Sunday, March 1, 2009
Room for God in Lent
In chapter 49 of his Rule Benedict says that the life of a monk should be a “continuous Lent.” Next, being the realist that he is, he allows that most monks can’t manage to live at such a level of intensity. He urges his community to take Lent seriously, to “wash away the negligences” of other times and to give up some eat, drink, sleep or idle talk during Lent and to add to the usual measure of private prayer. He says that all of this will allow us to approach Easter with “joy and spiritual longing.”
At the monastery every year, following Benedict’s advice, we tell the Prioress what we are going to do for Lent, what spiritual practices we will undertake. This process is called “Bona Opera” meaning “good works.” Benedict mandates that people tell the abbot/prioress what they are going to do for Lent so that there will be accountability. Otherwise he feels that if monks take on some spiritual discipline without approval and blessing it is “presumption and vainglory.”
It has taken me a while to figure out what Benedict means and what Lent is really about for that matter. I’ve always struggled with how giving things up would make more holy. My limited experience has been that it just makes me more cranky. I’ve never been quite sure what to say I’m going to do for Lent, self-discipline is not my strong suit and there are days when I think deeper holiness is a lost cause.
This year though it is making a little more sense (I’m a slow learner.) Lent is not about extra spiritual practices to remind me how undisciplined and far from holiness I am (although that is true) the sacrifices and disciplines are simply about making room. The “negligences” that Benedict refers to are just the little accommodations of daily life that squeeze out God. The television, web surfing, fluffy books, craving for sweets, all those sort of things that seem too inconsequential to worry about, much less give up for Lent, do add up. They add up to time and psychic space that becomes increasingly crowded and busy with less room for God.
Perhaps Lent is simply a vacare Deo, an open space for God. We rein in the busyness, the compulsions, the distractions that consume us and allow ourselves some more breathing space, a retreat space that is carved out of daily life, in order to breath in the love of God that surrounds and enfolds us. Lent becomes a gift, not a burden or even a creative exercise in self-sacrifice, it is a resting place where we pause and realize that indeed we are looking forward to Easter, to new life in God with a deep, aching joy that we usually cover up with the compulsions that creep into our lives the rest of the year.
So this year I’m sure I won’t be any holier at the end of Lent, probably not much more self-disciplined, and there will still be too many distractions. But perhaps there will also be a glimpse of what Benedict was talking about, a deeper sense of the “joy and spiritual longing” that continually help us move toward the reality of Easter and our new birth in God.