Friday, October 21, 2016

Essayist


The world writes essays in my notebook every day. Or at least paragraphs, yearning, stretching, tugging at my elbow to become essays.

Take the red candle and the red-headed woman in chapel this evening. The candle isn't really red. It's a short, fat white candle in a red glass set in an iron scrollwork holder affixed to the gray stucco pillar some anonymous artisan with a pallet of stucco has decorated with very subtle swirls and flourishes. There are twelve of them around the church, silent memorials of the church's consecration, November 7, 1999, lit on the anniversary and other consecratory days and anniversaries, unlit otherwise. This evening, the candle, unlit as usual, is surmounted by a band of sunlight, unwelcome after a day gray with promises of rain never kept. The woman, a guest, sits alone in the guest pews, as quiet and as still as the candle above her. She is dressed in black and gray, but her flame is a cap of short red hair playing to straw.


Once again the hidden Artist has twirled a brush in the palate of ordinary circumstance to create, however fleeting, a still life moment of quiet beauty.  

Monday, July 6, 2015

Cough Drop Pep Talks


This morning, my cough drop wrapper spoke to me.  Oh, not out loud.  But I noticed that the white wrapper trellised in dark yellow also bore bright blue markings.  Unfolded and smoothed out, the wrapper yielded up a series of brief inspirational sayings, like “Get back in there champ!”, “Go for it!”, and “Be resilient!”  Every wrapper in my pocket carried a different set of messages.  Only one admitted, “A PEP TALK IN EVERY DROP.”

Why?  I mean, who reads cough drop wrappers?  I do evidently, but I never have until today, and I’ve used Hall’s Menthol Cough Drops forever.  If the wrappers have been talking to me all along, I haven’t been listening. So why does Hall’s bother? I can’t imagine that little printed pep talks on wrappers usually scrunched up and tossed without a glance sell more cough drops than the next brand whose wrappers remain mute and silent.  I can’t imagine Hall’s needs them to.  They make great menthol cough drops.  I didn’t choose them for the printed wisdom.  I chose them for their blessed ability to silence the coughs induced by postnasal drip before they can ricochet through the meditative silence of my monastery chapel at the worst possible moments.  I would continue to use them if the wisdom disappeared.  I imagine most customers are like me.  So why bother with the printed pep talks?

Perhaps one day an anonymous cough drop wrapper designer in Hall’s wrapper-printer department suddenly gave in to the human craving for words.  And crave them we do.  We were made, after all, in the image of the divine Wordsmith who fashioned everything we know from an unlikely palate of possibilities boiling in the primal darkness using nothing but words (see Genesis 1). To top off the work, the Wordsmith’s final words created us in the Speaker’s likeness and set us as untried lieutenants to collaborate in that first garden world summoned out of nothing by the sheer power of language.

The first human beings learned the hard way, as we all do, that not every word is trustworthy.  We reaped the fruit, literally, of the first lie told to a gullible listener not yet well versed in the art of discernment (see Genesis 3).  And with the fruit, we harvested new capacities to wield words to deceive, to harm, to tear down the harmonies we long for.  But we have never forgotten our first essential truth:  by words we were made, by words we were woven together into the fabric of the universe, by words we learned and grew and forged bonds with other hearers in the vibrant ever-changing network we call life, by words we became ourselves.  Without words, we are nothing but small mute shells forever concealing our story in seed. And we couldn’t bear it.  Why else would Helen Keller have bothered to fight so hard to make her way out of the silent isolation into which she was born? Why would Annie Sullivan’s fingers moving in her palm have touched her so powerfully that they brought her finally as speaker and writer into the heart of the human communion?

It was not accident but insight born of experience that led the psalmists to describe the shadowy half-life of the dead as they did:  “the silence” (Psalm 115:17). In the grave, human beings did not cease to exist, but their isolation was even worse than annihilation.  Unable to hear or speak, they were forever cut off from one another, from the living, from God in a solitude unbroken by any word.  The cliché “silent as the grave” is born of a very old memory and a very old belief.

When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, reflected on the creed’s statement, “[Christ] descended into hell,” he spoke of hell as utter loneliness so sealed in upon itself that no word of love can penetrate it to draw its inhabitants into relationship with the speaker or with other hearers.  This is not the silence of the deaf or the mute but the silence of those have severed themselves absolutely and by choice from language.  “The silence” is the antithesis of our humanity.[1]  Even those deprived of hearing and speech by physical circumstances, like Helen Keller,  refuse that silence and find ways to break out of it with gestures or facial expressions or pictorial art. And when they can’t, others find ways to reach into their silence to bridge that terrible, unbearable gap even without any sign of success.  Think of a mother talking daily to her comatose child daily, year after year.

No wonder our craving for words, for the touch of a speaker, for the awareness of other hearers even if we may never know who they are, is so great that we are willing to write and to read little unimaginative words of encouragement on a cough drop wrapper.  “Words are us” is not an advertising cliché.  It is the fundamental statement of who we are and yearn to be.

Thank you, Hall’s!


 Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga



[1] Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 2nd edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,  2004)  Kindle Books, loc 3574-3692.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Unsaid

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  The Gospel of the day is the story of the Annunciation, Luke 1:26-35.  


What is most haunting about the story of the Annunciation is not what's said but what isn't.

No where, no when, no time of day, no picture for the eye to hold .

No introductions, no preliminaries except to calm her fears so she could hear. No warning of the earthquake.

No question except her "how?" No "will you?", though the question quivers in the air between them.

No explanations on either side, really. Just three stark statements: "You will conceive." "Yes." "The Holy Spirit will come."

No talk at all about what followed, about that moment when Word and flesh met and melded, shielded in unfathomable silence.

But nothing would ever be the same again.

Nothing.

©2014 Abbey of St. Walburga


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent Mountain Climbing


“Come, let us go up to the Lord’s!” (Isaiah 2:3)  Isaiah’s invitation sets our itinerary for the Advent season. Come along, we have someplace important to go!

Why the mountain of the Lord? Aren’t we supposed to be headed for Bethlehem? In the immediate future, of course: Christmas is less than weeks away. Stables large and small are coming out of attics, closets, basements and garages and getting dusted off. Shepherds and mangers and magi are being unwrapped. Lost sheep, lost camels, lost angels are being hunted out. We won’t even talk about the little town of Bethlehem already floating through the air at the grocery store. In Church, we pray, “Come, Lord, Jesus!” But wrapped deep in the memories of Christmases past, we know he is already here, has been for as long as we can remember and longer. It’s very comforting to say a prayer we know has already been answered. It may be the only prayer that carries with it no anxiety, no uncertainty, no bothersome questions. We speak of Bethlehem as if it lay in the future, but we firmly believe the great events that marked it out for its unforgettable place in world history took place long ago.

The mountain of the Lord, on the other hand, lies in the past and in the future. The mountain Isaiah is using as a visual aid for his prophecy is the mountain on which Jerusalem, and particularly the Jerusalem Temple, were built. That mountain is still there, but it has become both a holy relic of past greatness, the Old City at the heart of a thriving modern one,  the center for conflict among religions that Isaiah never knew, the stubborn foothold of belief with blood on its stones, dust in its streets, and merchants hawking tourist souvenirs in its bazaars. 

However, Isaiah takes off from the clamor of reality into poetic visions of the mountain of the Lord as it will be when all the promises have been fulfilled. He paints a memorable picture of predator and prey gathered together in peace: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6-7)
.
Lambs inviting wolves to dinner? Leopards and kid goats lying down together, neither one dead? Bears and lions grazing on grass and hay, with cattle as their table companions? Really? What has to happen for that dream to come true? Not surprisingly, what must happen is conversion. Surprisingly, the conversion doesn’t turn wolves into lambs (or lambs into wolves, for that matter), lions into calves, bears into cows. No one has to turn into what she or he is not. What changes is relationships: the animals remain the same animals, but the roles of predator and prey disappear. God, speaking through the prophet, sums it up succinctly: “They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 9:9a).

Wolves, lions, and bears won’t starve on God’s mountain, mind you. No one will. God will provide a new menu: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (Isaiah 25:6).

This culinary imagery captures in a few words a radical shift in cosmic food service. The Second Letter of Peter describes evil as the fiercest of predators: “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour” (2 Peter 5:8).  C.S. Lewis expands this image into senior demon Screwtape’s description of the philosophy of hell to his nephew, junior demon Wormwood: “Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger.” In this context, “us” includes Satan and all his demonic minions. We, of course, would never do such a thing. But Screwtape sums up the demonic dietary philosophy in a single sentence that skewers us to the wall as we’re trying to disown the image: “To be is to be in competition.” Carol Flinders, author of several books on medieval women mystics, says she once caught herself trying to bolster up her sense of self by pointing out (to herself) those who didn't play tennis as well as she did, those who were shorter or fatter or otherwise didn’t measure up to her. Her summary is cuts close to home: “a sense of self is something you build and consolidate over time by defeating or disempowering other selves. … [S]omething very like religious faith is involved here—the faith that I will be confident and secure, and, by extension, more fully a subject and ‘human,’ in proportion to the number of individuals I have defeated and disempowered – or could if I wanted to.”

But on God’s holy mountain, this unholy competition of devourer and devoured, predator and prey, will vanish. Death will become an ancient chapter in a closed book: “[God] will destroy death forever” (Isaiah 25:8).  What will bring about this bright new world? “[T]he earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). God complains now that “my people do not know my ways,” (cf Psalm 95:10)  but when we reach the mountaintop, we will. Knowledge of God includes intimate knowledge of God’s ways. Remember that “knowledge” in the bible is not a phenomenon of the mind but a communion of being. We will know God and know God’s ways and recognize that they are our ways too, we who are made in the divine image. So we will no longer be driven by a twisted sense of survival to devour one another, because God doesn’t. On the contrary, God will feed us all on a menu that “rich food” and “fine wine” don’t really quite capture. Part of Jesus’ job is to reveal the Father to us not merely by speaking explanatory words but by doing as God does. And Jesus nourishes us with his own very life (cf. John 6). Now there is a menu no cordon bleu can ever surpass!

But why is the prophet tickling our imagination with pretty pictures of idylls and feasts? What do lions and lambs and groaning festal tables have to do with your life and mine in the nitty gritty where we live? These passages from Isaiah, and more like them, are set before us during Advent to force noses from grindstones and eyes from the dirty sidewalk with stabs of hope that force us to look up and look ahead. These flashes are the carrot and stick that drive Advent hope: here is what awaits you; what are you doing now to make yourself and your world ready?

Hope is not an escape from today but the energy God gives us clamber up the mountain toward tomorrow. Most of humanity has a desire for peace tucked into pockets somewhere deep in the mind. Most of us yearn for what the prophet promises. We might have other pictures for it, we might be plagued with doubts about whether or not it can ever happen, we might struggle with temptations to sit down on the nearest rock and take a nap, but the prophet goads us: climb!

Wait a minute!  What about Bethlehem? The Christmas story-- an earthquake wrapped in yet other comforting images of a devoted couple beside a manger, angels caroling in winter skies, shepherds trudging in from the fields to see the sight--is base camp for our climb. Soon now, we will stop there for a week or two. We might think we’re taking time out from the arduous work of scaling that ever-inviting, ever-receding mountain, but Christmas is far more than a vacation from school and work, a truce in wars as small as the family and as large as the world. Christmas is where we meet once again the most important person in the whole story, the One who will lead and accompany us every inch of the way: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-(climbing) with-us.


Notes
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (HarperCollins e-books; © 1942, 1996, C . S. Lewis Pte. Ltd) 94.
Carol Lee Flinders, At the Root of This Longing (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) 294.

©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Lesson of Harriet Tubman



In the current issue of Give Us This Day, Robert Ellsberg tells the story of Harriet Tubman.  She was born into slavery in Maryland in 1820.  A woman of deep spiritual experiences, she endured for years until, at the age of 29, she was inspired to act on her enduring inner conviction that God wanted her to be free.  From her home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, she made her way by night to Pennsylvania and ultimately to Philadelphia, traveling at night with no map, no compass, no guide except the North Star, always in peril of her life.  Long after Appomattox,  for the rest of her very long life, she went on working for the liberation of those still bound in one way or another.

Her story inspires the imagination.  We can easily daydream about the heroism of reaching the land of freedom and then going back for those still enslaved in the place we came from.  It’s a pleasant thought, one that allows us to fantasize about dangerous deeds but excuses us from doing them because, of course, we are still on the road to the land of freedom a long way ahead of us—beyond Lent, beyond next year, beyond death.  Time enough to go back for the others when we get there.

The gospel doesn’t much hold with daydreaming instead of doing.  For us, the real lesson of Harriet Tubman is that wherever we are on the road to freedom, we must keep going back for those behind us.  Where would we be, after all, if others hadn’t come back for us?

Note:  Give Us This Day is published by The Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org
.


©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga


Sunday, March 9, 2014

First Sunday of Lent: Genesis 2-3, Matthew 4

Once upon a time, our story goes, there was a Being whose essential truth was an extraordinary communion of  three distinct persons so profound that the three, though distinct, formed one reality.  To this Being, human language gives the name God.  (Of course, "a Being" isn't quite right.  God is not one being among many, as theologians wear out their keyboards trying to explain.  God IS in a way that can't be said of anything else that exists. Let that much do for now.)

One day, when there were as yet no "days" because there was no time, God set about creating what we know as the universe we live in.  In the last verses of the creation story as told in Genesis 1, God created humanity: "Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness....God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:26-27).

From the artistic genius of a Michelangelo to the illustrations for children's Bibles, the habit of the imagination has been to picture "male and female" as we meet them every day:  two distinct people, one looking like a man, one looking like a woman.  That makes sense to us because that is what we know.  However, the brilliant eleventh-century biblical commentator, Rashi, offers a different perspective: ""God created him first with two faces, and separated them." Blessed John Paul II takes a similar position in his reflections on the primal unity of the human in the Genesis account  as gathered in Male and Female He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.

The poet of Genesis 1 sets the creation of the first humanity at the conclusion of a narrative picture of primal harmony, where each component has its name, its purpose, and its place in the vast scheme of things, and each owes its origin to the divine Creator.  This harmony has never lost its appeal.  It remains the dream that underlies the prophet Isaiah's vision of a holy mountain where predators and prey dwell in peace (Isaiah 11:6-8), words translated, for example, into the numerous paintings of "the peaceable kingdom" by Quaker folk artist Edward Hicks (April 4, 1780-August 23, 1849) which sometimes appear on Christmas cards. 

The picture of primal harmony shifts from reality to dream when the first humans shred it.  The tragedy is laid out in Genesis 3.  The serpent, the deceiver who will grow into a dragon in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 12:9), convinces Eve to pluck and taste the forbidden fruit by assuring her she will not die but will become like a God.  The tragic irony is not lost on the reader familiar with Genesis 1, where the first human beings were made in the image and likeness of God.  Eve's story was written before the Genesis creation poem, though, so she is eager to have what she has already been given but doesn’t know it.  So we come to the famous, or infamous, moment when she crunches down on what the western world would come to see as an apple.  No doubt it tastes good--forbidden fruit usually does till it has hit us where we live. So she passes it to her other half, who takes and eats it without a word, sealing the fate of Eve's daughters to a long role in theology, literature and society as the dangerous temptresses who seduce men into sin. At least in Genesis 3, the man seems pretty willing to be seduced if being handed a piece of fruit counts as seduction.  In fact, since Eve says nothing at all to him, we should perhaps shift the blame to the serpent. Adam was listening to his spiel along with Eve and seems also to have fallen for it.

The seeds of forbidden fruit spring up to become a poisoned harvest.  As soon as the woman obeys the serpent rather than God, and on the basis of an inexplicable trust built on very shaky grounds ( or so it appears to anyone who hasn't succumbed to the serpent's way with words), and as soon as the man ratifies her decision by making it his own, the world falls apart.

These two favored children, the first-born of God's creative love suddenly run for the bushes when they hear God's voice as he arrives for a customary evening stroll in the garden.  For the first of times uncounted, God has to go looking for them.  When God starts asking questions,  these two "faces" of one humanity get into their first fight, or at least what would likely become their first fight when they eventually try to pick events apart and understand them as they stand  outside a gate closed, locked and guarded against them.  Adam dumps the blame for that fatal bite on Eve;  she dumps  it on the serpent; the serpent is smart enough to let it happen without saying a thing, like someone who starts a fight between two others and then steps back out of the way.

God is forced to spell out for them the consequences of what they have done.  "That garden you were placed into, Adam, the one that should have provided you with the satisfaction of your own kind of creativity as you cultivated it, coaxed it into bearing fruit for the future, tilled and planted and cut from it the wheat for the first loaf of home-baked bread?  That garden will now rise up and work against you, making you work it by the sweat of your brow at every hand's turn.  Sorry, your choice.  The children you and Adam were charged to bring into the world to take up the task of caring for it, Eve, the ones who should have given you nothing but joy at their arrival?  They will now give you terrible pain at their birth.  (Eve will learn only after her boys are grown that they will bring more pain than she could ever have imagined during delivery once they reach maturity.)  Sorry, your choice too.  And this place, this beautiful garden I planted for you?  You've got to leave it for a much colder, harsher climate in lands that will never be your friends.  Your choice, your choice, and My everlasting grief!  It will cost you more than you dream of now, and it will cost Me my Son."  Or words to that effect!

So Adam and Eve, shivering in their fig leaves, prepare to leave what later generations would call paradise, to face the soul-searing loneliness of a world from which all harmony has fled, even the harmony of spouse with spouse, brother with brother.

We've all been here ever since, trying to make our way home to the garden.  When Jesus joined us on the road, he began his public ministry with a forty-day stint in the desert, as recounted in today's gospel.  At his lowest point, after a very long fast, which was probably not measured in terms of how many small and normal meals he ate per day, the Tempter from the garden reappeared on the scene for another conversation.  It was a key moment. 

With Eve and Adam, he had won the first battle, but not the war. Of course the war was not with poor, silly human beings.  They were just cannon fodder.  The real war was and is between Evil and God.  (C.S. Lewis imagines all this brilliantly in The Screwtape Letters.)  And here was a man who was the image of the Father in  far more profound way than the first couple (Colossians 115-20).  Here was the one who was the beginning of the new humanity made in the image and likeness of God, the one in whom the image would be brought to its planned perfection once he passed through death to eternal life in God.  It isn't clear that the Tempter knew all that.  He did seem to think there was at least a good chance that this one, at last, was "the Son of God" in a different ), even though the Tempter might not have been sure what that meant.  What he was sure of, it seems, was that here was God's Achilles heel.  Bring this one down, and the war would be over and won.  And not by God.

The Tempter, remember, is the one who specializes in falsity beyond any human beings can come up with.  And he is cleverly persuasive with it.  What he addresses to Jesus seems to be Satan's own definition of what the Son of God should look like, what he should do.  He's not as clever as he thinks he is.  He clearly gives away what he would do if he were the Son of God, or even (his obvious hope since that first conversation at the fruit tree).  He would prove his status and his power in such a way that no one could doubt or deny him.  He could and would do the one thing God will not:  he could force the obedience of all lesser beings.  He doesn't have the handicap of a real Son of God in that game.  He does not love.  Quite the contrary.

This cunning Tempter bases his script on a vision of human beings falsified to the core core.  He wants Jesus to betray his own truth as the one defined by what he will teach:  love of God and neighbor so great that it takes precedence over any hint of self-interest.  The whisperer tries to persuade him to do that by acting as one totally isolated from all relationships, the one in whom the disintegration of all bonds begun in Eden is finally brought to completion.  He tries to convince Jesus to act entirely by himself alone and for himself alone, with reference neither to God nor to neighbor.  "You must be hungry.  Feed yourself by your own power . You know you have it in you to turn these stones into bread.  Forget the myriads of starving human beings waiting everywhere for you to provide them with bread, the real Bread of Life.  Force God's hand to take care of you.  Power is all!  You can control even God-- his own words in Psalm 91 prove it.  He may be called "almighty," but love has made him a weakling after all.  Take over the empire that awaits you, take over all the kingdoms of the world--in a moment, without effort, and certainly without that stupid business of the cross that lies in your future if you stay on the path you're traveling now."  The Tempter may not realize that here he has let slip his real plan. He has put on God's mantle, for it is God who says in Psalm 2, "You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask of me and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, and the ends of the earth as your possession". Clever, this Tempter, but sometimes not too smart.

He doesn't win.  Not this battle, and not the war, though he doesn't seem to know that yet.  He will keep trying in Jesus'  lifetime;  he is still trying in ours.  Let us not underestimate him.  Genesis 3 reminds us how easily our hungers can dupe us into choosing quicker, easier satisfactions than the long, hard road Jesus has carved out for us.  The fruit that looked so good to Eve has lost none of its appeal.  And history teaches us that though Evil may never win the war, indeed cannot,  this persistent Whisperer seems willing to make do with success in one small  battle after another—with one of us as the prize. If the Tempter cannot now kill Christ,  it appears he can at least take pleasure in wounding him again in his only vulnerability, his love for us. 

However, Matthew's story of that fateful meeting in the desert reminds us that there is a power that will defeat the whispers every time.  It is the word of God.  The more we absorb it, the greater will be our defense against seductive untruths (see John 8:31-31).  But we needn't worry about our own uncertain ability to wield this weapon with success against subtleties that undermine even the strongest resolutions.  The story that unfolds through Lent into Easter and beyond assures us that Christ, who not only speaks the word with authority but is the very Word made flesh, will never walk away and leave us to our own devices. "I am with you always," he says (Matthew 28:20). However alone and powerless we may feel,  he is assuring us that he will never abandon the arena for a more comfortable spot far away in heaven.  He will continue to rescue and shield us until the last sentence of our story is written, and God lays down the pen. 

So, Christ's message to us on this first Sunday of Lent is what it has always been: "Do not be frightened by the words you have heard" (Isaiah 37:6). And, when we are nevertheless shaking in our shoes--let's be honest, the Tempter seem frighteningly strong as he tries to pull us into the undertow in a chaotic sea—Jesus says again what he said to the disciples in the boat at night:  "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid" (Matthew 14:27).

Notes:
Rashi is the name commonly given to RAbbi SHlomo Itzhak i(February 22, 1040 – July 13, 1105).  The sentence found here is quoted from Avivah Gotlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

C.S. Lewis’ imagined account of a conversation between a senior demon and his nephew about the incomprehensible fact that God seems actually to love us human vermin, as the demon calls us, whereas the devil is intent upon devouring us instead is worth reading during Lent.  The title is The Screwtape Letters, and you will find it available in many print and e-book editions.


©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent 2014 Part 1



Here we go!  Lent starts tomorrow.  It arrives this year on Ash Wednesday, March 4, and ends on Holy Thursday, April 17.

For Benedictines, however, Lent is with us always, in every season of the year.  St. Benedict says, “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent” (Rule of St. Benedict, 49:1)  If you look at Lent as a season of penance that goes on too long, a season when visions of chocolate or coffee or cigarettes or whatever you have chosen to give up dance in your head, a season you’d just as soon either skip or at least get through as quickly as possible, this is not good news.  No chocolate, ever? Give me a break!  A long break, like from Easter till next Ash Wednesday.

St. Benedict himself admits that “few…have the strength for this” (RB 49:2), so he lists some Lenten practices to “wash away the negligences of other times” (RB 49:3).  He makes it sound like a season for a spiritual tune-up, a soul-diet, a time of intensity geared to prepare us to renew our baptismal vows honestly at Easter, freed of all the little compromises we have made to lighten their observance.  In other words, it is a season of intentional conversatio morum, that change of behavior that is intended to fuel a change of heart.  And in some ways, that’s exactly what Lent is.

The season of Lent has its own particular landscape:  the landscape of desert and mountain.  The forty days of Lent hark back to Israel’s forty years in the desert, Moses’ forty days’ fast on Mount Sinai prior to receiving the Law, Jesus’ forty days’ fast in the desert following his baptism. 

The desert offers a vivid image of Lent.  Its sun and win strip life down to the bone.  Quite literally, actually, as Georgia O’Keeffe reminds us in her stark paintings of cattle reduced to clean, white skeletons scattered on the sands of New Mexico’s deserts.  Lent does the same for the human spirit.  The fire of the Sun rising from a dark world and the darker valley of death until it bursts into glory at Easter burns away all our masks and disguises, all our falsities, all the inessentials with which we sometimes seek to hide our essential truth, even from ourselves.  The light of the rising Sun, Jesus Christ, illumines us through and through, revealing not only our selfishness and sinfulness but also the essential strength and goodness we may have forgotten were there.  It was he who said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  The wind of the Spirit whips away our heavy backsacks and lunch boxes, filled with all the unnecessary stuff, both material, without which we imagine we cannot live.  Turns out that, in the desert, we actually can’t live with  it.  The accumulated weight of all the baggage we carry will weigh us down till we can’t move at all, even as far as the nearest water hole.   The Sun and Wind of our Lenten desert change us.

Do you begin to see why St. Benedict says that our lives should be a perpetual Lent?  These changes aren’t confined to a few weeks only.  The process of transformation is the process to which we commit ourselves in promising conversatio morum, with its intertwining realities of heart and behavior.  Lent is the essential home of the Benedictine spirit, and we stray from it at our peril. 

One approach to Lenten asceticism is to choose to change habits that we would like to leave behind for good, not just for six weeks.  Sometimes the small steps we take during Lent—giving up something not too important or choosing to do something we don’t ordinarily do—are not just steps but stepping stones to larger changes.  We might give up chocolate with the hope (and, more important, the prayer) that we can learn to make our own decisions about what we take in, whether that be unnecessary food or unnecessary entertainment or unnecessary gossip at the grocery store, rather than to leave the decisions in the hands of old habits that have served us badly.  Chocolate may be a small thing but building up our decision-making power is not.  Rather than giving something up, we might choose to spend fifteen minutes a day, three days a week, reading Scripture prayerfully.  That’s not much time, but it’s amazing how hard it can be to set aside even such a small fragment of our day to grow in our relationship with God.  Fifteen minutes three times a week is nowhere near the unceasing prayer that is the Benedictine ideal, but it’s a genuine start. 

The monastic wisdom of past ages understood that small starts along the broad, well-paved road to an undesirable destination or along the steep and narrow road that leads to salvation are a great deal more significant than we might recognize, especially if a well-honed sense of pride requires great leaps toward holiness on Ash Wednesday.  Humility, a distinctly Benedictine value, provides us with a practical realism that will take us a great deal farther than high purposes that ride on nothing but air. 

A perpetual Lent does not require a wardrobe of hair shirts, one to be worn every day of the week even after Easter.  It does not require a life-long fast so severe that we pass out along the road.  It does not require that we shut ourselves into our room every day after work until midnight.  It doesn’t even require that we give up chocolate so firmly forever that we wound the loved one who gives us a box of our favorite kind on our birthday, or that we become bad-tempered ogres whom our entire family begs, please, to eat just one piece for their sake.  A perpetual Lent requires a commitment to the desert road that leads us to change and grow in small, simple ways until our own self, risen from old dust into the full maturity of Christ, comes as a shock to us when we wake up on the day of our own personal Easter.

But most important of all, a perpetual Lent is not a solo act of heroism.  It is a long journey taken in prayerful company with Christ, the only One who really knows the way, and with all the rest of the ordinary folk he has invited to come along.


Ash Wednesday is a day of small beginnings.  We will revisit the desert road on this blog when we are farther along the way.