Preparing for Lent 5

With this fifth post on preparing for Lent we return to my starting-point, RB 49, St Benedict’s chapter on the observance of Lent, and RB 48, with its reference to Lenten reading. (If you wish to follow through Benedict’s teaching in a more systematic way, please see the four posts from 2012 entitled Through Lent with St Benedict.)

At the beginning of Lent every member of the community is assigned a book of scripture, known as ‘the Lent Book’, to be read straight through in its entirety. It is meant to be read as lectio divina, that slow, prayerful reading of a text that leads naturally to prayer. Therefore, we don’t, in the first instance, get out our commentaries or multiple translations of the text as though we were about to take an examination in scriptural studies. Instead we get down on our knees and read slowly, patiently, closely. Ideally, we take from our reading a word or phrase that we can chew over at other times in the day so that it becomes part of our very selves.

In previous years I have invited readers to send in a request for a Lent Book to be assigned them. The numbers have grown too great for me to continue to do that but at the end of this post you will find an alternative. The point to be emphasized is that we do not choose for ourselves. We accept what we are given, and if that means we struggle with the text, so much the better. We shall learn something we might never otherwise have done — and that is the point of all our Lenten discipline, to learn something that will bring us closer to God. If we haven’t time for a Lent Book as such, reading through the daily Mass readings is an excellent way of following the course of salvation history in union with the rest of the Church. Others may wish to add something more: a Lenten-themed book of some kind. There is no substitute for scripture, however, and the fact that Benedict includes the Lent Book in his chapter on daily manual labour should alert us to the fact that he expects us to put some effort into it.

Lent Books 2018
Members of the community — nuns, oblates and associates — will all receive their personal assignment. But if you would like to share in this practice, please take the first vowel in your first name and read the book listed below:

a the Book of Genesis. There are several passages that make us stop short. What sort of God is this? He is as far removed from the conventional picture of an Old Testament tyrant as it is possible to be. Are our ideas of God in need of a shaek-up?

e — the Gospel of John. There is almost too much in this gospel to take in, but its great parables and narrative of the Passion are essential parts of our preparation for Easter. Are we blind or lifeless, too?

i — The Book of Exodus. The liberation of the people of Israel is our liberation, too. The transcendent holiness of God should stop us being casual in the way we treat him. How do we measure up to that?

o — The Book of Ezekiel. Not for the faint-hearted, but another insight into the compassion of God and his burning zeal for his people. Where do we stand in relation to God?

u — I and II Corinthians. Read this in the context of what was happening in Corinth and what St Paul says has an uncomfortably contemporary ring to it. How do we live our faith today?

May God bless all who take this on themselves this Lent.

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Preparing for Lent 4

The three traditional penances of Lent are

  • prayer, which helps re-establish a right relationship with God;
  • fasting, which helps re-establish a right relationship with self, especially our bodily self;
  • almsgiving, which helps re-establish a right relationship with others.

St Benedict was keen on three-fold patterns, and we can see how this one addresses all the important activities of life.

Prayer
When Benedict talks about prayer in the context of Lent, he concentrates on the idea of making good the negligences of other times (cf RB 49). We all know occasions when we have been half-hearted or done our best, like Jonah, to escape the Lord. Lent provides us with an opportunity to try to do better. For some that will mean trying to go to Mass daily or to pray some part of the Liturgy of the Hours in union with the rest of the Church. Even if it’s just the Benedictus in the morning and the Magnificat in the evening, we shall be trying to maintain a structure into which all other attempts at prayer will fit.

Setting ourselves an unrealistic target, a certain quantity of prayer to be got through every day as though we were engaged in some kind of competition, will quickly end in failure and disillusionment. So will piling on devotion after devotion. What we need to do is to quieten ourselves down, to listen; and to do so with regularity. Learning to love the Lord in silence and poverty of spirit is one of the gifts Lent offers us, and we should seize it gladly. In a later post I shall say something about the practice of lectio divina,  but for now it is enough just to highlight what our Lenten prayer is meant to do: bring us back to God.

Fasting
Fasting is not dieting, although in our crazy world the two are often confused. To deny ourselves some food and drink, some pleasure of the senses, is to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God and our own dignity as temples of the Holy Spirit. The body we have been given is holy, perfect; but we do not always treat it as such, nor do we always exercise the kind of restraint that its holiness demands. Lent is a time to do just that. But our fasting isn’t meant to impose burdens on others (I will have just a little brown toast and honey, if you please, but it must be this kind of toast and that kind of honey, served on good china, etc, etc) nor is it meant to improve our bank balance. If we fast and save money or time, what we save should be given to others in almsgiving.

Even more than with prayer, fasting can be undertaken with one eye on its effect on others. It can become a source of what Benedict calls ‘vainglory’ — inordinate pride in our own achievements — whereas it is meant to remind us of our creaturely condition. Few of us in the West ever experience real hunger except by choice. That cuts us off from the lived experience of millions of people living in less fortunate conditions. It is good for us to be really hungry from time to time, but even if we can’t fast from food and drink, we can fast from some of the other little indulgences that make our existence comfortable. Think of the ways in which we waste time or are profligate in our use of resources. So, how about not speeding in the car, not spending so much time on Netflix or computer games, not leaving rubbish for others to clear up but dealing with it ourselves? Add to these fasting from anger and bad temper and all the other negativities to which we are prone, and you will see that the traditional discipline can be reinterpreted in ways which make painfully clear that (a) we are not self-sufficient and (b) we have a tendency to misuse the gifts we are given. What we mustn’t do, however, is to fall for the temptation to be vague about fasting, fasting in a general way. We need specifics, a firm commitment, something that challenges.

Almsgiving
With almsgiving, I think we come to the most difficult of the three Lenten disciplines. It is comparatively easy to pray, or at least to observe times of prayer; it is comparatively easy to fast, or at least to omit something from our meals; but to give of ourselves, to go out to the other, to be generous, that requires much more. It means we have to be open to others, on the watch for opportunities to be of service, ready to take risks. Many use Lent as a time for planned giving to various charities, but it is the unplanned opportunities the Lord puts in our way that can be most costly. Small acts of kindness go a long way towards making people feel valued and loved. The trouble is, we have to be alert to the possibilities but how often do we lament, ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I didn’t realise.’ Perhaps we should all try to make this Lent one in which we keep our eyes peeled, as it were, for the needs of others.

The Joy of the Holy Spirit
One final note: Benedict says that everything we give up or take on during Lent should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to the holy feast of Easter.’ One of the great attractions of Lent for me is that in community we live with great simplicity, and that simplicity is always suffused with joy. Jesus in the desert was not plunged in gloom, nor should we be. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving set us free from what binds us at other times, and such radical freedom must surely be a joy. Allow it to be so.

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Ash Wednesday 2016

The life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, says St Benedict, and whatever we offer up should be done with the joy of the Holy Spirit as we look forward to the holy feast of Easter with joy and spiritual longing. (RB 49 passim) So, why the sudden gloom, the slightly ostentatious switching off of Social Media, the corkscrew placed out of sight, the lentils and the chickpeas to the fore? There are three possible reasons.

One is, we have got it all wrong and actually enjoy being miserable, so we try to ensure we (and everyone else) is as miserable as possible. The second is, we may be using Lent to address some problem, real or presumed, in our lives, e.g. confusing dieting with fasting, or see Lent as some sort of endurance test, so the more awful, the better. The third is, we have got it all right, and these trifling little offerings are our way of saying, ‘I love you, Lord. This is my way of trying to show it and learn how to love you better. I may get confused and set off on the wrong track at times, but I trust you to lead me back.’

Lent is an opportunity we do not want to waste but, if my experience is anything to go by, it is not the penances we set ourselves that matter but the totally unexpected ones the Lord sends that will scour us out and prepare us for Easter. As we begin Lent, therefore, let us ask for the grace to be attentive, to be courageous . . . and to be cheerful.

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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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Ash Wednesday 2014

There’s a phrase St Benedict uses in his chapter on Lent that I have always found very helpful: cum gaudio Sancti Spiritus/’with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ (RB 49. 6, alluding to 1 Thessalonians 1.6). Whatever we do or don’t do by way of Lenten offering or penance is to be accompanied by this joy. Moreover, we are encouraged to ‘look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.’ (RB 49.7) What exactly is this joy, and how are we to find it in the midst of all our penitential gloom?

I think the answer lies in what St Benedict says very clearly Lent is all about: living with great purity. It is not so much a question of adding on or giving up this, that or the other as seeking to be more focused on whatever it is we are asked to be or do by virtue of our vocation or state in life, listening for the word of God in any and every situation, giving Him time in a way that we do not always do. Lent is a joyful season in the monastery because we live it with great simplicity. All the accretions of other times fall away. Yes, it can be difficult. We can feel cold and hungry and terribly tetchy. We have to plumb depths of self-knowledge we would much rather not know about. But we also have the opportunity of going out into the interior desert of our lives and learning to know and love God as if for the first time. It is a great and joyful privilege. May you be blessed with the same joy in your own life.

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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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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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A Book for Lent

One of the Lenten disciplines required by the Rule of St Benedict is that we should each receive a book from the library which we are to read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48. 15, 16). I think this one of the best ways of trying to draw closer to God. It is something we can all do, and although it demands no special skill or resources, there are several points to note.

First, the book is not chosen by us but by another. We don’t decide for ourselves what would be a good book to read, we submit to another’s judgement. That is harder than it sounds, especially for those of us who like to think we are ‘educated’, but I have often discovered books I might otherwise not have known simply because I had been told to read them. We begin by humbling our intellectual pride, and isn’t there a reason for that when we look back on the sin of Adam and Eve?

Secondly, the book is read ‘straight through in its entirety’, with no judicious skipping, no lengthy recourse to commentaries, explanations and additional material. It is not academic reading on which we are engaged but lectio divina. Now, there is a debate about what is meant by ‘a book from the library’. Benedict probably meant a book of the Bible; so we read a book of the Bible chosen for us by the superior — easy enough if her choice falls on Deutero-Isaiah, not quite so easy if she lights upon Numbers.

Lent is a time for meditating on the Word of God, allowing it gradually to sink in and change us. It is probably rash of me to say it, but if you have no one to choose a book of scripture for you, by all means email the monastery and one of us will make a suggestion. A ‘book for Lent’ is like a kind word, the best of gifts.

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