Pursuing a Continuous Lent

I worked with a woman once who had a gambling problem, although she did not think so. When I asked her if she thought she might have an addiction, despite having lost hundreds (and a time or two, thousands) of dollars her family didn't have, she insisted that she didn't "because," as she said, "I have given up gambling for Lent the last couple of years and it's easy for me."

Of course, once Lent is over, she returns to gambling and continues to place the financial and general welfare of her family at great risk.

What stands in this woman's way of conversion is her inability to take responsibility. Ironically, it is also her repeated return to the same Lenten resolution - but a Lent-restricted resolution - that enables her, if you will, to avoid true responsibility, and keeps her from being truly free instead of being weighed down by an unfortunate disease that affects not only her path to redemption, but the paths of her family and community as well. What if she could see this corner of her life as a continuous Lent? What if we could?

This year I might try to maintain my Lenten resolution to refrain from eating in between meals for the rest of the year - maybe not every day, but maybe three days of the week - and see where I end up when next Lent comes around. Perhaps the next year, I could add a couple more days.

Then, one year, I will have to find a new Lenten fast to adopt. What would 10 years bring? And what kind of monk might I be after a lifetime's accumulation of good works? What kind of community might we be? What zeal?

* * *

The contemplative life, in a nutshell, is about "open[ing] ourselves to the sacred within."[1] To contemplate is to discover a relationship with God deep within that has never not been there, and that provides us a foretaste of the eternal Kingdom.

We learn from Cassian and Evagrius that, as contemplatives, we must learn to turn down the thoughts, the obsessions, the emotional decoys and distractions that keep us from attending to that relationship, that keep us from crossing over into the Kingdom that God has already established in us by nature of the death and resurrection of Christ. Contemplation is an inward journey to a paradise already regained - to a place prepared - to the Promised Land within.

Douglas Steere, in his introduction to Thomas Merton's book on contemplative prayer, writes that as contemplatives, monks "are called upon to enter the Promised Land and entry means not just with the feet alone but with the heart. Stopping too soon," he says "is the commonest dead-end street in prayer."[2] Stopping too soon!

No wonder Benedict urges the life of the monk to be a continuous Lent - to not stop too soon. His is a call to keep moving on our journey. To not stop once Lent is over, but to "run while [we] have the light of this life," casting off as we do all our false selves, our distractions, our fears.

To run toward, and into, that Promised Land, that "inexpressible delight of love," that place prepared, that Kingdom won by the resurrection. To not stop too soon, because Benedict knows, even if he is too coy to tell us outright, that a continuous Lent hastens an eternal Easter.

[1] Laird, M. (2006). Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford University Press, p 7-8.

[2] Steere, D. (1966). Foreword to T. Merton's Contemplative Prayer. New York: Image Books, p 12.

Scripture quotes from the NRSV, except for Psalm 139 from the Grail.