––-Beginning of Lent, my old Novice Master had a special Desert Father story:
About a young monk, pretty satisfied with his spiritual life,
thought himself a little holier than the rest,
came up with a way to prove his virtue and will power.
Beginning of Lent, he hung up a ham from the middle of the ceiling in his cell,
to constantly tempt him as he fasted.
First weeks of Lent, he kept looking at the ham, saying:“You have no
power over me!”
Next few weeks, he kept sniffing around the ham, saying: “You have no
power over me!”
Final weeks of Lent, he kept poking the ham, licking his finger,
saying: “You have no power over me!”
On Good Friday, he ripped it down, and ate the whole thing!
I remember it well, because the whole time the Novice Master was speaking,
he kept staring directly at Bro Nil Sorski and me.
How many of our Lents have begun with lists of “Lenten resolutions” …
On one side, Negatives – things to give up,
on the other side – Positives – a few good things to do…
Maybe suggestions from sermons about:
avoiding bodily comforts and pleasures;
sacrificing the tasty snacks and creature comforts we get used to;
voluntarily depriving ourselves of good things without harming our health;
the whole idea being to use Lent as a workout to get back in shape –
to get our “willingness muscles” and our “sacrifice muscles”
back in spiritual shape.
Unfortunately, as the weeks went by, the programs tapered off,
slipped into oblivion sometime before Easter!
But the next Ash Wednesday was the magic that rekindled our fervor!
In fact, when Ashes used to be distributed every hour and half hour,
they claimed that, outside of Christmas, more Catholics showed up to Church
on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year – including Easter!
A few days ago, Ash Wednesday, the world saw a Pope with ashes on
wearing purple vestments of penance, leading a Church in the spirit of Christ,
a Pope not afraid to say to selfish hearts:
Lent still is a very distinct time for penance and self-denial, but
everything we do,
even our fasting and self-denial, must somehow benefit others.
He likes to quote St John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, who
somewhere around the year 400 preached: “No matter how many
days in a row you spend fasting,
if you sleep on a hard floor forty nights, or sprinkle ashes on your
bread, or beat your breast continually – if you don’t do something
good to others, you’re not doing anything special.”
Pope Francis means what he says: If we’re going to fast from anything
this Lent, even more
than candy, we have to fast from negativity, from indifference towards others.
He wants us to make room for others in our hearts,
to weep at the pain of other people, to really feel a need to help them.
He stresses that all our Christianity, all our religiosity, has to
somehow include others.
In his words: “I don’t trust a charity that costs nothing, does not
and does not help others as well.”
The Pope wants us to see the two big temptations facing Christians in 2017:
indifference to our neighbor, indifference to God.
He tells us to listen to the voices of the prophets who cry out during Lent,
especially listen to those things which trouble our consciences,
and pray we don’t go right back to our same old habits.
Everything on the Pope’s list of Lenten resolutions would help us change,
and would benefit our neighbor in some way.
Here in the monastery, every Lent we hear the voice of St Bernard of Clairvaux
calling out his suggestions all the way from his 12th century Abbey:
In a modern rendering, St Bernard might say:
Lent is not just about fasting and abstinence from foods.
Look where your sins come from!
Let your eyes fast …. from all that curiosity, from always needing
to see what’s going on,
from constantly looking for faults in others,
and instead, let your eyes look for just one good thing in that other person.
Let your ears fast … from soaking up that unkind gossip about others,
Let your nose fast from poking around where it doesn’t belong.
Let your mouth fast from chewing on your brother —
which is worse than chewing on a pork chop– and instead,
train it to smile encouragement, to say “Thank you!” and “Atta
boy!” from time to time.
Let your tongue fast … from all the bickering, criticizing,
uncharitable talk ….
from all the innuendoes and rumors it likes to spread,
rather, make it whisper a little prayer for those you don’t like.
Let your hand fast … from its aversion to work, from all its idleness….
from always pointing the finger of blame…
and instead, let it reach out to help someone up.
Let your soul fast from always following its own will and wanting
others to do it your way,
from all that rash judgement of others…
from all the anger and grumbling and impatience you live with from day to day,
Because… as St Bernard says in his famous punch line,
without this kind of fasting, all the rest will have no
value in the eyes of God…
all the other stuff will have no value!
So maybe this is the Lent God’s grace will win out,
and instead of testing our mettle
abstaining from ham,
or sleeping on a hard floor, or sprinkling ashes on our food,
maybe we’ll actually accomplish a few of the things recommended by St
and heed the message of Pope Francis.
But from God’s point of view, even if we succeed
in doing each and every thing they recommend…
we wouldn’t be doing anything special,
we’d just be at the beginning… we’d be doing the basics…
the stuff that will show up for our Last Judgement…
in the Court of the Judge Who commanded us:
“Only do to others what you want them to do to you.”