Are You the Same Person as a Year Ago?

If indeed, Lent is at all about stopping to look up and assess the distance between where we stand today and the kingdom we hope - or perhaps vowed - to bring about, then I can enthusiastically agree with Benedict's admonition that "the life of the monk ought to be a continuous lent."

By nature of our promise of conversion, our common life ought to be a daily, ongoing, zealous and honest evaluation of what keeps us from Christ, our salvation, and what does it mean if day after day, or Lent after Lent, we find ourselves in the same place, making the same promises, using the same excuses to break them? If that is the case, then we are standing still in the desert, a strategy that is sure to end in death - and why? Perhaps we commit the same sins and make the same resolutions, because we have yet to take responsibility for our own mistakes.

This year, when I began filling out my bona opera, I started to put down the same things I had put down last year - as if I were the same person I was last year (maybe I am) and still needed to work on the exact same things - travel the same distance. Have I really spent a year standing still?

Our bona opera ought to change from year to year, because they are designed to change us - to move us further along the path toward our salvation. Perhaps our Lenten resolutions - or at least some of our resolutions - should not just be for Lent, but should chart a path for the rest of our lives. What good does it do to pray more, give more and die more to ourselves for a short season when we are men and women who have made a lifelong vow of conversion?

Why spend more time with monks in the infirmary and the sick in the nursing home or fast from grumbling and uncharitable remarks only to return to our less thoughtful, unkind selves once Lent is over? What good is it to carve out more time to pray in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel with the intention of abandoning that program at Easter?

What if, instead, we made our bona opera, our resolutions - or at least one or two of them - with the expectation of adopting them for a lifetime - a "continuous lent"? Next year would certainly find us in a new place in our wanderings - with a new distance between us and the Kingdom of God. And from that new place, we might have yet a better vision of the Promised Land we hope to enter and a keener sense of the road that will take us there.

If we thought about adopting good works with the intention of maintaining them not just to Easter, but for the rest of our lives, I guarantee you that we would have to choose more carefully and more seriously. But shouldn't we?

The last several Lents I have chosen the good work of removing one thing from my cell each day to give to the poor - items of clothing, CDs, books. It is a great way of simplifying my life and, by the end of the season, I start having to take things out that I'm somewhat attached to. The last few days, I begin to understand what it means to give out of one's poverty - but only those last few days.

What if I managed to keep living that way the rest of the year: accumulating less, turning around and generously sharing the gifts that I receive, letting things pass more swiftly on to those who need them? I suppose that when the next Lent came around, I would have a new understanding of my promise of poverty. I might also have a new sense of faith and trust in the providence of God. I might discover a new freedom. I might understand more fully what it means to be a monk.

Next: Part 4