A monk’s life should always be like a Lenten observance.
This week I have mainly been… Writing lent material for our church family.
In May this year we celebrate the fiftieth year of the church of St. Aidan in Acomb and to help us mark this occasion we have decided to spend some time reflecting on the patron saint of our church to see if there is anything we can learn from his life and work (spoiler alert: we can!)
Writing this material has been an exciting and challenging task. It is exciting because there’s such potential that this time reflecting together, through sermons and small group material, will change us as people of God; grow us as disciples of Jesus. It is challenging because that potential is reliant, in a small way, on how I construct and frame the material to encourage that growth.
Lent is a great chance to focus our attention on one aspect of our Christian life. It’s like an annual MOT for our discipleship, a fine tuning of certain places where we ‘fall short of the glory of God’. Although we must remind ourselves that it is God who grows and transforms us into the likeness of his Son, there is a small part we must play in this work. We must allow our wills to be in line with God’s. The season of preparation before the great feast of the resurrection is an intentional focussing of our attention on our obedience to God’s will.
Lent is not the excuse for not doing this kind of spiritual work throughout the year but is merely an annual focus on it. Like an MOT we shouldn’t treat this annual checkup as an excuse not to look after a car, not fill it with oil or petrol. My wife has gone through times when she doesn’t take her medicine or do her necessary exercise and then just before a doctor’s appointment has tried to catch up with herself. It is equally unhealthy to store up developing and growing in our discipleship for the forty days of Lent.
A monk’s life should always be like a Lenten observance.
During Lent, St. Benedict suggests the community,
…devote ourselves to tearful prayer, reading, contrition and abstinence.
I wonder whether ‘tearful’ is solely describing the kind of prayer we do or whether we are also to do tearful reading, tearful contrition and tearful abstinence. I don’t think it really matters but there is a sense that when we dedicate ourselves to intentional focussing on our failings it should make us tearful in all aspects of our life. I wonder if this is why we are unable to maintain a Lenten observance all year round.
The Lent material I have been writing is looking at how St. Aidan went about evangelism and mission. His approach seemed to be about establishing and sustaining a intentional community of disciples from which mission will happen. Mission, for St. Aidan, is a natural outworking of true discipleship. If a community is not engaged in mission then their discipleship is faulty; mission is the fruit of the tree of discipleship. There is no point in just forcing a community to ‘do mission’ and expect it to work. It would be better to go back to the basics of discipleship, correcting that and the fruit of mission will grow. You judge discipleship by the mission.
I have continued to be struck by the Alan Roxburgh quote about discipleship which I have used before here.
Discipleship emerges out of prayer, study, dialogue and worship by a community learning to ask the questions of obedience, as they are engaged directly in mission. (Alan Roxburgh, Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1997) p.66)
Here Roxburgh argues that discipleship comes out of mission but I would argue that mission comes out of discipleship as well; the one feeds the other and vice versa. This community ‘learning to ask questions of obedience’ should engage in ‘prayer, study, dialogue and worship’. These four things all lead disciples within community to engage in mission. Prayer must involve listening to the will of God and having our hearts tune into his heart and his heart is for people. Study must involve reading the Scriptures which clearly describe a God who is mission, sending his people to the world to proclaim his good news. Dialogue must involve us speaking to others as people of God about our life, lived out in relationship with God. Worship is any activity done with the intentional purpose of laying down control of our lives and allowing God to use us.
With this in mind I was struck when St. Benedict suggested that Lenten observances should be ‘tearful prayer, reading, contrition and abstinence.’ The first two clearly have a direct correlation with Roxburgh’s ethos (prayer and study). The second two actions (contrition and abstinence) may be less direct but I still see a connection with (dialogue and worship).
Contrition comes from the latin words ‘terere’ (to rub) and ‘com’ (together). Contrition is what occurs when two or more things are rubbed together. I see a connection with dialogue which requires two or more things to come together and impact each other. I’d guess that what St. Benedict had in mind, from a Roman Catholic perspective, is an engagement in the sacrament of confession where a person must face his sin with true sorrow and desire to repent. I see great worth in confessing sins in the presence of another and this form of dialogue leads me to acting out the amendments required for repentance.
Abstinence is the withholding from something, usually a great temptation for us. This is famously worked out during the season of Lent as many people give up chocolate or something that they enjoy which may be taking a focal point in their life rather than God. A disciple is encouraged to abstain from those things which are not God to move God back to the centre of our decision making. One could say that we can often worship something instead of God, idols such as money, sex, power, other humans. What we mean when we worship idols is we look to them to make decisions for us. Take a celebrity; if a person worships, say, Lady Gaga, we mean that someone allows Lady Gaga to be the model for how they live their life. If they want to make a decision as to how to act, dress, live, they must ask, “What would Lady Gaga do?”. If we say someone worships money then we mean that they’re end goal is to have more money, their thoughts are consumed with the being close to or attaining money. Abstaining from those things is a discipline because it must be an intentional rejection of a un-conscious behaviour. Abstinence is a deliberate denial of an inner desire to act in a certain way. Worship of God is always a form of abstinence because it is a deliberate action to place God at the centre of our lives and not another thing or concept.
Any Christian community must be a centre of intentional discipleship. From this life of discipleship comes a heart for mission. The focus is not how to do mission better but how to do discipleship better. We can tell people about Jesus until the cows come home but it won’t mean anything unless we do it all in complete obedience to God under his guidance by the Holy Spirit stemming from a life of prayer and study. We must be rooted in a life solely focussed on God.
Mission has often failed because people have sought to talk about God when they have not yet talked enough to him. It must be seen that they enjoy the presence and the love of God. They must show God is real, to be met and to be enjoyed. (David Adam, ‘Aidan, Bede, Cuthbert: three inspirational saints’ (London: SPCK 2006) p.33)
In a world of binging I see some of our approaches to Lent as a spiritual binging/purging. We live the other three hundred and twenty-five days of the year living life with no deliberate focus on the work of growing as disciples and then for forty days we sprint the race. Our whole lives should be intentionally aimed at allowing God to grow us by his Holy Spirit.
Loving Father, Create in us new and contrite hearts, open to receive from you mercy and grace. Bind us together, Lord, to be lovers of your tender guidance and teaching and by the power of your Spirit complete the heavenly work of our rebirth through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Come, Lord Jesus