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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On the Edge of the World

Living in rural Herefordshire after living in Oxfordshire is a little like living on the edge of the world. Everything is different. Instead of chalk downland we have the red soil and oak-covered sweeps of the Golden Valley, with the ‘blue remembered hills’ of Shropshire to the north and the grey Marcher castles to the south and west. Instead of the bustle of Oxford and its honey-coloured stone, we have the quieter, more sedate streets of Hereford. Even the diocese is different in character, Cardiff being less populous than Portsmouth and Welsh rather than English. At times, one can feel quite ‘out’ of things, a mere spectator, no longer in demand as a speaker or interviewee on TV or radio — what one old nun, now dead, called ‘holy asparagus’ — but I must admit, it has its charms. At the heart of what I’ve called living on the edge of the world is a glorious paradox: to be closer to what genuinely matters because more distant from what does not.

To be on the edge, at the margin, is to experience a tremendous freedom. It is to understand what drove the prophets and the first monks and nuns into the desert. By disengaging from much that the world considers valuable or important, one can enter into a much deeper engagement with God; and one necessarily carries with one the pain and suffering and hopes of humanity. It is thus not only a tremendous freedom, it is also a tremendous privilege, one that monks and nuns are able to live every day of their lives. Those who have to worry about their families and their jobs may not find it so easy to live with such intensity, at least not all the time, but Lent gives us all an opportunity to ‘go to the edge’ as it were, and experience the desert for ourselves.

As we begin thinking about our preparations for Lent, may I suggest that we do not start with what we are going to give up? That puts the emphasis on us and often leads to confusion, e.g. fasting is not dieting, however much we would like our abandonment of some particular food to do good to our waistline! No, I think we have to start with the marginality of the desert, the place where Christ struggled with the demons and where we must learn to alter our focus. Before we even begin to think about what we shall give up, therefore, let us pray for our eyes to be opened to what needs to be changed in our lives and ask God’s help to do what is necessary. Lent is God’s gift to us. Let us use it as he intends.

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From the Perspective of Eternity

Whenever the news is dire, as often seems the case at present, there is a great temptation to bury one’s head in the sand, muttering ‘This too will pass.’ Or we can remind ourselves that we remember very little of what happened on this day five years ago, unless it marked some great personal happiness or sorrow. The ability to forget can be a great mercy, but it is frequently a selective mercy. We forget; but do others? Burying our heads in the sand may be tempting, but can everyone do that?

Lent will soon be here and I shall be writing a few posts about how to prepare for it and, hopefully, allow it to transform us. An important element in that will be trying to hold in creative tension the everyday and the eternal. St Benedict urges us to ‘do now what may profit us for eternity’. In other words, we have to cultivate the ability to see that our ordinary, everyday actions have implications for hereafter. From the perspective of eternity, nothing is unimportant or irrelevant. Everything is charged with meaning. Put like that, we can see the necessity of prayer, scripture and the regular reception of the sacraments, of forgiving those who have hurt us and, even more important, seeking the forgiveness of those we ourselves have hurt. We may have forgotten, but the chances are that those we have wounded haven’t. May I suggest there is something there we need to think about and act on?

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Preparing for Lent 1

During the coming week I intend, God willing, to write a series of short posts about preparing for Lent. Lent is itself a time of preparation for Easter, so you may ask why we need to prepare specifically for Lent. The best answer I can give is to point you towards the ancient tradition of the Church. Comparatively few now remember Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays as they were celebrated before the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, but those who do, and those who study liturgical history, know that this period was a time of preparation for Lent, one might almost say an anticipation of Lent, with violet vestments for the Mass and ‘alleluia’ dropped from the antiphons of the Divine Office.

To make the most of Lent we need to think and pray about it beforehand. Not every idea for ‘making a good Lent’ necessarily comes from the Holy One! Today, however, there is just one suggestion I think we would do well to consider. In the gospel (Mark 1. 29-39) we read of Jesus going apart to a lonely place to pray. There should be in the heart of each of us a lonely place where Christ prays unceasingly to the Father. Most of us are too busy and too noisy most of the time even to notice that such a place exists. If our Lent is to be fruitful, we need to try to find that ‘lonely place’, cultivate it and allow it to flourish. The best way of beginning to do that is, paradoxically, through not doing. Today, try, if you can, to find a few moments when you can be quiet before the Lord and allow him to take charge. You will not regret it.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

An Offer You Cannot Refuse?

Lent will soon be upon us (yes, really, Ash Wednesday is 10 February!) and I shall begin posting on Lenten themes. In past years a number of people have found it helpful to have a book of scripture assigned to them, just as it is in the monastery, which they read through during Lent. Sometimes the choice is congenial; sometimes it isn’t; but St Benedict gives us this task for a reason (cf RB 48.14–16) and expects us to work at it. As St Jerome says, ‘Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ,’ and Lent is a time when we try to know our Lord and Saviour better than ever.

If you would like me to assign you a Lent book, please use the link below and I will do my best to respond before Lent begins. I can’t guarantee that you won’t get a book you’ve had assigned to you in previous years, but if that happens, comfort yourself with the thought that the mistakes the Holy Spirit helps us to make are usually not mistakes at all. Please note that this offer is limited to the first hundred persons to apply USING THE FORM BELOW! (If you can’t see the form, it could be that you have disabled JavaScript.)

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Preparing for Lent

Since Lent is itself a time of preparation, the idea of preparing for Lent may strike you as odd; but, rather like the vigil of a feast enabling us to anticipate what is to come, a little planning beforehand will make our Lenten journey more fruitful. In the monastery we write a Lent Bill: a note addressed to our superior (or, in her case, another nun) detailing what we wish to give up and what we wish to take on by way of penance, and submitting it all to her judgement. So, if she thinks that some picayune sacrifice of sugar in tea or salt on eggs is going to make us crotchety, she will refuse and probably impose something much harder, without any feel-good factor in it!

The point of the Lent Bill is that it 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.

If you do a quick internet search, you will find many sites offering advice about how to make your Lent more fruitful. Over the next few days, I shall be offering my own ha’pennorth. Today, may I give you just one pointer? The classical penances of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For most people, that means taking on more prayer, giving up some food or drink and performing some act of charity or benevolence. These are all good, but do please bear in mind that merely giving something up (e.g. wine or television) shouldn’t result in a vacuum — money or time saved is meant to be spent on God and others; dieting is not fasting; and prayer is more than just saying prayers.

We can make our Lent so busy with different ‘practices’ that we ignore or even subvert its point. Lent is meant to open us to the mystery of God’s love and redemption. It is worth spending some time preparing for it; and one of the best of all ways is to reflect on your life and, if you belong to the Catholic tradition, make your confession and ask God’s help to see what you REALLY need to change.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail