One of the features of St Benedict’s chapter on Lent, RB 49, is its insistence on our not trying to ‘go it alone’. Everything we take on or give up for Lent is subject to the superior’s judgement (or in her case, that of another nun). That is why an important element of the monastic Lent Bill is the submission of our ideas to another’s scrutiny, but our starting-point has to be ourselves and the way in which we are living our Christian vocation here and now.
The Lent Bill 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.
What the Lent Bill does not allow us to do is indulge in heroics. We may think that fasting every day on a bowl of porridge will bring us to sanctity quickly and effectively. Granted, it is pretty certain to lead to an early grave, but such extreme fasting smacks more of self-will and the vainglory Benedict cautions against than it does of a genuine desire to restrain unruly appetites. I am sure you can think of other examples of excessive and imprudent zeal for yourselves. By contrast, it can be humbling to see that one’s superior will not allow us to go without sugar in our tea, or whatever other token offering we want to make, because she knows it will leave us crotchety and bad-tempered, and the penance we take on is meant for us not the community as a whole.
For those who are not members of a monastic community, it can be harder to implement the thinking behind the Lent Bill. However, I think it is always wise to talk things over with someone who knows us well and on whose common-sense we can rely. Tomorrow I hope to begin saying something about the traditional disciplines of Lent but for now I think it is important to get our thinking straight, as it were, about how we are going to approach prayer, fasting and almsgiving and the other aspects of our Lenten practice. Our goal is Easter. We go into Lent with the joy of the Holy Spirit, and because it is the joy of the Holy Spirit, we go humbly, ready to be corrected, looking beyond ourselves towards Jesus and the Resurrection.