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.