One week until Lent

Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris
Gothic Altarpiece, Musee de Cluny, Paris

Lent starts in a week (unless you’re Eastern Orthodox, in which case it starts in five days).

The question of Lenten discipline inevitably arises, whether simply in one’s own mind, or in conversation with friends.

“What are you giving up for Lent?” everyone asks.

Chocolate? Alcohol? R-rated films? Smoking? Coffee? Sweets? Meat?

Sure. Any of these will do.

The point of Lent is not the giving-up-of-things.

The point of Lent is disciplina, the training/teaching of ourselves, the preparation of our spirits for the Great Feast of Easter — the Chief Feast of the Christian year. We want to draw nearer to God. So we fast or abstain or pray more or study a particular book of the Bible or another work of spiritual edification.

I read James W. Kennedy, Holy Island: A Lenten Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne one year. Another year, it was Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline. Once I read Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. My Lenten reading seems to have been as eclectic yet predictable as ever.

One year I prayed BCP Compline every night. That was 2004. I fell in love with the BCP that year. Maybe this year you’ll choose to journey with us through the daily office over at The Witness Cloud.

Even if you belong to a church that has canonical demands for Lenten discipline (that is, observant Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), spiritual discipline — Lenten or otherwise — is not one-size-fits-all. I know one Cypriot Orthodox priest who gives up sweets for Lent because he does not eat a lot of meat, so the canonical discipline is not so demanding.

Thus St Mark the Monk/Ascetic/Hermit:

There are many differing methods of prayer. No method is harmful; if it were, it would be not prayer but the activity of Satan. ~ch. 22 in ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’, in The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, p. 111

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, provides us with similar insights, in particular from the introduction to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living in Appendix I.

What matters is not which discipline you take on in Lent. What matters is ordering our hearts and minds to the greater love of God and neighbour. So think carefully and prayerfully this next seven-day as to what you may do.

(And so I seem to have come around to Cassian and ‘purity of heart’ all over again.)

Temptations of Christ, Lent, and ourselves

… by Thine agony and bloody sweet, good Lord, deliver us.

I would like to briefly draw your attention to an article in the Anglican Planet written by a friend of my brother’s, the Rev. Dustin Resch, entitled, ‘The Vulnerable Jesus: What a Monk and a Movie Can Teach us About Lent‘. In this article, Resch, an Anglican priest and patristics scholar, begins his discussion of the temptation of Christ and Lent with Kazantzakis/Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ, before moving on to a discussion of St Maximus the Confessor and the importance of Dyothelite Christology — two wills — for the Church.

It is a great article, reminding us that all dogmatic theology has important pastoral dimensions — in this case, if Christ is truly, fully human, he was truly tempted. So are we. He resisted. So can we (by the grace of God).

Struggle: What I learned this Lent

Now that the warm glow of Eastertide is starting fade for most, being a week and a half into the season, I’d like to share with you what I learned this Lent. In short:

I am undisciplined.

If you recall, I decided to set my sights mid-height for Lent 2015 — take on two spiritual disciplines I long to incorporate into my everyday life during Regular Time (you know, when everything at church is green). I wanted to pray morning prayer every day and fast once a week.

Not once did I manage to fast an entire day — some time around lunch I would give in. And then I fell ill, so for the last two weeks of the season I didn’t even skip breakfast. For just over half of Lent I prayed morning prayer. Then the unbearable pressure of feeling like I need to be writing, writing, writing this PhD starting pressing upon me every morning as I breakfasted. I’ve read enough monks to know that this is precisely how the tempters draw us away from prayer — the lure of the ‘important’.

I also wanted to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus (as mentioned here), but found that too difficult to process and apply. The sheer mental energy of my PhD has made spiritual reading a challenge, and sixth/seventh-century monastic texts even more so.

I am undisciplined.

And what is discipline for? It is for making us Christlike, right?

If I can keep Christ in my heart and love those around me as He would, and do so without these two disciplines or reading spiritual books, all the better.

And some days I can.

But most days I can’t.

Then again, not being a monk, I can tailor my daily devotional and discipline needs to my temperament and lifestyle.

So I need to think about what I can handle in the high-stress, time-consuming world of two-and-a-half-months-until-submission(!!!) — and what suits my temperament. Not what I can writer ‘clever’ things about here. Not what everyone else recommends. But what actually helps me and what I can handle without false guilt.

Time to take stock — perhaps you should, too.

Lent starts tomorrow — rethink discipline

A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)
A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)

I’ve noticed a few people recently expressing their concern about the usefulness of Lenten disciplines. For some, rather than turning their hearts towards Easter, their Lenten discipline just makes them grumpy, and then Easter becomes a gluttonous, fleshly indulgence in whatever it was they had given up. Or they notice no perceptible increase in virtue (although, perhaps, moodiness).

So, really, what’s the point? Why engage in a Lenten discipline?

In the film Into Great Silence (La Grande Silence) the monks talk only once. The film is about the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse, monks (technically hermits in community; what Byzantines would call a lavra) living in perpetual silence. Except once a year. Then they get to talk. All I remember is that there was some conversation about hand-washing, and one of the monks says,

‘Perhaps the problem is not with the tradition but with ourselves.’

This is a very humble approach to spiritual inheritance — what one would expect from Carthusians.

Perhaps the problem isn’t with Lenten disciplines but with how we engage in them.

To take the example of coffee. People give up coffee for Lent quite frequently. They crave it and find it annoying and go through all the symptoms of chemical withdrawal. By Easter, however, they should be free of the habit. But many people brew their first cup of coffee that Easter morning and start the cycle all over again. What, they feel, was the point of Lent?

I have two thoughts concerning this. First: Whenever you crave that coffee, think on Jesus. If you get a headache because of withdrawal, consider that Jesus got a headache because of a crown of thorns. You are suffering a voluntary abandonment of an unnecessary pleasure you engage in voluntarily. Christ, although voluntarily saving us, died. Your tiny, little suffering is a smidgeon of a taste of a teaspoon of the suffering of God the Son on the Cross.

Remember that fact all of Lent, regardless of discipline. Annoyed at the extra time taken up by reading the Archibshop’s Lent book? Craving some chocolate? Extra hungry during a Friday fast? Remember that Christ died for you. That you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then thank Him for His sacrifice, Who died that you might live, Who trampled down death by death.

Second: Use Lent to be a kickstart to a more disciplined life, anyway. Monks don’t really need Lent — they already live in a more disciplined way than us. When Easter comes, they can, what, eat meat once a week again? If they even eat meat. On Easter morning, don’t make that brew. Maybe, if you enjoy the ritual of coffee that much, start drinking de-caf. Think on it.

This leads me to my final thought, which is rethink what sort of discipline you do this year. I’m not giving up anything. Instead, I’m going to use this focussed, forty-day period in which so many of us do more than usual to do as much as I wish I did usually — a weekly fast and daily morning prayer. And hopefully I’ll continue for years beyond Sunday, April 4, 2015.

What disciplines might you kickstart this Lent?

Lenten Prayers from the Gelasian Sacramentary

Here are my first offerings on this blog for this Lent, coming from these prayers, ‘collects’ in form, from the Gelasian Sacramentary, a seventh- or eighth-century sacramentary (sacrament book) of the Roman rite, traditionally attributed to the fifth-century Pope Gelasius I (r. 492-492) and one of Cranmer’s sources for the Book of Common Prayer. First:

Concede nobis, omnipotens Deus, ut per annua quadragesimalis exercitia sacramenti et ad intelligendum Christi proficiamus arcanum, et affectus eius digna conversatione sectemur. Per.

Grant to us, Almighty God, that through the annual exercises of the Lenten sacrament we may both make progress to understanding the mystery of Christ and follow after his compassion with a worthy conversion. Through our Lord Jesus who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

I felt this collect more suited to my Protestant readership than the following:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui nobis in observatione ieiunii et eleemosynarum semine posuisti nostrorum remedia peccatorum, concede nos opere mentis et corporis semper tibi esse devotos. Per …

Almighty and everlasting God, who hast placed the curatives for our sins for us in the observance of fasting and the seed of almsgiving, grant that we may be always devoted to you by the work of mind and body. Through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Either way, the emphasis of these prayers, despite the second one calling fasts and almsgiving ‘nostrorum remedia peccatorum’*, is on the effect and purpose of Lenten discipline. Amongst the Orthodox communions and traditional Roman Catholics, as well as the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Christians represented in these prayers, the Lenten discipline is/was the abstinence from certain foods — animal products and olive oil — in the forty-day period before Easter.

Today, many of us have some other Lenten discipline instead: abstaining from chocolate/sweets, coffee, alcohol, Facebook, blogs that annoy us; or perhaps taking on something: fasting once a week, studying a book of the Bible in depth, reading a particular spiritual book (perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book), or maybe going to a midweek service at our local church.

The purpose of these disciplines, whether traditional or modern, is to draw us to Christ. The first prayer above is for greater understanding of the mystery of Christ — a mystical and theological request — and for a greater conversion into his likeness (equally mystical and theological, frankly). The second prayer is for endless devotion to God. Sound requests, if you ask me.

Let us keep them in mind on this Lenten journey to Easter.

*For which there is, I believe, a disturbing (to us Prots) biblical precedent discussed by Pope Leo I in his sermons on fasting.

Friday’s Failed Fast

Because it’s Lent, and because it’s a good habit I’d like to re-acquire, I fasted last Friday. Until lunch time.

That would be a fast fail.

To ease my body into the world of fasting, I was only going to skip lunch, you see. All went well at the beginning. Every Friday is Bacon Roll Friday, so after I’d finished my bacon roll, I was set to go foodless until supper.

I went to work, and sat down at my desk, where I was reading a book about Leo the Great. After a couple of hours, I got a little hungry. That’s the way I am, but even when not fasting I’ve been making myself either hold out until lunch, anyway, or eat portions of my lunch throughout the day so as not to overeat. Tall, ectomorphic men can be overweight without looking it.

Anyway, this was fine. I was brushing up on my fifth-century history.

But around noonish, the problem went beyond hunger.

I have been a student for most of the past 11 years. I sit hunched over desks and tables for a living. Well, I’m not supposed to hunch. But it is hard not to. Especially if you are hypermobile like me. This means that not only am I really flexible (an asset when I was a dancer), and not only do I hyperextend most of my major joints, it is also really easy for me to slouch, and when I slouch my slouch goes farther than that of the average man.

So I started getting a pain in my left shoulder blade, extending down through my entire arm. This happens. I have exercises that, in the long term, will make it better, but nothing can make it go entirely away in an instant, even if I sit with good posture.

One thing does help, though. Ibuprofen.

But I checked the Internet and the box of the Ibuprofen, and you’re not supposed to take it on an empty stomach, especially if you take it fairly often. It can give you ulcers.

And then I got  headache.

So that was enough of that!

The pain and the hunger were making it impossible for me to focus. So I closed the book about Leo (it’s not an especially good one, anyway), and off I went home to have some lunch, Ibuprofen, and then worked from there for the afternoon.

I tell you this story because very often people like me blog about triumphs. Or we don’t even blog about our own triumphs and struggles, but about the theory or the advice of others. Rather than telling of my own weaknesses in the spiritual life, I make myself appear an authority by providing for you the wisdom of the Desert Fathers or John Cassian or Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica or John Wesley or Leo or Ambrose and so forth.

But I am, as stated in my last post, just a patient in a hospital discussing remedies with fellow patients.

And some of the remedies I haven’t really tried that often. And sometimes, things just don’t work like they do in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. And we need to realise that, chances are, the Desert Fathers faced these same issues, too.

(Actually, they probably didn’t face the issue I face because they spent their time either praying or in manual labour, and I have been informed by physiotherapists and I’ve even seen a book on the subject, that if we use our bodies — without breaking them or abusing them — a lot of the back issues such as mine will go away. It is the indolent, modern westerner who has so many back problems, not the active, ancient Coptic farmer.)

Lent: A good time to start to Read the Fathers

The Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla

I should have posted this before Sunday, when we started reading The Shepherd of Hermas in Read the Fathers, but I was too busy gawking at the art at the Uffizi and taking the train to Milan on Sunday. These things happen. Nevertheless …

Many people in Lent, rather than — or in addition to — giving something up, take something on. Some pray more. Some read more Scripture or focus on a particular book of Scripture. Some people read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book. Some people Read the Fathers.

This past Sunday would have been the ideal time to join us. We started reading the mid-second-century text called The Shepherd by Hermas. It’s not especially long, and neither are the daily readings (unlike with Irenaeus). It was very popular in its day, and many people thought maybe it should be in the Bible — as evidenced by its presence in the Bible codex called ‘Sinaiticus.’ But the Muratorian Fragment and a few others said that, while The Shepherd is a useful and interesting book, it is not Scripture.

It’s certainly an interesting read, and a window into a different side of second-century Christianity than Ignatius or Justin provides. This interestingness, with insights into our forebears in the faith is precisely what you can expect if you join (or re-join) us at Read the Fathers — where we are reading through most of the Fathers over seven years!

And Lent is the perfect excuse to start a good, new habit that you can maintain beyond Easter! This is how I’m using Lent this year, something I hope to blog about soon. You see, in Lent we are used to taking on something extra, used to refocussing our spiritual and mental habits. So, if you’ve always wanted to read through a lot of the Church Fathers, if you start now, you can into the habit and keep it going beyond Easter.