It is a tradition in our monastic community to read Ch 49 of the Rule of St. Benedict, “The Observance of Lent,” on the evening of Ash Wednesday followed by an exhortation by the Prioress. The chapter begins: “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent” (v.1). In an ideal world, this should be all that needs to be said. But, St. Benedict was a realist, not an idealist. So, he continues: “Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times” (v. 2-3).
The monastic vocation at its core is about conversion of life–of turning away from vices, sin, and whatever would lead us away from God and choosing the path that leads to salvation and eternal life with God in Christ. Contrary to popular belief, monasteries are not places where perfection happens. Quite the contrary! Monasteries are places where conversion of life happens. In the monastery, the mindset of the individual is directed toward God and toward the charitable service of others. It is in the context of the common life that one is regularly purged of self-interest and self-will. It is from this perspective that St. Benedict sees the whole life of a monk, whether male or female, as “a continuous Lent.” It is a journey on which we progress continually until death—one conversion moment at a time, leaving behind what is worthless and moving toward that which is eternal. It is the vocation of all Christians lived in a more radical way.
Very few (if any) of us have the stamina to be at our best all of the time—to be fully disciplined in our thoughts, words, and actions; to make all the right choices; to “show up” for others with our full energy and attention, etc. We get tired, distracted, and overwhelmed with diverse responsibilities. Fears and anxieties have their way with us. Unplanned illnesses take us down or weaken our capacity to do and to give as we once did. The idiosyncrasies of others rub us the wrong way. The stuff and movements of our lives don’t seem to follow our expectations, hopes, or plans. Thus, “negligences” creep in. Things we ought to do are left undone. Kind words are left unsaid. We show up physically at community gatherings, while our minds and hearts are elsewhere. We opt for coping behaviors to distract us from feelings or realities we’d rather not face. Petty annoyances become the proverbial “straw” that breaks us, and our less-than-better-self bursts forth with uncontrollable fury. It isn’t that we are evil people; we are simply imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. We have complex personalities. We have weaknesses and limitations, which lead to inevitable faults and failures. Lent is the time we are given to own up to our “negligences” more intentionally and to make sincere efforts to correct the course of our lives.
In my years teaching students of varying ages, there were instances when I needed to lovingly remind a student that the world does not in fact revolve around his or her bellybutton. Living in community reminds monastic women and men of this quite often. “My,” “me,” “my,” and “mine” are words that we are constantly encouraged to shy away from so as to participate more fully in the collective “ours,” “us,” and “we.” Truly this conversion is a lifelong endeavor–a continuous Lent.
Lent is an opportunity to pause, to reflect, and to make purposeful and useful changes that contribute to the wholeness/holiness of our lives. Lent is meant to be more of a gentle cleansing than a harsh scrubbing of our interior selves. It is a season that calls for compassion and healing, not punishment and shame. Ashes remind us that we are “dust”—of the earth, limited, mortal. Lent helps us to remember our mortality. But, Lent does not exist on its own or for its own purpose. It leads to the experience of Easter life.
Whether one lives in a monastery or not, the life of a Christian is always to be about living in a manner that witnesses the love of God in Christ to all the world. Lent helps us to set aside those habits, attitudes, and behaviors that impede the effectiveness of our witnessing, so that when Easter comes, we are renewed in strength to continue along our life journey lighter and brighter than before. May your life be an ever-continuing Lent. Amen.
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB