Friday, 6 March 2009
On Lenten joy....
So how is your Lent going so far? Have you more or less maintained your resolutions? Or have you collapsed in a heap after a week and a half!
Maintaining our joy is tough...
St Benedict, you might recall, talks about making our offering with joy, which I have to admit can be rather hard to sustain when the hunger pains are making it difficult to work! Indeed, over at St Mary Magdalen, Fr Blake is having a tough Lent. He writes:
"Maybe it is a sign of gently aging, not being able to cope with change and all that stuff, but as far as I remember Lent has always been pretty depressing.... within a week, the knees begin to buckle.
Getting up early means you fall asleep during the day, spending more time in prayer leads you to getting annoyed when the doorbell or the phone rings and disturbs your prayer time, the same when you go into the Church to say Sext at noon and you are halfway through and someone needs you for half an hour, and despite your good intention it is past 11 o'clock before you say Vesper and you doze off during Compline and have to restart the psalms because you are not sure you've said them. As for fasting, that too just makes you grumpy, no radical purification of the soul, just thoughts of how dull lentil soup is, and disappointment at how easily distracted you are..."
Now I have to admit that I'm with one or two commentators on his post in thinking that it might be better to do a bit less but stick to it, rather than over do it. That potato soup does look mighty boring - but a bit of sage or a dollop of pesto (Australians have a bit of an advantage with Lent in Autumn when our gardens are full of basil and other goodies!) would make it much more palatable without really compromising the fast! But hey, I follow Benedictine spirituality, and we're into a moderation which to some appears wimpiness!
My own plan is to try and gradually ratchet up my observance over the few weeks rather than mitigate towards the end. So for example, I'm following the prescriptions of the Benedictine Rule and having only one main meal in the evening (and boy do those last few hours seem long!). But in these first few weeks I'm still having some breakfast - with the aim of gradually cutting that out (whether I can actually manage that and still do any useful work during the day of course remains to be seen. Somehow having only one meal at midday or mid-afternoon, which is what I did last year, is psychologically at least a lot easier than only one in the evening. I can certainly see where the custom of moving Vespers up to midday came from!).
Now Fr Blake's message from his struggles is this:
"I am sure that the main purpose of Lent is to teach us that we really are frail human beings without the ability too change ourselves much. Our own attempts at virtue are revealed as mere vanity. We end up by realising the folly of a Pelagian self improvement scheme, which tends to be the result of a good Lent, a bad Lent tends to teach us that everything that is good or virtuous comes from God and without him - well, it's disaster...Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam..."
There is something to this. I have to admit I always optimistically start Lent thinking that as I'm fasting I will surely lose weight as a happy side benefit. After all, I've cut out the occasional glass of wine with my meal, cut quantities, etc... And for the first week this time around it actually seemed to be working. Then I ate one meal that obviously had a higher fat content then I realised...and I haven't lost any significant weight since, despite upping my exercize and cutting back on food a little more!
Now I have to admit that my first reaction was indignation, and a resolution not to eat that dish again this Lent! The real moral though, I agree, being, give up on any Pelagian self-improvement hopes, and just be content with the spiritual offering. So maybe I had better stop looking at the scales each morning...
Grace for fasting
All the same, I'm not entirely convinced that we should rest content that our failure in our commitments for Lent is teaching us something. Some falls are probably inevitable given that we are human. But there is another view. As Fr Mark over at Vultus Christi points out, Lent isn't meant to be easy. To get through it well, what is needed is an attitude of prompt and willing obedience:
"Lent is supposed to be unsettling. Lent is supposed to disrupt our routines. Lent is about entering into another rhythm of life, a rhythm different from the one by which we ordinarily organize our lives. The unwillingness to be disturbed, to make a change, even a very little one, in what has become customary reveals an underlying resistance to the grace of conversion...."
The point is that we aren't meant to approach Lent relying on ourselves to do whatever we have offered up. Rather we have to beg for the grace to get through that last half hour of fasting, or face yet another bowl of lentil or potato soup! That's not to say it will get any easier. As Fr Mark points out:
"Lent is a disruptive grace. Disruptive? One may find the word harsh: to disrupt means to break apart. And yet, there is no avoiding it: the healing of the heart begins in its being broken apart. Broken routines can be the first step in owning the brokenness of our hearts and in bringing them before God in a penitence that is not just theoretical but real. "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn" (Ps 50:17)."
Pray and start afresh
So if you are flagging or falling down on your intentions this Lent, use today and tomorrow's Ember Days to pray for help, and start afresh with renewed vigour!
PS And by the way Lord, what a bit of help on the weight loss front. Would it really hurt if I lost a few kilos in the process? Hmmm, perhaps today isn't the best day to ask given that tomorrow's saint St Thomas Aquinas didn't have much luck on this either!