Stretching Our Souls
What is the purpose of Lent? Why do we celebrate this 40-day season of fasting and prayer that begins this year on February 25 (Ash Wednesday), observes Good Friday on April 10, and concludes triumphantly on Easter Sunday, April 12? Lent is intended to resurrect our joy. Lent originally meant "springtime": the word comes from the Old English word for "spring," lencten, which came from lengan, "to make longer"—reminding us that the slow, wonderful lengthening of this season in our souls can signal an end to a winter of bitterness and the flowering of Christ's love in us.
The spiritual authors below knew the fruits of Bible study and prayer. Though they never saw a YouTube video, Facebook-friended anyone, updated their Twitter status, or stepped on a Wii Fit balance board, they knew how to stay in touch with God, love others, and become spiritually sinewy. Their timeless wisdom can guide us through broadband-jungle days into a season of reflection and reconciliation, through godly sorrow into joy.
Abba Macarius, Egyptian camel driver turned monk, an original Desert Father (c. 300–c. 390)
Lift your hands to heaven, asking, "Forgive me, Lord." If you're still anxious, pray, "Help me." You really don't need to say much. God knows our needs. His mercy is never tardy.
Bonaventure, friar and leader in the Franciscan Order (1221–1274), from The Soul's Journey into God
The way that begins in the fear of God leads to grief that brings us joy and finally awe. Accept the truth of Christ crucified, and be sorry for your sins. His blood washes all souls clean. Don't forget to exercise your soul in godly sorrow. Before you look to God for the sunshine of his wisdom, get on your knees and give him your helplessness and failures. Offer the One who loves you your shame. And live a godly life. When reading, pray for inspiration. When questioning, pray for a stronger loyalty to God. When exploring earth's wonders, pray for a greater appreciation of God's mystery. When working, pray for grace. When studying, ask to be taught, above all things, how to love. And when you gain understanding, pray, "God keep me humble."
Amma Syncletica, Desert Mother (c. 380–c. 460)
We need humility the way ships need nails.
Abba Poemen, Egyptian Desert Father (?–c. 449)
Be as vigilant about what you say as if you were a stranger in town. Don't try to "be heard." Don't work at getting others to agree with you. Don't hope to become influential or powerful. This humility will bring you great peace of mind.
Johann Arndt, German Lutheran theologian (1555-1621), from True Christianity
In our rush to get the best "education" possible, we overlook the greatest teacher, Jesus, whose humility and holy living are our best text. We need to sit at His feet because His life can teach us everything. Ever notice how everyone wants to "serve Christ," but who wants to follow Him? Following is costly. We must be holy, humble, self-effacing, prone to listening, patient with others' faults, willing to suffer, and able to love difficult people. Who can do this perfectly? Obviously no one can. Sometimes we fall asleep spiritually. We're weak, but we can work towards it cheerfully. We can try imitating Christ in whatever we do. We can put His holy life before our minds constantly and work to be like Him in loving others. We can try to walk the path He walked. This will require a certain brokenness of heart. Repentance is not easy. It's work.
Anonymous, 14th-century British monk, The Cloud of Unknowing
You only need a naked intent for God. When you long for him, that's enough. We can't think our way to God. That's why I'm willing to abandon everything I know, to love the one thing I cannot think. God can be loved, but not thought.
Ælfric of Eynsham, 10th-century English Benedictine monk, from a sermon
God gives forgiveness to penitent persons and illuminates their minds with his gentle forgiveness, and afterwards he comforts them, because he is the Spirit of Comfort. The test of our love for God is that we be kind to one another. In other words, God wants us to act, so we can honor him with our good works—not by naked words alone—because love is shown through action. If love isn't willing to work, then it isn't love.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is associate professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia.
Read more about Lent in A Lenten Journey: Stations of the Cross, with the Spiritual Classics, by Carmen Acevedo Butcher, to be released in 2009 by Paraclete Press. The translations above come from this work. For more information on studying the Bible and engaging in Christian contemplative prayer, see The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counsel, translated by Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala, 2009), and for more information on Ælfric, see God of Mercy: Ælfric's Sermons and Theology (Mercer University Press, 2006).
Discover ways to celebrate Lent by reading Elizabeth Diffin's article "Lent for the Non-Liturgical." Your Lent experience may also be enriched by Sherwood E. Wirt's Christianity Today article "Let's Lengthen Lent." An accessible spiritual formation guide, compiled in 2007 by the InterVarsity Faculty Ministry Leadership Team, is "Taking Time Apart," which you can download in pdf format, reprint, and distribute free of charge.