always choose wisely, especially where Lent is concerned. We are often muddled about what it is and how we should meet its demands. Pride and competitiveness can easily creep into our decisions. We get hold of the idea of penance then whip ourselves up into an ungodly fervour. ‘I will fast. I will keep vigil. I will . . .’ I, I, I. The whole purpose of monastic life is to lead us closer to God, which means forgetfulness of self. Very often what we think would be best is anything but. We believe we can ‘go it alone’, not realising that we go to God together or not at all.

For us, as Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. We have chosen to live according to the Rule, under a superior, so we submit our ideas to him/her — and take the consequences.  The encouraging part is knowing we shall have our superior’s prayers, and that can be a great comfort when things get bumpy (as they certainly will).

All very well for a monk or nun, you say, but what about those outside the cloister? I think there is value in talking over our ‘Lenten programme’ with someone we trust, not necessarily a priest or religious but someone whose judgement is sound and whose instincts are good. Articulating what we intend to do can sometimes make us aware that it isn’t quite sensible or will end up making us completely batty. Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves or making dramatic  gestures. It is about quietly and perseveringly focusing upon God and allowing him to transform us. That is why it is so joyful.

If you feel you have begun Lent wrong, take heart. To admit that we’ve made a false start is the beginning of grace. And if you feel you have begun in the right way, thank God, and ask him to protect you from all pride and presumption. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but this is the season when we must wage war against the principalities and powers of this present age. Whatever else Lent is, it isn’t dull.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.

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