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I'd like to reflect a bit on chapter 49 of the Rule of St. Benedict, entitled "On the Observance of Lent." The chapter begins with what many might consider a dreadful thing to say: Benedict writes that we are to live every day of the year as if it was Lent!
When I was child, Lent meant giving up things I liked - candy, ice cream (if not dessert altogether!), snacks, soda and such. But, as an adult, I think it should be obvious that these practices are not the substance of what Lent is about as a liturgical season.
Lent is not punishment, let's be clear about that! It is not intended to be painful, so much as to teach something important. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, an important medieval abbot and commentator on the Rule, taught that life is the "book of experience" which, together with the Bible, provides the texts by which we learn Christ.
Lent finds its meaning in reference to Easter. It is a time to be more intentional about spiritual discipline in order to prepare the heart to celebrate the core of the Christian religion: our victory in Christ as new life, eternal life, now made manifest in Jesus Christ as first born among many sisters and brothers (Rom 8:29).
In a sense, then, Benedict is saying that the monk (or any serious Christian) is one who sees the whole of life as a preparation for, or the practice of, the fullness of life in Christ. Our freedom to love and be generous, to be merciful and understanding, are experiences of the quality of life St. Paul calls life in Christ - the Risen Life!
St. Benedict's chapter on Lent speaks about doing this by striving to be "free" from the stuff we think makes us happy - foods we enjoy to eat, drink (especially "happy" drinks like wine and beer) - and also to take more time in the day for personal prayer to steep our hearts and minds in the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thes 1:6).
This is not to reduce our appreciation for the good things of earthly life, but to appreciate them properly. To do so, we need be free from thinking that created things - our possessions, status or whatever - make for happiness, or for security and fulfillment. Rather, to be fully free, fully ourselves in Christ, is what happiness (beatitude) consists in, what makes for fulfillment now and eternally!
Have a blessed and grace-filled season of Lent. Let's make it count by being intentional and diligent, doing a little extra in terms of self-giving generosity and prayer, so as to make the celebration of Holy Easter and our new Life in Christ joyful and more intensely real!