In two days it will be Quinquagesima, and Ash Wednesday arrives all too brutally after Mardi Gras as we call it here in France, or Shrove Tuesday in English folk tradition. Shrove comes from the old English word shrift or to shrive, meaning going to confession. The expression to get short shrift hearkens back to the time when a condemned criminal got precious little time for his confession before his execution.
Lent is a time for reliving the preparation of catechumens for Baptism in the ancient Church. They underwent exorcisms, learned the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer – the Tradition and the Reddition. There were the Scrutinies, and finally the catechumen was ready to be baptised during the great Paschal Vigil of Holy Saturday. We are called to relive this renewal, this transitus from death to life, from the bondage of sin, through prayer and conversion.
Conversion comes through asceticism, which is usually expressed as fasting – eating poorer and simpler food than usual, and perhaps going without the tastier and more satisfying aliments like meat and fried food. Traditional monks and pious Orthodox folk not only abstain from meat but also from eggs, fish, milk, cheese and any other animal product down to fat using for roasting and frying. Boiled vegetables are the traditional Lenten fare. We are not obliged to go this far. The western Churches ask for very little, and asceticism is not something to be imposed on other people – but it might be what it takes in our “inner chamber”. Remember the Gospel of Ash Wednesday – make our penances in secret so that no one else may see them, lest we become hypocrites!
Naturally, those who are in poor health should not fast. In case of doubt, ask your doctor’s advice. A good compromise is one meal a day except Sundays and two collations, and eat vegetarian on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. That is quite a lot for most people. Besides, many of us are overweight and could do well to tighten the belt a little. Healthy souls and healthy bodies go together!
Penance is one thing, and there is a positive aspect to Lent – improving our spiritual life through our regularity at prayer and Mass, and above all doing something about reducing the sins we commit, notably the evil we say and write about other people. We all have efforts to make, and I to begin with!
Frequent attendance at Mass is very important when it is possible. Priests do well to celebrate daily, even when no one is in attendance – because the whole Church is present at each Mass. Another important thing to get into our lives, especially if it has “slipped” as little, is the Divine Office. If you do not have a breviary and would like to have something more than the Prayer Book offices, I can recommend the Benedictine Breviary in English which can be ordered here. It comes in two books: the Diurnal and the Matins book. It is not essential to pray all the Hours, but rather simply say Lauds, Vespers and Compline. The essential is to form a habit of doing it, a routine, something of the monastic rule which can be applied in anyone’s life if you put your mind to it.
Another important part of Lent, which we can keep up outside Lent, is lectio divina, the slow and prayerful reading of the Bible, the Fathers of the Church and other spiritual writings. This gives four things to our spiritual life: lectio (reading the text of Scripture, etc.), meditatio (meditating it in the way cows chew the cud), oratio (prayer to God) and contemplatio (the final stage of adoring and contemplating the presence of God). It isn’t easy, and it takes practice like learning a musical instrument.
We can also revise our knowledge of Christian doctrine through the Catechism of the Catholic Church or books of theology adapted to our intellectual capacities and acquired knowledge. Learn about the liturgy through reading explanations by men like Dom Guéranger, Cardinal Schuster and many others.
Above all, may this Lent bring you all illumination and faith, and the grace of God.