Lent has a reassuring rhythm in the monastery. We see it in little tweaks that carry through into Holy Week, such as a second reading at evening prayer. We see it as well in the Friday menu in the refectory. And then there is the gradual increase in daylight. By Holy Week it’s almost too much to manage.
But it’s Ash Wednesday that sets the tone. On that day hundreds of students will join us for Mass. Many will return to the abbey church for evening prayer with us, and some will continue to do so through much of the season. But at the end of evening prayer on that one sacred day, they will see us file off to the chapter house, where the abbot will offer a conference that he hopes will inspire us for at least the next hour or two, if not for the entire forty days of Lent.
After a hundred and fifty-nine years of Ash Wednesday conferences, none of us monks really expect to hear anything new, which is okay. In some respects it’s reassuring to hear old themes brought out for a periodic airing. But this year Abbot John tossed out a nugget that seemed to offer a new perspective, and that was okay too.
By reflex most of us think of Lent as a time for giving stuff up. In my youth that tended to focus on things like candy or desserts or smoking or some other simple pleasure that we coud live without for the duration. In the spirit of the times today it might be hard drugs or Cheetos. But whatever your fancy might be, Lent has always seemed to be the time for a cease-fire in the pursuit of pleasure. During Lent this has been our simple gesture of giving to God what is God’s. During the rest of the year we take it all back, and we resume giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
This year Abbot John counselled a different approach. Certainly he didn’t want us to give up entirely on self-denial, but he did invite a reconsideration for Saint Benedict’s teaching on Lent. If Benedict asks us to pursue our entire life in the monastery as a Lenten observance, then forty days as a sort of time-out from normal life doesn’t quite reflect that spirit. If you give up something for forty days, with every intention of taking it up again after Easter, does that not seem to waste a good opportunity? Does it make a mockery of the integrity that should mark the entire duration of our lives? It might very well do just that.
So it was that Abbot John encouraged us to make Lent a time of testing. This could very well be the ideal time for a trial run of something we might continue to do long after Lent is over. After all, if something is worth doing for forty days, it might be worth doing for a lifetime. And conversely, if there’s something we ought to integrate into our routine for a lifetime, might Lent be the best chance we’ll ever have for a feasibility study? After all, if I can’t do something for forty days, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll succeed in doing it for forty years. What better time to test drive an idea that has rattled around in my mind for months, or even years.
We all have our own short list of things we should have tried out years ago. What better time than Lent to find out if we’re capable of a “new normal” in our lives. What better time is there than Lent to discover whether something really will work for us? And if nothing else, why go on feeling guilty for not trying?
I’m not about to publish my own short list of aspirations, mainly because Benedict admonishes his monks not to make a big splash about this sort of thing. This is a matter of personal growth and development, not an item in a personal public relations campaign. So it is that I will keep this to myself. Besides that, if I fail, who needs to know?
But I wil not keep to myself the one lasting piece of advice that I took away from the abbot’s conference this year, and it’s this. This time around let’s not let Lent interrupt our year. Instead, let’s let Lent be the cornerstone of our year.
+On February 24th the abbey concluded a four-day visitation by two abbots and two monks from other abbeys in our congregation. This happens every three to five years, and it allows monks from other communities to make a formal visit, to interview the individual monks, and to offer an assessment to the community at the end of the visit. Our visitors included Abbot Mark from Saint Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire, Abbot Lawrence from Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Oklahoma, Fr. Meinrad from Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Kansas, and Brother Gregory from Saint Procopius Abbey in Illinois.
+On February 25th I taught a class on early medieval monasticism to the two novices in our monastery.
+On 26-27 February I attended the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.
+On the afternoon of the 27th I flew with a group of alumni and friends of the University on a Benedictine Heritage tour to Italy, where we will visit Monte Cassino, Subiaco, Norcia, and other sites associated with Saint Benedict and the Benedictine tradition. Our first stop was in Orvieto, which is one of my favorite towns in Italy. The pictures in today’s post show the exterior of the medieval gothic cathedral, which has no peer in all of Italy.
Orvieto once again impressed upon me how small a world it is. In the lobby of the hotel where we were staying I met a couple from Connecticut, and the husband had attended what was once our priory school in Puerto Rico. Today San Antonio Abad is an independent abbey, but this gentleman knew several of my confreres who had taught there many years ago when it was still a new foundation from Saint John’s.