Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018
“O Happy Guilt” today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. More often than not, when I served as a busy parish priest a glimpse of Lent right around the corner could fill me with dread. But occasionally, in my later years, it brought a calmness not unlike reading a book on the spiritual life by Evelyn Underhill; or spying a bud opening on the Early Elberta Peach tree in the backyard; or a glance around a corner to see a long missed friend dropping by with some time to spare and an inclination to get caught up on one another’s lives.
I remember one Shrove Tuesday when a parishioner left a note in my mail slot, “Fr. Mark, when you get the time give me a call. I need an appointment. Time for a spiritual checkup.” The handwriting didn’t look frazzled. No trace of dreadfulness in the phrasing. If any mood came from the note, it was anticipation—more akin to a visit with one’s travel agent than an appointment for a root canal.
Time for a spiritual checkup. That’s what Ash Wednesday is. And Lent, well, among other things, it is a spiritual shape-up plan for one’s Christian life; a godly housecleaning before a welcome visitor; a spring spading and planting of the garden; or even a long intimate walk with Christ. Repentance, after all, once you commit yourself to it, usually ends in joy.
The Roman Emperor, Hadrian, was once accosted by an old woman, whom he brushed aside by saying he was too busy. She replied, “Then you’re too busy to be emperor,” whereupon he stopped and listened to her. I mention this anecdote because for all too many in the church as they move into the Lenten season the pace of their lives will quicken, and many will add to an already pressured life what they feel are the demands of a well observed Lent.
The outward forms of Lenten discipline are not spelled out in the prayer book with any specificity, nor should they be. I suspect that if each of us went to a doctor of the spiritual life, as one goes to a physician for an annual checkup, the diagnosis, and subsequent prescription for our maladies would be quite different for each of us. I suspect that in many cases we would not find the soul doctor’s orders some dreadful duty of denial, but a welcome relief that we would readily embrace. I can easily imagine a devout, busy Christian exhorted by a doctor of the soul that what he or she needed for a Lenten discipline was some physical exercise; to keep Sabbath; to read a good novel; see a good movie once a week; or even to learn to laugh again.
One memorable spiritual master in Twentieth Century England was Fr. Hugh Maycock. Connected with Cambridge from 1944-1952, and Oxford 1952-1970, he was a formative influence on many young scholars. One of his former students, Kenneth Leech, in recounting what he learned from Fr. Maycock, noted two unusual disciplines: The value of sleep and laughter.
Sleep and prayer are closely related. Both call for slowing down, a relaxed condition, “an abandonment to trust.” Many committed Christians today live their lives in a permanent state of semi-exhaustion. To embrace a discipline of proper sleep would be spiritually helpful, a true preparation for the Sabbath rest of the people of God. Then there is the importance of laughter. Leech writes, “Laughter is necessary to our sanity: a person with no humor is like an iron bridge with no give in it. It is vital too that we learn to laugh at ourselves.” Laughter has been shown to have therapeutic qualities for the mind and body. It also has value for our life with the Lord.
So, how do you go about choosing a Lenten discipline? Don’t just decide in knee-jerk fashion to give up chocolate, coffee, or some equally unfruitful undertaking. Rather, seek the advice of a wise, discerning Christian friend. Ask the counsel of a priest or “lay pastor.” Prayerfully listen to God while in prayer or in church or out for a walk. Just don’t be too surprised at what you hear. It may be surprisingly delightful prescription, such as, “slow down,” “sleep more,” “laugh a lot!” Of course, there are some who will need to hear, “get the lead out,” or “quit nursing your wounds,” or “ask me to help you forgive, and get on with your life.”
Certainly, I know the downside of the season as well as anyone. There are Lenten hymns I don’t care for—some dirge like, others drab. The Kyrie can’t compare with the Gloria—and mea culpa doesn’t yield itself to the full-throated praise of the heart, as does Alleluia! Still I have to admit when the pall of purple or sackcloth finally gives way on Easter morning, it is like the end and the beginning of all things. The packed car starting out for vacation; the tied-fly cast lightly on the water; the closing of a good book: the opening of a better one.
May a blessed Lent come your way,