[Above photo: Kylemore Benedictine Abbey]
Prayer, Fasting, & Almsgiving
From the beginning of the NewWalden project, it was always my intention to create a space that could serve as a virtual spiritual retreat. Hence, the name Walden, the famous retreat spot of a quite famous American. Hence, also, the large banners depicting idyllic, pastoral water scenes. The website has evolved a bit and now looks more like a newspaper, but a vestige of that original vision remains—the idyllic banner is still there, albeit, in a less prominent form. This Lent, I’m going to dive in to that retreat role a bit more. Lent is intended to be a purgatory on Earth; let me be your Virgil.
Lent is ancient. You can find it described in The Rule of St. Benedict, which is nearly as old as European Christianity itself. As the patron saint of Europe, St. Benedict is a father to all Christians. So let’s listen to what a trustworthy father has to say about the holy season of Lent:
The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these day of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1Thess. 1: 6). In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.RB 1980, 49: 1–7
Thus, we find already in the ancient rule the three traditional pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—the prescriptions of Jesus laid down in The Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 6. You might observe that no mention is made of almsgiving. That’s true. But that’s because, upon entry into the monastery, the monk has already given up all personal property and rights to inheritance. Thus, one can see the monk as perfected in almsgiving. They are like the widow in the Gospel that gives away the very last penny.
Is a Monk’s Rule Appropriate for Laypeople?
It’s popular to invoke St. Francis de Sales and say that, since we aren’t monks, we shouldn’t try to live like them. But that rationalization just won’t fly. Some of the earliest theorists on monasticism like St. Basil the Great believed that monasticism was the essential form of true Christianity, which made monks the truest Christians. The view was so widespread in the Christian East that, even today, the monk’s life is made the template for all Orthodox Christians. The homepage of this website conveys this very idea: laypeople are to strive to imitate the monk in the spiritual life, however imperfectly or incompletely.
And while we’re on the subject of the Orthodox, let’s give them credit for doing a much better job of preserving the traditional fasting customs than we in the West have managed to do. To this day, the Orthodox fast on all Wednesdays and Fridays, while we have managed to whittle this essential practice down to a single Wednesday and Friday all year. There is an excellent new book out by Dr. Jay Richards, a professor at the Catholic University of America, which talks about the degeneration of the Church’s fasting tradition. I can’t recommend this book enough; its message is so important. It’s the central message of my first book, namely, that the decline of Christianity and Christian practice in the West has taken a terrible toll on human health and happiness. Thus, it is no coincidence that obesity has soared at a time when Christian fasting has vanished, at a time when no one any longer thinks of gluttony (or lust or avarice or pride) as problematic.
Catholics are blessed with a rich prayer tradition, much of this coming from the monastic tradition as well. The practice of lectio divina is just such a practice. But be careful about researching these things online. There are some Catholic “gurus” out there who have co-opted some ancient and venerable practices and rendered them un-Catholic, even anti-Catholic and anti-Christian. Case in point: the “centering prayer” group of my local Catholic Church included some zealous Catholic-haters who never missed a session. How can this be? It is often the case—but not always—that centering prayer groups abandon Catholic and Christian content. That is, they effectively become just another meditation group that, in reality, may be more Buddhist than Christian. Tim Staples has an excellent analysis here. I mention centering prayer because if you do a search on “lectio divina” you’re likely to come across the name of a Fr. Thomas Keating, a monk who became the father of the centering prayer movement.
So let me give you my crash course on lectio divina. Basically, it’s reading and reflecting ( or “meditating”) on some passage of Scripture that grabs you personally. It’s a great way to memorize Scripture, and it fosters the habit of reading the Bible—two excellent reasons to commend this practice.
Psalmody is another beautiful prayer tradition that came out of the monastic tradition. It is said that the early desert hermits would recite from memory the entire psalter in a single day! The Rule of St. Benedict established a schedule that enabled the monk to complete all 150 psalms in a week. I developed a personal schedule that completes the psalms in a month. It’s located on this website.
Certainly, we should not forget the rosary. If you don’t have the habit of praying the rosary, make it your goal to acquire that habit this Lent. Last, but not least, there is the perfect prayer of the Church, the holy Mass. An excellent lenten discipline is to incorporate the holy Mass into your daily schedule if that is possible. There just is NO substitute for the Eucharist anywhere.
The Rule of St. Benedict also calls for the monks to be assigned a spiritual book to read during Lent. An excellent choice would be The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. On Ascetical Life by St. Isaac of Nineveh had a profound impact on me twenty years ago. It’s a very short book which explains the role of asceticism in the larger context of the spiritual life as a whole. One great lesson of this book is humility. According to St. Isaac, very few people make any progress at all in the spiritual life. Now there’s a theme that didn’t get much attention from seventies liturgical songwriters!
Give Something Up
We can also see from the Rule that the practice of giving up something for Lent is ancient. So I’ve got a suggestion. How about giving up an hour of sleep to use that time for prayer and Bible reading? 😉
These are just a few suggestions that I’ve found to be spiritually fruitful. Feel free to share your own ideas or lenten recipes in the comments section. I will be posting more on Lent soon. JG