Having just eaten my second paczki before 10:00am, I realized it is time for me to start thinking about Lent. Today is Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday — the day before the season of Lent. (Also known as Mardi Gras). This day is generally a day of indulgence before turning to repentance. This historically has been a time when you would clear out the flour and sugar and all the things that would be forbidden to eat during Lent by making paczkis, pancakes and other yummies. It is a day to indulge in food and drink because one wouldn’t during the next 40 or so days during the Lenten season.
Various Christian traditions put more (or less) emphasis on this season – some worry it feels too ‘religious’ — but I think it can be a meaningful time on the spiritual calendar. Perhaps you’ve felt this also, but are wondering what that means in actuality. Me too.
So my thoughts naturally turned to the most spiritual people around — monks. What do they do in monasteries? They of all people must know how to keep Lent in a way that is meaningful, full of tradition, and so on.
Rule 49 of St. Benedict’s Rule is about Lent.
It goes as follows:
CHAPTER XLIX On the Keeping of Lent
The life of a monk ought always to be a Lenten observance. However, since such virtue is that of few, we advise that during these days of Lent he guard his life with all purity and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the shortcomings of other times. This will then be worthily done, if we restrain ourselves from all vices. Let us devote ourselves to tearful prayers, to reading and compunction of heart, and to abstinence.
During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God “with the joy of the Holy Ghost” (1 Thes 1:6), of his own accord, something above his prescribed measure; namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.
Let each one, however, make known to his Abbot what he offers and let it be done with his approval and blessing; because what is done without permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vain glory, and not to merit. Therefore, let all be done with the approval of the Abbot.
The 5 Lenten practices and principles in St. Benedicts Rule can be seen as a way to get into a rhythm during this time of year. They impact not only our personal faith and spirituality in this season, but also give us lenses to see the rest of the year in a different light. Further, as spiritual practices affect us inwardly, they will inevitably flow outward from us, helping us breathe the Spirit of life into those around us. As communities of people begin to incorporate these practices, the broader spiritual impact only increases. (The following are adapted from Word Made Flesh).
1. Refraining from sin – “Lent should be a time for us to do battle, a time to fight not only the great temptations but, perhaps more importantly, our subtle faults, the seemingly small habitual sins we consent to every day…[Lent is a propitious time to take inventory and a close look at our bare selves,] to see the obstacles on our journey to God, things which should be eliminated from our lives.”
The challenge presented is to look at sin as not only having a personal dimension but as systemic and structural evil as well. What is it that we consent to every day that implicates us, directly or indirectly, in actions and attitudes that destroy community, solidarity, compassion and resurrection hope? As we examine our bare selves may we pray to refrain from those things that veer us off the path of following the One who was deeply concerned for and drew near to the vulnerable, the excluded, and the forgotten.
2. Prayer with tears – “Our Lenten prayer, like the publican’s, ought to be a humble and tearful prayer of compunction, a prayer of simplicity and trust, not in ourselves, but in the loving-kindness and tenderness of God.”
Our tears should flow over our own brokenness, our own need, our own attempts at making the world conform to our wants and desires. Our tearful prayers should also flow from our how often we lack of compassion and solidarity with those who suffer because of our individual and collective brokenness. Our weeping may draw us closer to the heartbreak of God over the suffering we induce (or neglect) in our world.
3. Holy reading – “for through the Scriptures the Holy Spirit never ceases to speak and educate us…Lent is this wonderful, particularly well-suited time for reading and listening to the voice of God in His word.”
Holy reading during Lent can take on a certain newness as we attempt to apply God’s Word to today’s challenges and opportunities. Perhaps you’ll decide to reading through a Psalm each morning. Maybe you’ll contemplate on Jesus or the Israelites’ experience in the desert. Memorize a passage. How is God speaking into my life? How am I responding to it? As the Spirit of God challenges us to read Scripture with fresh eyes and hearts, we may well be open to a new working of God in our lives. May our holy reading lead us to contemplate and discover in Scripture God’s special and deep love for us, and for the most broken around us, including the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant.
4. Repentance – “Repentance, the work of the Holy Spirit in the innermost part of our hearts…It is true that conversion and repentance are lifelong tasks, but Lent provides us with an exclusive period to work in it intensely. Lent is indeed a ‘school of repentance’.”
During Lent let us allow the Spirit of God to lead us to repent not only of our personal sins but also for the ways in which our collective history may have been complicit in the suffering of others. In repentance, let us seek to believe in the Gospel that is good news to all who need it – including ourselves! It is also good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. May we actively seek justice, hope and joy in the Spirit, which is what the Kingdom of God is all about.
5. Abstinence from food –“Christ used fasting and encouraged his followers to practice fasting…when carried out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it becomes life-giving and a source of powerful grace in our individual lives.”
Abstinence from food during Lent becomes life giving to us as we reflect and realize that God is our source of life and all that is good in our lives. Yet abstinence from food during Lent can also bring us in closer in solidarity with so many of God’s children that abstain from food, not voluntarily, but who are forced to by extreme poverty and vulnerability. This fasting can become an opportunity to practice compassion and solidarity with the suffering and vulnerable. It can become a catalyst in creatively exploring how to live simply so that others can simply live. Maybe you’ll give up sweets, or coffee, or beer, or something else during this season. Maybe skipping lunch as a daily fast, or doing it once a week. I am still considering my options… Might be hard for a pub theologian to give up beer… Shane Claiborne had some delightful thoughts today about how sometimes less is more.
Looking at these 5 Lenten practices not only through a lens of personal faith and spirituality but also with a posture of solidarity, identification and compassion towards the suffering and vulnerable, we can continue to discover our real selves on our faith journey.
And in this journey Lent provides a focused season to follow and align our life-choices and options in relation to a God who is concerned for each one of us – and each person we encounter every day. May we experience and be the presence of Christ in each place he has us, and open ourselves to his work in our lives! (For more Lenten resources, check out Godspace)
Doing something special this year for Lent? Feel free to share your journey below!