“The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.” So begins Benedict’s brief chapter on the observation of Lent. We should always be preparing for the appearance of the risen Christ. We should always be seeking to rid ourselves of bad habits, practicing self-denial, realizing our faults and living each moment in gratitude for God’s abundant love that pours down on us just as we are.
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 and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.” (Rule of Benedict, chapter 49)
The season of Lent is limited in time and at the end come death and resurrection. Likewise, human life is limited in time. At the end come death and, we hope, resurrection. In Benedict’s worldview, we do not have to wait until death to experience the reign of God. As we progress on the spiritual path we get a taste of heaven here on earth. But we must progress! Much of the year, I act as though I’m going to live forever, as if I have endless days to practice the ‘tools of good works’ that will curb my appetite for comfort and nurture a fondness for self-denial. Benedict instructs us to ‘keep death daily before our eyes,’ to live every moment with an awareness that our time here on earth is limited. One day we will be no more. This is a mindset that must be intentionally developed; death is a reality we routinely ignore. Though we are beings limited in time and space, by nature we imagine ourselves invincible and immortal – like God. Lent is an opportunity to cultivate humility, to remember that every day, every minute, every breath is a gift freely given and without notice may be taken away. It is not to be squandered or taken for granted.
When I imagine the moment of my death I wonder, Will I be able to willingly surrender and embrace the mystery to come? Or will I experience ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth,’ raging in vain for more time even as the end draws near?
Lent reminds me of my mortality and of my desire for God. And vice versa. My desire for God motivates me to practice abstinence. By nature I’m a weak-willed, undisciplined person. So it’s only with proper motivation that I can restrain my self-gratifying, distraction-seeking behavior. Lent provides me with the proper motivation.
The practice of abstinence, of denying myself the satisfaction of my desires and compulsions, is a choice to live with discomfort. Saying ‘no’ to a full stomach, ‘no’ to lolling in bed, or ‘no’ to scrolling through the headlines on my phone helps me say ‘no’ to reacting to an ill-timed comment. It trains me to ‘bear injuries patiently.’ It teaches me to endure the discomfort of learning our country’s shameful racial history. During the season of Lent, I remember that the choices I make have cosmic consequences.
As Christians, we are here to build up the body of Christ and to grow in love for the sake of the world. To love as Jesus did is to surrender a sense of entitlement to a long, comfortable life. Lent is a time to live with a sense of urgency. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Life is finite. Now is the time to set limits on the ego’s rapacious desires. Now is the time to forgo satisfactions. Now is the time to put God first, for the sake of Love.
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