“Lent is the Bright sadness.”
Orthodox Scholar Alexander Schmemann
“The Lenten season is meant to kindle a ‘bright sadness’ in our hearts. It’ aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost… The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts, until we are led to the brilliance of the resurrection. ” From Great Lent
The Bright Sadness or the Dark Brightness is upon us once more. That season that Christians including Monks and Nuns around the world begin on Ash Wednesday just as Carnival Revelers are sleeping off their stupor and street cleaners are picking up the mess left behind by the merrymakers and hooligans of the pre-lenten feast.
Ashes and Death
Many will begin Lent with a symbol of darkness and death, the famous Ashing of Ash Wednesday. A term which colloquial in Mexican Spanish makes a vulgar reference to being screwed…Tiznar (to chalk or ash another person). This being because the popular native Mexican tradition believed ashes were used to keep death at bay. So much so that if an Owl was sighted, death was imminent and around the corner so ashes were thrown in the air to frighten the poor owl away. Ashes in many cultural contexts and in the Adam and Eve creation story are a stark symbol of our mortality and death.
So, it is for the Monk as he or she begins the Lenten journey, Death is the first place to face in confrontation and meditation that the monk is invited to ponder upon. This of course is befitting with the Rule of Benedict who asks each and every monk to keep death in sight and close to their heart. Chapter 4:47 reminds the Monk “to keep death before one’s eyes daily.” This was done in many ways. The last prayers of compline were always a reminder the the monk desired more than anything a happy and fulfilling death. “May the Lord Grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end (death).”
As each monk is then sprinkled with holy water by the prior or abbot a reminder of death as the new birth into eternal life the promise we all receive at our Baptism.
‘You were baptized into Christ’s death, may you also one day share in his resurrection.’
(Baptismal Liturgy). So life and death go hand and hand and not one day ends without that stark reminder.
Also for Monks Death is ever present in the regular activity of saying goodbye to brother or sister monastics who die in the Monastery. The ritual around death in the Monastery for a monk or nun is so much more elaborate for monastic communities and a drawn out affair starting from the moment a Monk receives ‘viaticum and extreme unction’ (the Holy Communion for the final journey and the anointing with blessed oil.) to the Vigil awaiting death and prayers, to the ‘watch’ with the body over night to the day of Burial and walking to the Monastic Cemetery from the chapel following the Solemn Requiem Mass. All accompanied by the ringing of the Monastic Bell at the moment of death and final journey to the cemetery. Death for a monk is a constant presence and reminder, thus even more so on Ash Wednesday.
‘Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death not overtake you.’ Prologue
The eternal Lent RB 49 (rule of Benedict)
Saint Benedict in his rule, reminds his monks that every day in the monastery should be observed as if it were Lent. Benedict is not advocating for no resurrection but for an austerity and simplicity that Lent brings with it as a season, the Bright-Sadness or Dark-brightness. I suppose he is making reference to the fact that for some christians Lent is the only time of some prayer, fasting and almsgiving, when for the Monk, each and every day of a Monks life should include this threefold gift of worship, community, and service to others. Lent in that way is a daily affair with no rest at any time.
Conversatio Morum RB 58
The other eternal quality of Lent which a Monk must also live daily is the call to an ongoing ‘conversion of life’ (conversatio morum) found in the Vows made by every monk from the moment they are received as Novices. A monk solemnly promises to follow the precepts of psalm 95 “Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Lent is prime time for change, conversion, and renewal. So for the Monk This is an even more intense time of listening to Gods voice in prayer and in the reading of the sacred text (lectio divino).
For the first time, I have chosen to read one of the 40 chapters of Exodus during every day in Lent. I am hoping that this reflection will bring me closer to those first sojourners of the first Lenten Journey; Moses and the People of Israel. The book of Deuteronomy makes many references to the number 40 and the many times Moses had to take a fourty day haitus out of his schedule to get back to his center after a big fight with God or the stubborn Israelites themselves. Jesus fourty days in the desert was a model as he became the New Moses to bring in a new era of spiritual awakening.
What is conversion?, but a constant turning around and reminder that ‘I am me’ and ‘God is God’ and that we belong TO and were made FOR each other. (We were created to praise, do reverence, and serve God) St. Ignatius of Loyola. Lent is the pushing of the ‘reboot’ button on our Soul, to return to our best self as God always intended us to be. The monk spends an entire lifetime in that direction, yet Lent becomes the Season of the Soul. Everything moves in an up-word and in-ward direction.
No more Alleluias (doing with less)
In the western tradition Alleluias are suspended from the First Day of Lent until the Easter Vigil. The Orthodox tradition does not follow that custom. It is probably Benedict’s fault since he mentions it directly in his rule RB 39. But the refrain from the Alleluias are just part of the spirit of preparation and moderation that we keep during the Lenten Season in order to make Easter that much more special. Doing with less, is the spirit of this refrain from exuberant praise of God in the Alleluias that are sung every day of the Year except in Lent. I try and imagine that Benedict never intended any kind of overdone or extreme religious asceticism. The religious life is about balance and moderation. But we live in a time and culture (in the US) that is preoccupied with always having more when Benedict tells us ‘more is less’. This is seen in the Monks clothing. Always simple, always functional, never calling attention to itself, its design, its designer, or its brand mark. I had to laugh this week when I read of the great scandal in China discovering one of the children of the Communist Leadership wearing an Armani Coat and the famous red Communist scarf around his neck, ever to be known hereafter as the armani boy, a new category of Communist Leaders known as ‘Armani Communists’.
But these are the signs of the times. Buddhist monks flying first class with Designer Sun Glasses and Bling Bishops who live in million dollar mansions are a stark reminder of our need to ‘live with less’.
Lent is a time to learn to do just that. Eat less, wear less (simpler), talk less, be less in order to allow the More of God’s goodness and grace to take over.
Mind, Body, and Soul
I am not a fan of fads, quick fix diets, pop psychology, or asceticism. I am a fan of health, balance, good living, and living with integrity and transparency. Nearly every Lent I seek Lenten Practices that once Lent is over will stick with me for some time. Eg. Eating no meat or dairy during Lent and ending with changing from Milk to Soy-Milk and many Soy-meat substitutes as a regular part of my diet. I still love cheese, and eat some meat, but much less than when I was growing up to the joy of the FDA. (Food and Drug Administration).
My Rule for Lenten Discipline is now ‘find something that you can do that will make your life and the life of others better and more fulfilling”. This year I am inviting friends and parishioners to find three easy activities to better body, mind, and soul….one very specific practice for each area that will make us better persons. What does my body need? What does my mind need? What does my soul need? At this time in my life? What three things can I do to directly to make that betterment?
The Works of Mercy
The Monk never forgets that all should practice constantly the works of mercy. Any Lent without taking into account the needs of others is just selfish and self serving and probably nixes out any of the benefits we try and gain for our souls. The ancients talk about fasting from evil and harmful talk (eating and overindulging in our neighbors) and taking care of the poor. Basil the Great Writes, “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
Here is a modified form of the Works of Mercy Spiritual and Corporal that St. Benedict infers in his rule. RB 4
Works of Mercy
The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are actions we can perform that extend God’s compassion and mercy to those in need.
Corporal Works of Mercy
feed the hungry (and eat with them)
give drink to the thirsty (and listen to them)
clothe the naked
shelter the homeless (spend time with them)
visit the sick
visit the imprisoned
bury the dead
Spiritual Works of Mercy
counsel the doubtful
instruct the ignorant (teach first by example)
admonish those who are in error (acknowledging your own errors first)
comfort the afflicted (listen without fixing)
forgive offenses (show unlimited mercy)
bear wrongs patiently (live humbly putting others before you)
pray for the living and the dead
(Remember your mortality and that of others, we are all on the same journey from the cradle to the grave).
The Carnival is over and the real party is about to begin.
The end of the Monks Journey is always The resurrection, both the Lenten and the Earthly. I offer this reflection on a Monks Lent with the hope that these next 40 days will be days of new hope and new discovery for us and our communities. I have found that doing less not more in Lent is the first rule of thumb. Don’t add, take away, less is more. The scriptures in Lent, the Daily Office of Lent, the Lenten liturgies offer such depth for contemplation, that just sitting with them and engaging with them in a mindful manner are more than enough to bring about the conversion we are all looking for and the Easter experience of New Beginnings.
“For We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song”. (JP II)
“Resurrection is our lot. Life is our destiny whether we want it or not.” T Merton May 7, 1961 Journal IV, 116