Why would we do this?
We know what the garden looks like after a winter of silence – the ground is a little more compacted than last year, and perhaps the nutrients have been diminished from the previous year’s growth. In the same way, if we are not changing our routine, or thinking about growth in the spiritual life consciously, we can become a little complacent, compacted and dry. Lent can be a time to break up the soil of our soul, to enrich it with spiritual nourishment and moisture, to recommit ourselves and deepen our walk with Jesus. It is about cooperating with God’s grace. Our salvation is all God’s work, but mysteriously God also calls us to be engaged in the work (e.g. Philippian 2:12-13; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Our motivation for doing this is not to grow in spiritual pride, but to grow in the love of God and of our neighbour, to be more fruitful. That will be the sole measure of a successful Lenten discipline. Practices that we find helpful during Lent may become something we want to continue, or incorporate more often, at other times of the year.
We do this by denying ourselves some earthly pleasure and feasting spiritually. Denying ourselves some earthly pleasure is not meant to be a punishment of ourselves for our wrongdoing! We are forgiven our wrongdoing, if we repent and trust in God. To try to make up for that by hurting ourselves would be to deny the perfect forgiveness we are offered by Jesus on the Cross. Self-denial is not for punishment, though it can sometimes be uncomfortable.
So why would we deny ourselves? If we give up some earthly pleasure it can leave us feeling unstable, not knowing quite what to do with ourselves, maybe anxious (beware of irritability!), because we are used to having these earthly consolations as part of our happiness. But if we deny ourselves for spiritual reasons, we don’t just run to some other earthly consolation for a quick fix of our anxiety (e.g. we don’t give up chips and replace it with more popcorn!). Instead, we turn that longing for satisfaction into a seeking out of some spiritual consolation, even God – giving a little more time to prayer, to reading God’s Word or a devotional book, or to some act of charity. It is all about transforming our loves heavenward.
All desire, all love, is one, as God is One. God is the source of our love and the end of our love. We are called by Jesus to gather up our loves and direct them to the two great commandments: love of God and love of neighbour. Augustine says our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. This is a very important principle to come to understand about desire/love in our hearts. The excessive desire for material goods or the desire for food, beyond what is needed for basic sustenance, or the excessive desire for any earthly pleasure, is meant to lead us back to God and is a desire that only God can fulfill.
Why do we do this together?
Anglicans, like other Christian denominations, have found it helpful to enter into a discipline at the same time, for mutual encouragement and to draw closer to each other as we face similar obstacles to spiritual growth. As I said in a recent sermon, if we have a jogging partner it is no doubt easier to go out on a cold bad weather day knowing he or she will meet up with us. Likewise, it can be helpful to do spiritual disciplines together. Think about how doing spiritual practices together has been key for the spiritual success of monastic communities.
What might we do for Lent?
This attending to the garden that is our soul in Lent has, for many Christians through the ages, included spiritual practices, referred to by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), such as almsgiving (Matt 6:1-4; 19-34), prayer (Matt 6:5-15), fasting (Matt 6:16-18; 4:1-11), and, elsewhere, charitable works (Matt 25:31-46). We’re also guided by certain Gospel readings such as the Parable of the Sower, where Jesus calls us to be that good soil that allows the Word of God to grow and brings forth abundant fruit (Luke 8:4-15).
Anglicans are inspired by a Benedictine spirituality which recognizes that we are all in different places in our spiritual journey and each person must decide for himself or herself what and how much to take on. We may also have particular health issues that must be taken into account and our levels of stress at the moment. Pick and choose what single thing or combination you think would be helpful for you. Don’t take on too much and then give it all up! Better to do something modest and stick with it, remember that the experience will build over 40 days! Remember also that a 40 day Lenten fast begun on Ash Wednesday need not include the Sundays, so you can experience a kind of relaxation of a fast and have a special treat on Sundays in Lent. Though we show some restraint liturgically, Sundays are still a celebration of the resurrection of our Lord, it is a feast day.
- Taking away some earthly consolation (self-denial)
- Fasting from Food: Traditional fasts of food have included: giving up one meal a day; or fasting one day a week; or giving up red meat (still eating fish and chicken), or all meat, or some other pleasure like desserts, alcohol or coffee or tea or just having plainer less interesting food. The reason for these different ways of fasting is related to the traditional understanding of gluttony as eating either (i) too much, (ii) too often (snacking all the time) or (iii) too delicately (that is, caring too much about what we eat, how it tastes, which is OK for special occasions but can become obsessive). Fasting is not “dieting” as the world understands it, it is not for physical health or appearance that we enter a fast. We come to see that our hunger for food, beyond what is needed for our basic sustenance, is a hunger for God, which only God can fulfill. (See, for example, John 4:1-34 where Jesus tells us our great thirst and hunger is really for God.)
- Fasting from Images/Information: Consider a fast of images or information by putting less into our minds – reflect on how much we watch TV or movies or use the internet – consider either giving it up for Lent or placing some limits on the time spent in these activities (e.g. I will check email/internet only from 9am to 9pm; or I will replace some hours watching TV with hours reading something spiritually edifying). If we think of the parable of the Sower – we don’t want to be pouring into the good soil indiscriminate seeds of weeds, of thorns and thistles, so that they crowd out the seed of God’s Word and choke it.
- Adding/augmenting a spiritual discipline (spiritual feasting!)
- Prayer: If you don’t have a daily pattern that you follow now, consider establishing one, even taking just a few minutes a day. Many people find it helpful to use prayers that others have written to guide their prayer time. Ask your chaplain if you’d like some advice. If you have a pattern now, consider setting aside a little more time, perhaps also time for quiet resting in God in a room by yourself, listening, waiting patiently, should God have something to say, or simply enjoying being with God.
- Almsgiving: Consider your offerings to God and neighbour and possibly a special sacrificial giving for Lent as a way of exercising our hearts and loosening a too tight grip on our finances. (A small working group at Holy Trinity will share more reflections on almsgiving in a future Newsletter.)
- Feasting on God’s Word: Consider following the daily readings recommended or a portion of those readings (see Drinking from the Well of Life) or one chapter a day of a book in the Bible, such as a Gospel or Psalms or Exodus (40 chapters for 40 days!). Consider joining a Lenten Bible Study or some other church activity on offer. You could also consider reading a Christian classic devotional book (you can always ask your chaplain or other Christian friend for suggestions).
- Some charitable activity: If you have extra time now because of other things you’ve given up, you could spend it in giving more time to family and/or to some charitable outreach program.
Such self-denials and changes to spiritual disciplines are about finding new pathways for our desire. We discover the refreshment of our souls with new life coming down from above if in our anxiety from giving up something earthly we choose to seek some new and spiritual source of contentment. If after a few days you slip up in your fast or spiritual feast, don’t worry, consider it like a runner falling in a race, the coach would say, get up and get back on the course. We’re not looking for gold star performances, but to understand better how our souls work and to grow in our love of God and neighbour.
I wish you a holy Lent and, whether you participate in a Lenten fast and spiritual feast or not, may God grant you an experience of inner renewal and joy!
In the love of Christ,