by Jeffrey Bloechl
Jeffrey Bloechl is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, specializing in Christian and European philosophy. He has edited several journals and book series, and teaches on a
variety of subjects, including mysticism and the problem of suffering.
All of Lent is attention to the Resurrection that tells the faithful how to truly understand the mysterious events surrounding the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But it is a special kind of attention that is called for, both as an attitude and as a practice. The regularity of the liturgical cycle insures that in an important sense we already know what we are watching for, and yet each new Lenten season is somehow also entirely itself. There are fresh challenges, or else fresh versions of familiar ones. There are also fresh insights, or else deeper appreciation of familiar ones. And there are moments of growth that are cause for genuine encouragement and even surprise.
None of these things merely “happen to us,” but on the contrary require effort. If we want to see more or know more of who Jesus is, if want to give ourselves in love to the one who has died in love for us, then we must do what we can to commit ourselves to everything that that may require (and this surely means different things to different people). This may be why the early Church decided, apparently sometime during the 4th century, to extend the Lenten experience to forty days. But whatever the reasoning, it is undoubtedly a good thing. What is called for takes time and persistence. In faith, we prepare ourselves to enter fully into events that provide the meaning for an entire way of life that we know well enough is difficult to maintain in this world.
We might therefore give some thought to the meaning of our English word “Lent.” One sense of it refers only to the lengthening of daylight as we move increasingly into spring. But another, which we can hear resonating in French words like lente and lenteur, entails a slowness or slowing down. And this we do need in order to take stock of our lives, consider important changes, and in some way reorient ourselves. Such, I think, is the best way to view the various disciplines of Lent that we are tempted to consider outmoded or unnecessary: if we let go of some small portion of our addiction to the pleasures of the world, we free up that much of ourselves to place God and God’s children first.
Christian conversion has never been about much more or much less than that: we turn about within ourselves, coming to an attitude and aims that we know are more than the world could ever offer us. With this in mind, we can be inspired by the example of the catechumens who are received fully into the Church on Easter Vigil. We might remind ourselves that their way to initiation began in an open inquiry about the faith, and in that sense in a willingness to be called forth from beyond themselves. Along the way, there will have been questions and answers, struggle and renewal, solitude and companionship, and an emerging sense of goodness all around them. We do not need to pretend that their baptism raises them immediately to sainthood in order to recognize in it a beautiful image of the journey that we are all to make, individually and communally. The life of faith is never done with conversion, and never done with a need for transformation of what we are into what we might still become.
What we are able to accomplish, with God’s help, during Lent, we are called to also instill in the days of every other season. If this is a question of habits and practices, then the Church can only appear rich with suggestions and possibilities for how to live. If we hesitate to take one or few of them up, then perhaps we overestimate their complexity. I plead for simplicity. There is good sense in reserving just a few moments of each day to be simply alone with God—that is, to set aside the noise of the world and then the noise of one’s own inner preoccupations, and to await whatever movement may then transpire and whatever words may then be heard in the depths of one’s heart. A chair in the corner of the room will do, or a short walk along the edges of campus or into a park. This is enough for prayer, and for the listening that St. Benedict teaches us will require “the ear of the heart” (Rule, Prologue, 1). The heart is not usually a noisy place, and so it often needs the help of the mind to make itself heard.
From this listening that it is the business of Lent to practice, and I think to sharpen, there has to come a better way of living with one another. But where is the heart capable of hearing God’s word of love that does not also go out toward the needs, wishes, actions and finally goodness of others? It is a bedrock of our tradition that love of God and love of one another are inseparable even if they are not the same thing. It is also a commonplace that we make progress with one such love even as we make progress with the other such love. I have not addressed myself in these few paragraphs to the manner in which love of others can inform prayer or even become a kind of prayer; but I would like to propose, as the strict correlate of that experience, that love of God animates every act of justice and mercy for our neighbors.
Our Lenten vigil—for that is what it is—can also give to us another way of seeing the world itself, in its rhythm and its beauty. I am reminded, not for the first time, of a few lines by Clement of Rome, written when the life of Jesus himself was still fresh in memory: “Let us contemplate, beloved, the resurrection which is at all times taking place. Day and night declare to us a resurrection. The night sinks to sleep, and the day arises; the day [once again] departs, and the night comes on.” (Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 24). Each morning is a resurrection. Each morning brings a light that is at once familiar and yet new. Our days begin in vigilance, in faithful attentiveness to Him who has already come and will come again. Or in listening for the Word we already know and yet cannot hear enough, until the end of time.
-St. Mary’s Monastery