Photo credit to catholicculture.org
By Sister Edith Bogue firstname.lastname@example.org
"Do Sisters have to observe Lent?" Emily asked. "Don't you give up enough things the rest of the year? You deserve a break!"
What a novel idea! I thought of Fr Thomas Keating, a well-known Trappist. He describes the competitive asceticism among junior monks decades ago. Each tried to out-do the others in penances. He once tried to out-fast and out-pray the others, spending long hours without food kneeling in the cold oratory. After two weeks, he fainted dead away, was carried to the infirmary and was required to eat an extra egg each day to regain his strength. His abbot was not pleased: even in those pre-Vatican II days, he should have known that athletic asceticism missed the point.
Emily laughed at the story. Both her question and Fr Thomas' extreme-Lent focus on "giving up" without much reason for doing it. St Benedict's centuries-old approach to Lent - which guides the Sisters today - was different.
Benedict thought monastic life should really be "a continual Lent." But he acknowledged that "few have the strength for this." His first reason for keeping Lent is like spiritual spring cleaning, to give up vices and "wash away the negligences of other times during these holy days." But he went on to give reasons for even those who have few vices to observe Lent.
"Withhold from your body something of food, drink, sleep, excessive talking, jesting," he urged the monks in Chapter 49 - but not as punishment. He promises that these practices help them to "await holy Easter with the JOY of spiritual desire." Emily looked puzzled. How does giving up food, sleep and fun lead to joy?
Our affluent and always-connected society dulls our ability to have JOY in anticipation. We don't miss distant family members: Skype and cell phones keep us in daily contact. We don't wait for the fleeting taste of fresh strawberries: imported ones are in the store year round. Waiting for the birth of a child, deciding to live abroad, or preparing for a new home still bring about that joyful anticipation. St Benedict urges his monks to do with less so that they have greater spiritual hunger for the joys of Easter.
"If the Sisters enjoy Lent," Emily said. "Do you guys do anything different from other people?"
St Benedict gave us one peculiar instruction for Lent: to do some extra reading. Just before the chapter on Lent, in the middle of instructions about the time for work and reading, he mentions Lent. "In these days of Lent," he wrote, "each is to receive a book from the library, to be completely read straight through: these books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent."
Benedictines today don't know exactly what he meant. One book of the Bible? Spiritual writings mentioned elsewhere in his Rule? The Sisters keep this practice, receiving a book on Ash Wednesday. Some years, we choose a spiritual book for ourselves; other times, we receive something chosen by the prioress.
"Why would Benedict tell you to read a book?" she asked.
For Benedict, the Love of Learning was a spiritual practice. His monks learned to read, and to meditate and ponder what they had read. The more they learned - about the things of the world, the histories of people, and God's presence in everything - the greater their desire to seek God - and joy in their desire.
"Thanks," said Emily, "now I'm kind of looking forward to Lent."