AN EXCELLENT VIDEO ON FASTING IN LENT
FASTING: 7 Questions and 7 Answers from Ken James Stavrevsky on Vimeo.
ST ANDREW OF CRETE: THE GREAT CANON OF REPENTANCE (lectio divina for lent)
Lent Conference 20th February 2012
LENTEN CONFERENCE BY THE ABBOT OF BELMONT (UK) TO THE MONASTIC COMMUNITY
“I it is, I it is who must blot out everything and not remember your sins.” We heard these comforting words from the prophet Isaiah at Mass yesterday. It is God alone who can blot out everything, he alone who will not remember our sins. We find it hard to forgive others and even harder to forgive ourselves. Worse still, even if we do forgive, we do not forget, we remember only too well. In yesterday’s Gospel, the healing of the paralytic, Jesus manifests his messianic identity not only by curing the man but by telling him, “My child, your sins are forgiven.” Now it is through the Lord Jesus that our heavenly Father both heals and forgives us. As we begin Lent, let us think for a moment about forgiveness and healing.
St Benedict, writing on “The Observance of Lent”, urges the entire community to “keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.” First of all, then, no one is exempt from this Lenten rule: we must all obey it. Secondly, what we are urged to do is simply to live a life uncontaminated by sin and to purge ourselves of the negligences of other times. Only the Lord, in his loving mercy, can make this possible. Like the paralytic we need to be brought into the presence of Christ. The Holy Father has spoken in his Lenten message about the value of fraternal correction, so let us not be afraid to help a brother we see to be in trouble or distress or to accept help when a brother comes to our aid. I am grateful to those who have corrected me throughout my monastic life and do so today. We really are here for each other. Whatever form that correction takes, it should lead us into the arms of Jesus, in whom we experience the healing and forgiveness of God.
What does St Benedict mean by purity of life? He goes on to explain that we must stop indulging in evil habits and so devote ourselves to “prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.” On the one hand, we have to give up everything that is negative and destructive in our lives. On the other hand, we must practise with renewed conviction and vigour those four aspects of the Christian life that are essential to our spiritual, moral and physical wellbeing. The “negligences of other times” refers to the fact that we often do what we shouldn’t do and don’t do what we should. St Paul was well aware of this even in himself. Perhaps I could mention just a few of these negligences this evening. I am not pointing the finger at anyone. My observations begin with myself!
There are many things that are impure about my life, all kinds of uncontrolled passions and appetites. There’s impatience or that old monastic favourite, accidie, feeling down and dispirited for no reason at all. Then there’s greed and finding it difficult to stick to a healthy regime of eating and exercise. In Lent we can eat less and restraint our need for excess, but Lent surely is not about slimming or saving money. The real, fundamental impurity in my life is lack of faith, that faith of Abraham who put all his hope and trust in God and so did whatever God asked of him, even sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. What am I willing to sacrifice? I find it difficult to accept God’s will. I can discern his will, I know what he wants me to do, I can even do it, but my acceptance of the divine will is superficial at best, little more than words. In my heart I rebel. I think of the death of friends and loved ones, members of this community, recently that of Fr Dyfrig, who so willingly accepted God’s will and put his life trustfully in God’s hands. I pray “Thy will be done” and “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit,” but do I really accept God’s will and put myself firmly in his hands? Therein lies my lack of purity and integrity.
As for negligences, there are many. Prayer with tears, reading, compunction of heart and self-denial – yes, there are sporadic attempts at these, but how much time and energy and love do I really devote to personal prayer, lectio divina, examination of conscience and the sacrament of confession? As for self-denial, I only do what I want to do regardless of the community, my monastic duties and the daily timetable. There is much more at the heart of self-denial, which is important to God and crucial to my eternal salvation, and it is this. Do I love the brethren, all the brethren without exception, or do I pick and chose, who and when and how to love? Do I not put my own self and my self-interests first?
In chapter 72 on “The Good Zeal of Monks”, St Benedict reminds us that there is a “wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell”, while there is a “good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life”. As monks we are expected to show respect to our brethren at all times – no criticising, no backbiting, no rudeness or insulting behaviour and no favouritism. We are to “support one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour,” whether physical, moral or mental, “with the greatest patience”, and in this we have to be non-judgemental and non-selective. We are to be obedient to one another and that means listening carefully, building up a sixth sense, as it were, an intuition of understanding and compassion. We should put the needs of others first. “To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love.” Only if we love one another with an inclusive and disinterested love, only then will we truly prefer nothing whatever to Christ, who alone can bring us all together, all or no one, to everlasting life.
Perhaps we are asking too much of ourselves. It is, after all, so much easier to chose my Lenten penance than to accept the one that God has given me. You might chose some item of food or an extra prayer, whereas God wants you to accept your neighbour and love him. Loving the brother who sits next to you in choir should be the goal of your Lenten observance. There won’t be puddings or joints of meat in heaven, not even prayers as we know them, but you will have to share a couch for all eternity with the brother you hated here on earth.
Let’s now go back to where we started. Let’s go back to God. That, after all, is what conversion is. “I it is, I it is who must blot out everything and not remember your sins.” What we cannot do on our own, we can do with God’s help, with his grace and with his love. As Lent begins, let us place ourselves firmly in God’s hands. He alone can make possible the impossible, he alone can make us whole, he alone can remould us in his image. To him be glory and praise for ever. Amen.