Saturday, February 13, 2010


One side effect of our current economic problems is that many people have been forced into triage, reconsidering their priorities; deprived of financial security or unable to afford certain accustomed material amenities, they have rediscovered that other world of important non-material values that usually gets buried beneath the piles of possessions or crowded out by concerns for the passing things of life.

Another effect of the imposed hardships of our current economic situation is that they offer us an opportunity to reconsider the spiritual purpose of Lent.


Our current economic woes may have some of us scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do for Lent: if Lent is a time for “giving things up,” what happens if I’ve already had to give up many pleasures and amenities or even been deprived of my job or my 401k?
If Lent is simply a time for doing without
If Lent is simply a time for cutting back
If Lent is simply a time for practicing austerity
then many Americans have been in an involuntary Lent for two years.

So if we are already doing the austerity part, we need to look deeper to find other purposes and practices for Lent. The good news is that a deeper look at Lent will reveal a whole complex variety of other approaches to the holy season.


This is the place to plug one of my books. Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey through Lent takes exactly this deeper approach Lent by looking other practices in addition to “giving things up for Lent.” There are people who re-read this book each Lent, using its forty daily meditations set in various countries as their itinerary for a spiritual Lenten pilgrimage toward Easter. This year our “pilgrimage group” already includes members in California, Florida, Pennsylvania and England. Please get a book and join us!


[I used this adaptation of the Introduction to Pilgrim Road in one of the very first posts on this blog a year ago, but it bears repeating here.]
Originally Lent was a period during which the catechumens (candidates for Christian initiation) prepared for their Baptism, which would take place at the Easter vigil. Before long, however, all Christians began observing Lent as the Church's official season of preparation for Easter. It was a forty-day period characterized by prayer, introspection, almsgiving, self-denial and the exercise of virtue.Unfortunately, during the Middle Ages, as popular Christian spirituality began to emphasize the sufferings of Christ, the rich variety of Lenten practices was reduced to the single dimension of penitence: fasting, abstinence from meat, and “giving up” certain things. Even though recent scriptural theology and liturgical reforms have helped restore many of the forgotten aspects of Lent, many Christians still see the season almost entirely in terms of the narrower, single-dimensional view.


Saint Benedict's Rule for Monks, written in the Sixth Century, which still provides us Benedictines with wise guidance for living, has a lot to offer to Christian lay people as well. Benedict's perspective on Lent, then, dates from an era when the observance of Lent was still marked by a rich variety of purposes and practices. Chapter 49, "On the Manner of Keeping Lent," is worth quoting in full:

The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit. In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.Everyone should, however make known to the abbot what he intends to do, since it ought to be done with his prayer and approval. Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward. Therefore, everything must be done with the abbot's approval.
-- Chapter 49, "On the Manner of Keeping Lent," RB 1980: The Rule of Benedict, edited by Timothy Fry, ( Collegeville MN, Liturgical Press, 1981) p. 172

Benedict's treatment of the holy season was written during a time of violent economic, social and moral upheaval, and was written for monks who never ate meat and who were used to physical deprivations and fasting as part of their monastic regime. But for our purposes we may note that it also reflects the sixth century's notion that Lent is an opportunity to "add to the usual measure of our service," not just by bodily mortification, but by drawing closer to God in prayer, by trying to root out bad habits, and by practicing virtues. In the Chapter "On the Daily Manual Labor," he directs that during Lent each monk be given a book to read, and that more time be allotted for reading. Benedict's attitude and approach toward Lent reach back to the days of the catechumens who would "look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing." It is significant that the only two times the word gaudium, "joy," appears in this sober Latin document are in this chapter on Lent, where it refers to the anticipated joy of our goal, "holy Easter."
Other Lenten Helps from Benedict

Besides reflecting the sixth century theology of Lent, Chapter 49 also reveals some general characteristics of Benedict's Rule which might be helpful for any Christian to keep in mind. First, there is the primacy that he always gives to interior attitude and disposition over mere externals: his Lent is marked more by inner transformation than by outward observances.
Second, we see here an instance of his well-known sense of moderation: the abbot is to make sure that the monks do not go to extremes in their Lenten observance.
Third, the Rule repeatedly challenges the monks to deal honestly and humbly with their own imperfections, and so during Lent they are to “wash away the negligences of other times."
Last, there is Benedict's emphasis on community: Lenten penance in the monastery is a communal exercise, to be celebrated by “the whole community;” no individual may engage in any "private" Lenten practice without the abbot's command.

When Benedict says that “the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent,” he is offering an insight that is useful for any Christian: whatever we do in Lent (including prayer, holy reading, and acts of charity) is really what we ought to be doing during the rest of the year as well. Thus the lessons drawn from our Lenten pilgrimage should be helpful any time of the year.

I have to admit that it took me some time to get comfortable with the idea that there could be more to Lent than simply penance and mortification. I felt as if I were trying to wriggle out from under the hardships of the season. Perhaps Benedict with his calm moderation and his emphasis on interior transformation and community would make a good choice for "patron saint of Lent?"

During the coming weeks I hope to share with you some of my reflections on the keeping of Lent. I pray that the Spirit will guide each of us on our Lenten pilgrimage and give us a deeply meaningful experience of God’s love during this holy season.

P.S. I'm preparing to give a Lenten day of recollection in Convent Station NJ on Saturday March 13, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. "Lent is an opportunity to "add to the usual measure of our service," not just by bodily mortification, but by drawing closer to God in prayer, by trying to root out bad habits, and by practicing virtues."

    This quote from your blog echoes to a quote that I have been using as a bookmark in my copy of The Pilgrim Road. "Bad habits and compulsions cannot be conquered by determined resolutions or promising ourselves that we won't go on doing this or that. They cannot be rooted out - for what would fill that vacuum? They must be replaced - with their opposites. The secret is to substitute the positive for the negative - the I will for the I won't"

    Again we see that we cannot simply renounce our shortcomings - our bad habits must be replaced. In order to be able to sustain a new good habit, we must do more than renounce the bad habit and vow to do better. If one is going to quit smoking or cut down on caffeine, one must be prepared to drink tea or chew gum - lest one fall into the problem of the rebound habit... e.g., eating chips instead of carrots or gum when you need a smoke. But it is, in fact, not so easy. One must know what triggers the vice in order to replace it with a counteracting virtue (or good habit). As many (if not most) alcoholics will tell you, their souls are wounded and they drink to fill that void. Once they know this they can begin the ascent to sobriety and replace the bottle with prayer.

    Renouncing the bad habit is the final step - only once a life has been transformed and you are fully integrated into the new life, the new routine, and fully detached from the old ways, can a person truly renounce a vice and vow or resolve not to return to it.

    We are so like Pavlov's experiment! Each step in sanctification is a process of finding the root of the vice - that thing (all those things) that keeps us from a truly God centered life - and finding what triggers us to make bad choices, and then changing our behavior at the root. When do I want to "eat chocolate"? Why? Is it a nervous habit? Am I just drawn in by the convenience of it? First find the trigger - why do I do (or not do, in the case of the good that I should be doing) "that"? Then replace the response with something that is good for the soul.

    I thank you for reminding me of this and saying it in a new way.

    Peace & Joy!