Joyful Penitence and a Continuous Lent

Alleluia! Lent is almost over!

In just a few days to come we will journey through the Sacred Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, culminating in the Great Vigil of Easter, marking the Resurrection of Christ—and the end, for another year, of our Lenten fasts and sacrifices.


Well . . . not exactly—at least, not if you look to the Rule of Saint Benedict for Spiritual Guidance. In chapter 49 of the Rule, Saint Benedict declares, "The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent." Granted, he almost immediately backpedals, admitting that "few, however, have the strength for this." But his initial words remain, intended for everyone—even us non-monks—who takes contemplative spirituality seriously. Am I one of those who lack the strength to live a vigorous spiritual life, grounded in simplicity and self-denial? Perhaps I am just another lazy American who can rationalize away Saint Benedict's idea of Lent as medieval and obsolete, even while I count down the hours until I can devour that long-delayed piece of triple chocolate cake?

Okay, I'm being a bit snarky here. But the fact remains: Saint Benedict has thrown down the gauntlet, and left us with a challenge. Why pick forty days for special fasting, when we could be reforming our life, day in and day out?

We can shed some light on this challenge by considering a fascinating phrase from the Constitution of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance—the order of Trappist monks. "The quietness of mind cultivated by silence is also the fruit of purity and simplicity of heart," notes the Constitution. "For this reason the monk, in a spirit of joyful penitence, is to embrace willingly" the practices of the Order, including "voluntary poverty, . . . vigils and fasting."


Joyful penitence? Continuous Lent? So are monks masochists?

Actually, no. And the fact that we who dwell outside of the cloister might find phrases like these intimidating and harsh-sounding says a lot more about us than about them.

The key to understanding all this lies in "quietness of mind." Monastic spirituality, like contemplative spirituality in general, seeks not only an external silence, but ultimately an internal silence. Contemplation is about finding serenity in the midst of turmoil, peace in the midst of chaos, mindfulness even in the most turbulent of circumstances. The Trappist Constitution recognizes that maintaining external silence can be an important way to cultivate such inner quiet, but that it can also be achieved in other ways: through a lifestyle characterized by freely-chosen simplicity.

It's rather like deciding to become a vegetarian: focus only on the fact that you're not eating meat and you probably won't last too long. But embrace the culinary pleasures of a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains, and pretty soon you will have forgotten that you ever had a taste for frankfurters. If it's possible to be a joyful vegetarian, it's equally possible to live a life of joyful penitence.

Penitence basically refers to the external disciplines or actions undertaken as an expression of inner repentance. It's what we do to show we're sorry—only repentance, metanoia in the original Greek, really isn't so much about "feeling sorry" (that's contrition) as it is simply about embracing a new life, a new mind: the mind of Christ, the life of Divine Love. Granted, for most of us such a radical change-of-life will probably including letting go of some unloving actions and dispositions that have characterized us in the past. But that is, or should be, only a small part of the penitential package. For penitence (and the repentance from which it emerges) to be joyful means that we focus not on our past wrongs, but on a future filled with faith, hope, and love—characterized by the quietness of mind that is the true end of metanoia—the mind of Christ.

So the Cistercians are on to something here. All their supposed austerities—from fasting, to early morning vigils, to a life steeped in silence—are joyful from the perspective of seeking, and attaining, the happiness found in that new level of consciousness, that new way of seeing things. Once we experience that degree of happiness, then so-called "self-denial" begins to look a lot more like simplicity, which is about getting rid of anything that gets in the way of what gives us true joy.

So as our current season of Lent draws to a close, I'd like to offer this wish and hope for all who read these words: may each of us discover that new mind, that new consciousness, steeped in the love of God. Once we truly encounter that hidden splendour in our lives, not only will silence become our dearest companion, but also the idea of a continuous Lent might even begin to seem very appealing indeed.

4/3/2012 4:00:00 AM
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