09 March 2014

What Do you Do for Lent?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, would it be okay if I asked you what you do for Lent? In my parish we focus on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and I try to do something I don't usually do. Like this year I am spending time helping in a soup kitchen. Your life is already one of "[assiduous] prayer and penance" and I guess you can't help in a soup kitchen so what do you do?]]

Hi there and thanks for your question. It is actually one I get asked most every year but I don't think I have ever really answered here.

Each year is a bit different and that is true this year as well. Let me say first of all that whatever I choose to do for Lent usually fits in an organic way with the rest of my life. It is rarely the case that something of our lives cannot be improved upon or more attention given to this or that aspect of our Christian commitment. In my own life there is no doubt that I can improve my prayer life, my life in the hermitage more generally, the way I approach parish commitments, the way I structure my time, my commitment to the values which are central to eremitical life, etc. My own preference for Lent, therefore, is not to do one disparate or disconnected thing (like saying extra prayers, giving up some food item, etc) but instead, to look at the entire scope of my life and renew the basic commitments which are part and parcel of that. When I do that a number of things may change, whether permanently as the fruit of discernment, or temporarily and experimentally as a means to this discernment. So let me start by describing some of the things which changed for me this Lent and then I will describe the bottom line which made those changes necessary.

This Lent I am primarily working through a process of discern-ment which allows me to get in touch in a fresh way with the really basic things God has called me to and to which I have publicly committed myself. I am doing this in a more focused and intense way than I would ordinarily be able to do the rest vof the year, and thanks to the assistance of my director (and my own readiness), in a more effective way than I might have done in other Lents.

In order to do this specific changes have needed to be made in a number of areas: 1) I am more reclusive than ordinarily which means I don't get to Mass as frequently, 2) I am working through a book my director gave me to assist me in doing this work better than I may have in the past, 3) I have withdrawn until Easter from an activity I do once a week outside the hermitage, 4) I have changed my daily schedule to some extent so that I get rest more frequently, 5) I am doing a bit more journaling than I ordinarily do, 6) I am" fasting" in a way which allows my diet to change permanently in order to address several different things (health, commitment to poverty or simplicity, maintaining an attitude of celebration during  meals, different demands on my energy, etc.), 7) The first four hours of my day have changed some in the way I approach prayer or the practice of vigil, 8) I have changed (or am changing) the schedule on which I see clients so that I see them during fewer days during any week and also in a way which leaves  more weeks entirely free of appointments, and 9) I have gone through the hermitage to get rid of old files, papers, clothes, books, etc that accumulate through the year but are really no longer necessary. It may sound like a lot of stuff, but it all fits together into a single Lenten project and purpose.

The bottom line in all of this is that I am living Lent in a way which allows me to really pay special attention to making a prayer of everything I do and therefore, of making my ordinary, everyday life extraordinary in Christ. I have written about this in the past so it is not a new idea. (Besides, it is a key element in Benedictine spirituality.) Alone we live ordinary lives. When we live those with God in a conscious way everything is transformed into something extraordinary. (For the hermit this is a major piece of distinguishing between merely living alone and living in solitude.) This sense that even the most ordinary of lives (or parts of our lives) can be made extraordinary if only we allow God to share in every moment and mood is one of the real gifts which hermits bring to the Church and world. In fact it is part of the charism or gift quality which the vocation represents. Even so, while this is not a new idea for me, nor a new undertaking exactly, what tends to be true is that in a kind of spiral pattern I periodically come to it anew and with a fresh sense of awe and appreciation. At each turn of the spiral I return to this foundational truth with a deeper awareness of, appreciation for, and commitment to it, a commitment which engages me in progressively deeper and more extensive ways. The real newness in Lent, it seems to me, comes not from doing new things (though one may also need to do that just as I outlined above), but in doing things with a renewed commitment, with a heart which is broken open just a bit further than it was yesterday, in a more thoroughgoing way than one has done until now.

You see,as I understand it, the prayer, fasting, almsgiving triad refers not merely to three discrete activities we do, but to three dimensions of a faithful and authentically human life. Most fundamentally such a life is open to and rooted in the dynamic presence of God within and around us. It is lived in and with God in a way which provides hospitality to God both in one's home and in one's heart. A life which is prayerful is a life which is hospitable to God and lived with the sense of God as an everpresent guest. Because of this accent on hospitality to God, an accent on living in and with God, a prayerful life necessarily entails fasting since fasting (which means fasting from more than just food) involves  a commitment to the really essential things in life while it eschews the inessential. (Fasting is the flip side of feasting and hospitality to God calls for both.) We will find we eat differently, rest differently, use our time differently, and so forth when the accent is on hospitality to God. This must be so if everything we live is to be a prayer just as it is the result when everything IS a prayer.

Finally, such a life is a generous one which reaches out to others with the riches we have received; almsgiving is a symbol or expression of this. We live our lives first of all with and for God, but to the extent we really do this we will find ourselves both free and motivated to give ourselves generously to others. We will find ourselves commissioned to go out to others in some significant way. To my mind then, almsgiving is another way of describing the missionary impulse which is intrinsic to God-as-Trinity and to any Christian life lived with, in, and for God. It is the very essence of Church. Your own choice of helping in a soup kitchen is an expression of this dimension of your life. A huge part of my Lent this year is meant to assist me in determining the shape of this missionary impulse in my own life and the concrete forms it will continue to take when I am faithful to my call to be a diocesan hermit.

Lent is a time the Church gives us to allow this kind of reorientation (conversion) in all the dimensions of our life. In my own it has far reaching consequences for the rest of the year. It is not that I forget my commitments nor the central elements of the eremitical life during the rest of the year, nor that I am unfaithful to these, but several times a year (Advent, Lent, retreats, desert days, etc.)  just like anyone else, I need to tweak things and get in deeper touch with these and the God who empowers them; at these times it means getting back in touch with the surprise and awe I experience at being called in the way I am.  It means renewing the sense that everything done with, in, and for God transforms the ordinary into the really extraordinary and makes of the little I can give something of infinite worth. During the year a lot can happen to knock us out of our own spiritual centeredness or cause a bit of a wobble in the orbit of our lives. It is also the case that we each  grow incrementally (a little at a time) so that in time (say the space of a year or of several years) we may need to stop and take stock of what that period of time has brought in terms of growth; we do this in order that we may embrace that in a conscious way.  Though we never really know how Lent will go or what God will do with this time in our lives, this Lent seems to be one of those for me and in this it is a real gift.