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Archive for February 26th, 2018

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Change Your Hearts, Not Your Garments

On Ash Wednesday I heard some words of advice that I never expected in a Lenten sermon.  “If going without meat turns you into a bear when you’re with others, then for heaven’s sake go out and eat a cheeseburger.”

Taken out of context, words like these can get a preacher into a lot of trouble.  They remind me of the counsel that Martin Luther once gave to his colleague Philip Melanchthon, when the latter hesitated to follow through on one particularly difficult issue.  “Sin boldly!” was Luther’s advice, and clearly he did not mean for Melanchthon to violate the ten commandments.  Luther’s critics had a field day anyway.

Lenten penance always presents something of a conundrum.  Do we do it to please God?  To impress others?  To whip ourselves into the best spiritual shape of our lives?  In the process we always run the risk of crossing over the line that separates personal discipline from public display.  And when we cross that line we lose every shred of benefit that might come from our exercise.

54CCF159-0B87-491A-90A1-EE708804FDC0Saint Benedict encouraged his monks to think of the monastic life as a continuous Lenten observance.  By now I’ve been around long enough to know that he did not counsel a life-time of fasting and self-denial, because elsewhere he cautioned about any unusual Lenten display.  The point was not to compete to be named the most holy and self-denying monk in all of monastic history.  In fact, Benedict preferred that monks not even be able to notice what their neighbors were doing for Lent.

It’s not that Benedict wants us to do little or nothing for Lent.  Rather, he discourages overt spiritual competition among us.  He discourages public displays that would suggest superiority to our neighbor.  In short, he prefers an interior discipline that changes hearts rather than public shows that rend garments.  In this he is on the same page as Jesus.

4807FEA4-B842-496F-A2ED-1DF6599592DBSo what’s the point of a Lenten observance for Benedict?  Clearly, Benedict counsels a different sort of path to God — one that abandons rugged ways and self-denial that would establish our reputation as stars in the spiritual firmament.  Instead, his is an asceticism of doing what our neighbors are doing.  In joining together in a communal exercise we admit that we are neither better nor worse than our fellow monks.  We acknowledge once again the commitment we’ve made to seek God with our brothers in community, rather than pursue careers as lone wolves.

Lent is a time of community, whether it be in a monastery or in a parish church.  It’s not a time to engage in self-denial that transforms us into people who are hard to get along with.  It’s not a time to sequester ourselves from human contact, on the pretext that we know best.  Rather, Lent is a season in which we realize that we make the forty-day trek through the wilderness, together.  Like the Hebrews wandering for forty years in the desert, we too search for God, together.  And we do it because without neighbors close at hand, it’s awfully hard to see the face of Christ in others.

So we might be well-advised to paraphrase the words of Peter, when the Lord asked him if he too would leave, just as had so many others who had found his words too hard to take.  “Lord, without our neighbors and confreres, to whom would we go?”

2A747F19-A0D8-42A9-8455-A8336356900ENOTES

+On February 22nd I again had a class in monastic history with the novices.  This time I spoke about Pope Gregory the Great and the mission of Saint Augustine to England.

+In a sign that the times are about to change, on February 24th taps were added to stands of maple trees in the abbey forest.  The season begins when day-time temperatures climb above freezing and drop below freezing at night.  That forces the sap up and down, and the taps divert a bit of that flow into the process that will make syrup.  It also signals the onset of spring.

+On February 21st my dear friend Jo White passed away after a long illness.  I knew Jo for ages, and she was a driving force in the creation of The Saint John’s Bible.  Today, 26 February, I will preside at her funeral in St. Paul.  Several monks and colleagues from Saint John’s will attend.

+This has not been a good winter for snow — meaning, we’ve not had nearly enough.  But this week the weather made up for it with two storms that left us with nearly a foot of new snow.  The photos in today’s post show the results of the first snow.  I did not go out to get additional photos after the second snow, becuase I thought the additional six inches were gratuitous.  To enlarge the photos, simply click on them.

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