A Monastic Lent – For Everyone?

There may be some outside our walls who imagine that we waft around on a cloud of prayer all day and do little else, but those who know us better will be aware that life ‘inside’ can be fairly rigorous and certainly relentless.  I can remember in my very early years here going to the Abbess before one Lent and saying, “I’m not sure what else there is to ‘give up’”! That’s how it felt then and was an expression of my inexperienced understanding of what Lent was all about.  To regard Lent as primarily about self-denial and giving up is to lose the centrality of the Easter focus which permeates our whole life in community.

The Rule of Saint Benedict, in chapter 49, speaks specifically about the way in which Lent should be observed and it is one of only two places in the entire Rule where the word “joy” is mentioned: “let each one…..look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” (v.7).  Vital to our Lenten practices is the joy and spiritual longing that should undergird and sustain them. Only thus will our hearts be truly opened to the healing and purification that this season, surely, is about.

In Community, year by year, there are certain ‘givens’ that we try to observe: we daily rise 5 minutes earlier than usual; we avoid writing any but essential letters or arranging meetings with friends or other contacts; we use our half hour recreation time on Wednesdays and Fridays for extra prayer and/or spiritual reading (sometimes done as a Community exercise); we are encouraged to use the season as an opportunity to ‘declutter’ – to sift through all that we have accumulated over the year and throw or give away that which we do not strictly need.

Then there are the specific undertakings which are chosen afresh each Lent and these always have both a personal and a corporate aspect, each being important as together they reflect the dual nature of our whole journey to God: we approach as persons, but also as members of the whole body of Christ.  Thus each year we sit down as a Community to discuss what we shall collectively offer – perhaps Bible study or lectio divina together each week, or a particular prayer focus.  Individually we prepare our personal offerings which, as Saint Benedict exhorts us, are always submitted privately to the Abbess for her approval (or otherwise) to avoid “presumption and vainglory” (v.9).  Sometimes the response of the Abbess can come as a surprise (and a further growing point) as happened to me one year when my ‘list’ was more or less approved, but returned to me with an addition: “to spend 10 minutes each day walking in the garden”!  What a pleasant ‘obligation’ – but, actually, it required a surprising amount of self-discipline to observe this request, and reminded me how much easier it may be for some of us just to fill ‘those small spaces’ with the inevitable task that needs to be done, rather than exercising the self-discipline required to step outside and open oneself to the beauty of God’s creation and his word to us through it.  So, please, take note: Lenten observances can be legitimately pleasurable!

Perhaps that’s enough about us.  Where does it leave you, I wonder?  We are enormously privileged in this life, with our set times for prayer and a timetable that seeks to make God and the things of God our priority.  Out in the frenetic, hurly-burly of life for many, many people, it may all seem so very different.  But are there meeting points – can we find common ground?  I believe so. What about rising just 5 minutes earlier than usual, those few minutes to be given to God?  Or how about ensuring you take a proper lunch break each day, rather than a snatched sandwich and working through the rest of the time? (Like my 10 minutes garden walk…).  Do you meet with your spiritual director or priest/trusted friend before Lent and discuss with her/him what your Lenten observance this year might be – if not, maybe you could try it.  And do you, as a church or house group, seek some common commitment?

The Rule of Saint Benedict notes that “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent” (v.1).  Sadly, as fallen creatures, we all fail to measure up to our holy aspirations, and it is salutary to have these weeks of the year set aside to enable some ‘stocktaking’, to redirect our sights, and to prepare ourselves for that focal point of the liturgical year: the celebration of Easter.  May we together find our motivation in that deep longing, and step out lightly and with joyful anticipation into this Lent.

Quotations are from RB1980 Timothy Fry, O.S.B. (Ed.) Chapter 49. Verses are indicated in the text.