Saint Meinrad Archabbey

A catholic monastery devoted to the teachings of St. Benedict

Living a Continuous Lent

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Br. John Mark Falkenhain, OSB
Monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey


Lent is a season that I have probably not reflected on enough in the past. So preparing this essay has given me a greater appreciation for what these days and what the rest of our monastic and oblate lives are about.

Lent often begins - the first Sunday - with a reading from the Book of Genesis: the fall of Adam and Eve. As a psychologist familiar with children and parenting and how people grow, I take particular interest and pleasure in this story.

I love it for two reasons. The first is that Adam and Eve act like perfect 5-year-olds when God discovers what they have done:

"Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it."

Then the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me into it, and I ate."

It is the classic childhood response to getting in trouble: blame someone else. How often do we hear: "But she started it!"? Almost weekly, I have kids at my practice tell me: "I do do my homework, but my teacher loses it." Once I even heard: "I didn't steal it; my hand took it."

Children struggle to admit when they have done something wrong, and I have learned that a child - or any adult, for that matter - will never change his or her behavior, unless they admit that they are the problem and take responsibility for what they have done. So, there's little hope for Adam and Eve as long as they stay where they are, pointing the finger at someone else, in that now-spoiled, now-cracked, now-obsolete paradise of their childhood.

Then what I love, secondly, about this story is watching what a masterful parent God is to these children of His. He has given them everything and gives them just one rule - which they break - and so He shows His disappointment and His anger and punishes them, but - and here is the perfect part - He doesn't walk away from the relationship. The relationship continues.

Next: Part 2

The Relationship Continues

In fact, the whole rest of scripture - Old Testament and New - is the ongoing story of that relationship. And it's not poorer - a poorer relationship, or even a lesser one, or a damaged one. Even though generations of Adams and Eves go on breaking covenant after covenant with God, the relationship continues. We might even say it grows richer and somehow more beautiful, more loving.

We hear in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." (Jeremiah 29:11)

In the beautiful Book of Ruth, we get a glimpse of God's fidelity to us: "Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge." (Ruth 1:16)

The Psalms echo that love: "Before ever a word is on my tongue, you know it, O Lord, through and through. Behind and before you besiege me, your hand ever laid upon me…O, where can I run from your spirit, or where can I flee from your face? If I climb the heavens, you are there. If I lie in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea's furthest end, even there your hand would lead me; your right hand would hold me fast." (Psalm 139)

"I am my beloved and my beloved is mine." (Song of Songs 6:3)

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…" (John 3:16)

"This is my body…" (Luke 22:19)

This is no longer the language of Eden. These are the words of a richer, deeper, more mature and intimate relationship.

* * *

The Church starts us off at the beginning of Lent back in Paradise, in the middle of that scene with Adam pointing at Eve and Eve pointing at the snake. She does so not to say, "Look. Here is where you are." No, too many ancestors and covenants have passed since then. Rather, she points to our childhood, our thousands-of-year-old personal history, as if to say, "Look. Here is where you have been. But where are you now?"

Each year that she reads this story to us, the Church hopes to find us somewhere new - somewhere outside the gates of Eden, further along our personal and collective path of salvation, having inherited not only the inclination to sin, but also the wisdom and graces of our ancestors.

She expects to find us somewhere closer to the Promised Land - closer to a paradise regained. Closer, that is, unless we insist on sitting like overgrown 5-year-olds, continuing to blame someone else for the weeds growing up all around us, in a place where we are still trying to call Eden - totally ignorant of the promise of a new paradise - a paradise already partially realized.

How can we possibly believe that we are still frozen in the sins of Eden if we claim to believe at all in the incarnation? For Lent is not about returning to Eden to start over again at the same moment of paradise lost. Rather, in retelling the story, the Church reminds us of where we have come from, and then she asks us to stop and take notice of where we are today, east of Eden, though still west of Heaven.

The true challenge of Lent is to calculate this year's distance - this year's distance - from where we stand to Paradise regained. What terrain is left to climb? What desert is left to wander? What still comes between us and our New Jerusalem?

In his collection of writings on the liturgical year, Adrian Nocent writes:

"This point we must insist on: The Church cannot read the narrative of creation and paradise to us without taking into account all that happened later on, any more than she can fail to remember at every moment what she is and where she comes from. She is herself both an image of paradise [paradise lost] and the beginning of paradisal fulfillment."[i]

Next: Part 3


[i] Nocent, Adrian (1977).The Liturgical Year: Lent and Holy Week. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, p 10.

Are You the Same Person as a Year Ago?

If indeed, Lent is at all about stopping to look up and assess the distance between where we stand today and the kingdom we hope - or perhaps vowed - to bring about, then I can enthusiastically agree with Benedict's admonition that "the life of the monk ought to be a continuous lent."

By nature of our promise of conversion, our common life ought to be a daily, ongoing, zealous and honest evaluation of what keeps us from Christ, our salvation, and what does it mean if day after day, or Lent after Lent, we find ourselves in the same place, making the same promises, using the same excuses to break them? If that is the case, then we are standing still in the desert, a strategy that is sure to end in death - and why? Perhaps we commit the same sins and make the same resolutions, because we have yet to take responsibility for our own mistakes.

This year, when I began filling out my bona opera, I started to put down the same things I had put down last year - as if I were the same person I was last year (maybe I am) and still needed to work on the exact same things - travel the same distance. Have I really spent a year standing still?

Our bona opera ought to change from year to year, because they are designed to change us - to move us further along the path toward our salvation. Perhaps our Lenten resolutions - or at least some of our resolutions - should not just be for Lent, but should chart a path for the rest of our lives. What good does it do to pray more, give more and die more to ourselves for a short season when we are men and women who have made a lifelong vow of conversion?

Why spend more time with monks in the infirmary and the sick in the nursing home or fast from grumbling and uncharitable remarks only to return to our less thoughtful, unkind selves once Lent is over? What good is it to carve out more time to pray in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel with the intention of abandoning that program at Easter?

What if, instead, we made our bona opera, our resolutions - or at least one or two of them - with the expectation of adopting them for a lifetime - a "continuous lent"? Next year would certainly find us in a new place in our wanderings - with a new distance between us and the Kingdom of God. And from that new place, we might have yet a better vision of the Promised Land we hope to enter and a keener sense of the road that will take us there.

If we thought about adopting good works with the intention of maintaining them not just to Easter, but for the rest of our lives, I guarantee you that we would have to choose more carefully and more seriously. But shouldn't we?

The last several Lents I have chosen the good work of removing one thing from my cell each day to give to the poor - items of clothing, CDs, books. It is a great way of simplifying my life and, by the end of the season, I start having to take things out that I'm somewhat attached to. The last few days, I begin to understand what it means to give out of one's poverty - but only those last few days.

What if I managed to keep living that way the rest of the year: accumulating less, turning around and generously sharing the gifts that I receive, letting things pass more swiftly on to those who need them? I suppose that when the next Lent came around, I would have a new understanding of my promise of poverty. I might also have a new sense of faith and trust in the providence of God. I might discover a new freedom. I might understand more fully what it means to be a monk.

Next: Part 4

Pursuing a Continuous Lent

I worked with a woman once who had a gambling problem, although she did not think so. When I asked her if she thought she might have an addiction, despite having lost hundreds (and a time or two, thousands) of dollars her family didn't have, she insisted that she didn't "because," as she said, "I have given up gambling for Lent the last couple of years and it's easy for me."

Of course, once Lent is over, she returns to gambling and continues to place the financial and general welfare of her family at great risk.

What stands in this woman's way of conversion is her inability to take responsibility. Ironically, it is also her repeated return to the same Lenten resolution - but a Lent-restricted resolution - that enables her, if you will, to avoid true responsibility, and keeps her from being truly free instead of being weighed down by an unfortunate disease that affects not only her path to redemption, but the paths of her family and community as well. What if she could see this corner of her life as a continuous Lent? What if we could?

This year I might try to maintain my Lenten resolution to refrain from eating in between meals for the rest of the year - maybe not every day, but maybe three days of the week - and see where I end up when next Lent comes around. Perhaps the next year, I could add a couple more days.

Then, one year, I will have to find a new Lenten fast to adopt. What would 10 years bring? And what kind of monk might I be after a lifetime's accumulation of good works? What kind of community might we be? What zeal?

* * *

The contemplative life, in a nutshell, is about "open[ing] ourselves to the sacred within."[1] To contemplate is to discover a relationship with God deep within that has never not been there, and that provides us a foretaste of the eternal Kingdom.

We learn from Cassian and Evagrius that, as contemplatives, we must learn to turn down the thoughts, the obsessions, the emotional decoys and distractions that keep us from attending to that relationship, that keep us from crossing over into the Kingdom that God has already established in us by nature of the death and resurrection of Christ. Contemplation is an inward journey to a paradise already regained - to a place prepared - to the Promised Land within.

Douglas Steere, in his introduction to Thomas Merton's book on contemplative prayer, writes that as contemplatives, monks "are called upon to enter the Promised Land and entry means not just with the feet alone but with the heart. Stopping too soon," he says "is the commonest dead-end street in prayer."[2] Stopping too soon!

No wonder Benedict urges the life of the monk to be a continuous Lent - to not stop too soon. His is a call to keep moving on our journey. To not stop once Lent is over, but to "run while [we] have the light of this life," casting off as we do all our false selves, our distractions, our fears.

To run toward, and into, that Promised Land, that "inexpressible delight of love," that place prepared, that Kingdom won by the resurrection. To not stop too soon, because Benedict knows, even if he is too coy to tell us outright, that a continuous Lent hastens an eternal Easter.

[1] Laird, M. (2006). Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford University Press, p 7-8.

[2] Steere, D. (1966). Foreword to T. Merton's Contemplative Prayer. New York: Image Books, p 12.

Scripture quotes from the NRSV, except for Psalm 139 from the Grail.