So what do monastics, whether monks, nuns or oblates have to give up for Lent? Most of us lead pretty simple lives, not a lot of possessions, a dedication to prayer and faith. I’m reminded of the joke that priests tell, that hearing the confessions of nuns is like being stoned to death by popcorn. No one is going to be startled by our attempts to be more holy. In his chapter on Lent Benedict emphasizes ascetical practices for Lent, giving up extra sleep, adding more prayer, that sort of thing. Personally I’ve never been sure that I end up being that much more holy or even that much more prepared for Lent through these kinds of practices.
I suspect that what I need to give up for Lent is something much more fundamental, much more foundational in my spiritual life. Over the years as I’ve read and re-read the Gospels the more I am convinced that for Jesus one of the most fundamental sins was that of complacency. Over and over in the Gospels most ostensibly holy people, the Pharisees, those who observed God’s commandments in the greatest detail and depth, were the ones that Jesus most often took aim at. The Pharisees were the good, holy people of their society but they took the presence, the action of God in their lives for granted. They did everything right, they did what God asked of them but they ceased to be shocked, amazed, stunned, overwhelmed and surprised by God. They were always in control in their faith lives, they had God all figured out. They were complacent.
In the face of this complacency Jesus came along and stripped, shattered and dismantled all their hard won faith and sense of control. Jesus shattered the safe, comfortable faith world of the Pharisees. He said that God cannot be taken for granted, God’s love and grace are meant to shock us and knock us flat on our backside every time we encounter them, day after day. What the novelist Flannery O’Connor described could easily apply to the message of Jesus: "When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."
I won’t assume to speak to the experience of anyone else, Lent and conscience are very personal things. But I know that I tend to wince pretty hard when I encounter the Gospels and the self-satisfaction of the Pharisees. My faith journey tends to become nice and even and well paved, it is easy to coast or to assume that my hard work is the work of transformation rather than just the daily work that needs to be done. I find it easy to become the complacent Pharisee keeping God safely in a box.
So perhaps my Lenten challenge will be to cultivate a renewed sense of the power of God’s presence in my life. Thankfulness, awareness of the gift of God’s presence ought to cause me to tremble down to my toes. The knowledge of how deeply and indiscriminately I and all people are loved by God should take my breath away every time I think of it. The reality of grace is something that should knock me over every time I realize the wonder of the gift.
Perhaps this is the real gift of Lent, the gift of the ashes of Wednesday. Our repentance is not for the trivial sins that characterize most of our lives but for the big sin of taking God for granted. May our asceticism, our penance and our awareness during this season truly lead to the intense joy of Easter, the startling gift of God’s presence in our lives.