This article is published in the March edition of ‘Oremus’ the Westminster Cathedral magazine. Stan has kindly let me reproduce the entire article for this site.
Hold on! Has Lent come around again already? Where does the time go? It seems we just finished celebrating Pentecost, and here we are again coming right up to Ash Wednesday. And these days, at least for those of us who follow the Ordinary Form calendar, we move directly from Ordinary Time to Lent without Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays to serve as a warning. A bit harsh, really, to send me there without any warm-up time to ease into it. Lent’s too often half over before I get my Lenten act together. And that’s a waste, now that I’ve finally come to appreciate Lent’s stark beauty.
In my younger years I was not much of a fan of Lent. All that fasting and sacrifice and darkness and depriving really put a damper on things. We eased into it in stages, burying the Alleluia on the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday, chanting the haunting melody of the Introit Exsurge on Sexagesima, using the purple Vestments, and not bringing flowers to decorate the altars. Then it began in earnest on Ash Wednesday with the pointed reminder that we are humans and destined for death: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. The changes in our diet and music reinforced the message that we needed to make some changes in our lives if we were to be properly prepared for that moment of death and what lay beyond. After 40 days of the diet changes, I welcomed no day of year as much as I did Holy Saturday. After the long and lovely Vigil, we saw the return of regular meat and sweets to the dinner table and I could again have snacks between meals. And the organ was back again! This left me with no doubts that the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead was the most important event in history, and the annual celebration of that day was certainly my most important annual mood shift. Winter was finally ending and Lent was done for another year, thank God! That lifted my spirits and was in turn its own resurrection of sorts for me.
Through the years, my perceptions have changed. I’ve come around now to a point where I actually welcome Lent. The reduction in my consumption of conversation, food, drink, sleep, and fun offers a certain satisfaction. It helps heighten my awareness that this is a sacred time, a special gift of a season to prepare for my redemption from self-absorbed over-consumption and stimulation and other obstables to the freedom that God wants His children to enjoy. Pope St. Gregory the Great put this in poetry, in a wonderful hymn, Ex more docti mystico, that we sing in the Office of Readings (Matins) on the Sundays of Lent until Holy Week.
|Utamur ergo parcius
verbis, cibis et potibus,
somno, iocis et arctius
perstemus in custodia
|More sparing therefore let us make,
our words and food and drink we take,
our sleep and mirth—and closer barr’d
be every sense in holy guard.
Even in the secular world today, it’s become fashionable to see certain deprivations as cleansing and healthy. Some fasting from food, some abstaining from alcohol or sweets, some limits to conversation, television, and media stimulation, are all techniques recognised as helping restore balance to areas of our lives that have become distorted. Dedicated time for meditation and sharing of our material goods with others are also ways the self-help industry has identified and promoted as being important steps along the road to greater self-actualization. Less is more.
In Christian spirituality, such focused activities have a long history. We have traditionally labelled them fasting, prayer, and almsgiving; they constitute the ‘three pillars’ of a good Lent. The deprivations of pleasure and external stimulation along with the time for prayer that I impose on myself are, as the self-help gurus will agree, not designed to make me miserable or to encourage suffering for its own sake. Rather, I do these things to remove distractions that can prevent me from seeing who I really am, God’s own likeness and dwelling place, and learning to love myself so that I can then truly love the image of that same God in others. In silentia procedit pius animus, Thomas a Kempis writes in The Imitation of Christ, ‘in silence the devout soul makes progress.’ In the quiet, with external distractions moved, I can begin to have time to hear the voice of the indwelling Spirit who calls out to me in love. The cares and pleasures of the world are all too quick to drown out that call. St. Gregory’s hymn continues:
|Memento quod sumus tui,
licet caduci, plasmatis;
ne des honorem nominis
tui, precamur, alteri.
|Remember Thou, though frail we be,
that yet Thine handiwork are we;
nor let the honor of Thy Name
be by another put to shame.
In addition to the joy of self-discovery, the discipline involved in these traditional practices, done properly, also has other beneficial side-effects. I find it less difficult to avoid doing things that are harmful or to correct or modify bad habits I’ve developed. In more traditional language, I find it easier to ‘turn away from sin.’ Once again, St. Gregory’s hymn puts it in poetry:
|Vitemus autem pessima
quæ subruunt mentes vagas,
nullumque demus callido
hosti locum tyrannidis.
|Avoid the evil thoughts that roll
like waters o’er the heedless soul;
nor let the foe occasion find
our souls in slavery to bind.
This radical pruning of all the encumbrances that I’ve allowed myself to develop, the removal of obstacles to a re-discovery of my real self, is an important step in preparing myself for the ‘new life’ that Easter offers to those who live the Paschal mystery. Becoming a ‘new being in Christ’ won’t happen if I try to include all of the unnecessary baggage I’ve been lugging along.
It goes without saying that all of this is ultimately intended, as the formula for the imposition of ashes so clearly states at the outset, to help me re-align my priorities in life with what is truly important and in line with the goal of life without end when this earthly body returns to dust. To use the well-known quote from Epistle to the Hebrews: non enim habemus hic manentem civitatem. ‘We have not here a lasting city.’ Although the grace of God is with me here and now, I am on the way to somewhere else. Lent is to remind me of that, and to prepare me to celebrate the mystery of the passing over from this life to the next, by way of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. His passover, or ‘paschal’ mystery, is the first fruits of what is intended to be my destiny and yours: quo procéssit glória cápitis, eo spes vocátur et córporis, we pray in the collect for the feast of the Ascension, ‘the hope of the Body is that of being called to where the glory of the Head has gone on before.’
St Gregory concludes his hymn with this prayer:
|Laxa malum quod fecimus,
auge bonum quod poscimus,
placere quo tandem tibi
possimus hic et perpetim. Præsta, beata Trinitas,
concede, simplex Unitas,
ut fructuosa sint tuis
hæc parcitatis munera
|Forgive the sin that we have wrought;
increase the good that we have sought:
that we at length, our wanderings o’er,
may please Thee here and evermore.Blest Three in One, and One in Three,
Almighty God, we pray to Thee,
that this our fast of forty days
may work our profit and Thy praise.
This is the real fruit we hope to produce from our Lenten endeavours: a cleansed, renewed, refreshed person, body and spirit, ready to be raised up to new life to the glory of God. And we cannot separate one element of this fruitful result, our gain, from the other, God’s glory, as St Irenaeus wrote: gloria Dei vivens homo [the glory of God is the human person fully alive.] As a winemaker carefully prunes his vines to improve the quality of his fruit, so we allow God in His loving mercy to prune us to bear ever richer fruit. May He in His loving mercy grant us all a holy and blessed Lent.
p.s. I owe a debt of gratitude, as is so often the case, to the eminent John Mason Neale for his rendering of Pope St. Gregory’s hymn into English.