Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Work of Lent

The call of Lent is always at heart a call to conversion.  Jesus himself provided the script when he made his first public appearance after his baptism and his desert conversation with the Tempter.  Then and now, the Tempter’s goal is to persuade us to desert our own true identity as God’s beloved for a different name than Christian, with a different allegiance defined by a different voice, a voice that promises all gain, no pain.  Knowing very well that we may already have taken at least a few steps down that path since we made or renewed our baptismal vows last Easter, Jesus calls: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

 The Rule of St. Benedict puts a number of tools in our hands for accomplishing that purpose.  They begin with choosing which voice we listen to:  Jesus’ or the Tempter’s.  We know what St. Benedict’s choice would be! To the opening call we all know by heart—“Listen…with the ears of your heart” (RB Prologue 1), he adds a bit farther along, “If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts” (RB Prologue 10).  He is quoting Psalm 95, with which he urges us all to begin every day. 

 In commenting on that line in The Road to Eternal Life, Michael Casey, OCSO, identifies four causes for our hearts to harden, that is, to grow an outer shell that will not allow God’s voice in.  All four merit serious attention as we prepare to step into the Lenten work of conversion.  Today, I would like to focus on just one of them:  “A second cause of hardness of heart is using all our energy on things that don’t really matter. Switching the metaphor slightly, Bernard of Clairvaux sees spiritual blindness as the result of spending too much time and energy on pursuits of no great significance.” Or, we might say a bit more colloquially, spending our life as a game of Trivial Pursuit. 

 The opportunities are, of course, legion.  While we all have serious commitments to keep and worthwhile choices to make, it is so easy to lay them aside for a while when we are tired, overwhelmed by too many demands (including those we make on ourselves, of course), frustrated by failures, wounded by conflicts, or drowning in the chaotic sea of possibilities that tug at us from every side. There is nothing wrong with taking a rest break when it all becomes too much.  In fact, Jesus provides an invitation for just such times: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

The problem arises when we lay our deepest commitments and best intentions aside for a bit and then forget where we have put them.  To speak from personal experience, I sit down at the computer in the morning intent on putting into writing the thoughts I’ve been pondering about Lent for all of you (and myself).  But my morning coffee seems long ago, I’m overwhelmed by the number of e-mails I should be answering, and other jobs pressing, so the visual tug of my online news site calls out to me to read it from beginning to end, as if the latest gossip about the British royal family mattered to my day, or the newest buzz about an obscure mollusk recently discovered near the Hawaiian islands will nudge me closer to the reign of God.  Twenty minutes disappear, and the essay on Lent is still nothing but a blank page.  (And I don’t even care about the gossip or the mollusks!)

 Casey notes that the way we spend our time determines the quality of our lives far more than we sometimes admit.  It is not that God doesn’t take any interest in the endless doings of the human race and the planet we live on—just read through some of the detailed rules of the Book of Leviticus to prove otherwise.  It’s that every day of every year of our lives offers us only 24 hours to grow into the gospel life Jesus is offering us, sometimes in the apparently trivial, but often in the obviously significant.  Those mollusks probably won’t do much for my response to that call. 

 So Lent is a very good time to do some serious pruning.   The tools Benedict proposes in chapter 49 of the Rule, "On the Observance of Lent", much amplified by the rich array of tools laid out in Chapter 4, “On the Tools of Good Works” include quite a number of sharp blades for cutting back the thorns Jesus describes in the gospels.  Those thorns include things like, “worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things intrude and choke [the Word of God we ponder in praying the Liturgy of the Hours and doing our lectio divina], and it bears no fruit” (Mark 4:19).  (Matthew and Luke provide other versions of this parable of the Sower.) Switching from the imagery of sowing and harvesting to the imagery of the vineyard, Jesus says in John’s gospel: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned [by] the word that I spoke to you” (John 15:1-3). In fact, the Word is the most important pruning tool of all!

Originally, Lent began with the First Sunday of Lent.  Contingencies irrelevant here caused the days from Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday to be added.  They always seem to me to be a runway that allows me to get up some speed before I launch into the heart of the Lenten season. So here is my suggestion to you:  take these days to search out what seem to be for you the thorns that keep God’s word from bearing fruit in you—ask for a little help from the Holy Spirit to see and hear more clearly; spend some time reading through St. Benedict’s list of Lenten tools in RB 49 and the whole tool shop laid out in Chapter 4—ask yourself which ones would best suit the work of dealing with your particular varieties of thorns; write them down, with enough detail to keep you honest as the season unfolds and they lose the appeal of a fresh start.  Try praying Psalm 95 daily during Lent, either as part of the Hours or on its own, to ask God for the grace to hear and heed his word, with the help of your tool selection.  Make periodic checks on the state of your inner briar patch—does it look any thinner?  (Effort is what Lent calls for, not resounding total success!)  All along the way, pray to St. Benedict for his support. 

 If pruning thorns gets wearisome—and it probably will because it’s hard work—there is another option to St. Benedict's toolbox you can turn to instead:  the daily biblical readings for Lent both prune and promise, helping us to remove clutter and look forward to the fruits we hope to see at Easter. (Daily Liturgical Readings.)

 By Easter, be prepared to be surprised by that wheat field or orchard that was so dead-looking today!  There will be ample reason for all those alleluia's!

 Let us all pray for one another that our Lenten efforts will bear fruit not only for us but for the world around us which is in such sore need of every sign of new life.

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