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The Joy of Lent

 

Elsewhere in Part 2: “Devotions During Lent” we offer a few articles on the spiritual understanding of Lent. Our “Explanatory Note” here will, during Lent, carry the following brief note on the warm, encouraging and in fact joyful spirit of this religious season, which is all too often thought of as negative, dull, unpleasant and just “too difficult”. We consider it critical for us today to recover the true spirit of Lent and its practices. A good beginning is to reflect on the writings of two great teachers of the Christian life.

St. Benedict (AD 480—547)

Writing for members of his communities of Christians who wished to model themselves on Christ the Lord, he says:

The life of a monk ought to be continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community # during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will with the joy of the Holy Spirit, (1 Thessalonians 1: 6). In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 49.

# As the collapse of the Roman Empire spread its impact throughout the then-known world, St. Benedict’s “entire community” meant not just the men who formed the community, but also the huge numbers of cripples, mentally ill, orphans, the dispossessed and others who gathered around the monasteries for their livelihood, and who, in fact, were looked on as an extension of the monastic community. All took part in living the season of the Christian year.

St. Paul of the Cross (AD 1694—1775)

A thousand years after St. Benedict, another figure arose calling Christians away from self-centred indulgence, soft-living, self-pampering and careless wastage of our time, precious abilities and resources. He lived a life of very great poverty and frugality, calling all to live as close as possible to the standards outlined by our Lord in the Gospel teaching.

…..To do this perfectly, it is necessary to be a man of great prayer. And how can one man be a man of great prayer without abstinence? Fasting, together with profound humility and contempt of self, # has a wonderful power of keeping the spirit raised and united with God, and of driving away the demons and their temptations. As Christ our Lord said: “This kind of devil is not cast out except by prayer and fasting”. 50. Whoever reads the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Holy Church will see how salutary fasting is both for soul and body. From the Holy Fathers it is sufficient to read what the glorious St. Athanasius wrote: “If anyone comes and tells you not to fast frequently so as not to become weak and tired, do not believe him”. And he adds: “Fasting heals maladies, dries up the humours of the body, puts devils to flight, clears the mind, makes the heart pure, and finally brings man to the throne of God”. To Him be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Rule of St. Paul of the Cross (Chapter 18)

# In Christian spirituality, “contempt of self” is not a denial or repression of one’s self-esteem. On the contrary it is a denial of the false myth that we can grow to our full potential by our own efforts without calling on God’s help to lift us out of what holds us back and imprisoned, and free us to seek Him.

Giving It Up For Lent

We need to notice some very important references in both the Rule of St Benedict and that of St. Paul of the Cross.

  • It is a spiritual stock-taking and self-assessment of our performance of duties to God and humanity. No one else can do it for us.
  • It involves “giving up” things we enjoy or take for granted, but equally it is about devoting some extra time to prayer, reading and reflection.
  • We are called to make this extra effort “with the joy of the Holy Spirit (I Thessalonians 1: 6).
  • Fasting, (in so far as we are able, according to our circumstances), and prayer are not mere enforced disciplines, they are actions we welcome which have the power of “keeping the spirit raised and united with God”.
  • In the Christian vision, the reform of society and its ills starts with each of us. The Church has consistently upheld our Lord’s teaching that His disciples will “sort out their own act” before they criticise what is wrong in the world. Lent reminds us of this and keeps us from blaming everyone else in society for the problems we face.
True Joy

And so, having listened to two spiritual giants of our Faith, we can confidently believe that when we undertake the spiritual cleansing and “workout” of Lent, we are preparing ourselves for the Holy Spirit to turn our lives around — to turn us back to God and His Divine Law. This is a time of liberation from what is holding us imprisoned in our self-imposed condition of spiritual carelessness, self-seeking, and our false ideas of freedom, success and achievement.

Lent is therefore a time of great inner peace and joy and the putting right in our lives those things which have got “off track”. The more we attend to these matters, the greater our sharing in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ which we celebrate at Easter.