Every Ash Wednesday, I feel as though I were attending a funeral Mass. You would think someone had died — and this joyless expression lingers on for many of us until Easter. For years, I held that same expression — that is, until I read The Rule of St. Benedict.
Many people have an aversion to Lent because our bodies naturally seek what is most comfortable and pleasurable. Lent challenges us to become more heroic lovers, but at the same time, it can cause us to become more irritable and sad. You would think that if your coworker or friend didn’t have his coffee, the world would end for the next forty days.
Contrary to most saints’ biographers, some saints couldn’t wait for Lent to end. St. Zélie Martin, the mother of St. Thérèse, once declared:
We’re in full-time penance. Fortunately, it will be over soon. I’m suffering so much from the fasting and abstinence! Yet it’s not a very severe mortification, but I’m so tired of how my stomach feels, and especially so cowardly, that I wouldn’t want to do it all if I listened to my nature. For a week, we’ve had two missionaries who give three sermons a day. In my opinion, one doesn’t preach any better than the other. We’re going to hear them anyway out of a sense of duty, and, for me at least, it’s an extra penance.
A friend of mine, who grew up in a large, devout Catholic family, once echoed similar words to St. Zélie’s. Besides his own sacrifices, his parents imposed harsh family penances, AKA “the Catholic death penalty,” on him and his siblings, which included no television along with being forced to kneel the entire time during the Rosary. His outlook on Lent changed from a joyful sacrifice to a joyless, oppressive one.
Although St. Benedict’s Rule was written for monks, his wisdom can radically change our Lenten approach from a miserable season to a joyful time of prayer and works of mercy. Besides challenging his monks to a life of prayer and self-denial, St. Benedict’s following words are a Lenten paradigm shift: “Let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” Nowhere does St. Benedict say our Lent should include complaining and sadness. Yes, joy is our Lenten challenge. Along with joy, St. Benedict calls his monks to “compunction of heart” and “prayer with tears.” Yes, sorrow for our sins and joy go together, for only the person who recognizes that he needs a Savior can be saved. On the other hand, sadness and joy are incompatible.
In the midst of our Lenten journey, we can easily miss the heart of Lent because we are puffed up by our own sacrifices, irritable over what we have given up, or sad over our perpetual sinfulness. And as a result, we become too focused on our own wounds and forget the wounded one, Jesus. The great Cistercian monk St. Bernard, who followed The Rule of St. Benedict, offers a splendid piece of advice to live our Lent joyfully: “We should stop thinking of our own sufferings and remember what He has suffered.”
When we pass a crucifix, it is only natural to say to Jesus, “My God, my God, look what I have done to you.” And Our Lord looks down with love and mercy and says to us as He shows us His wounds, “My child, my child, look what I have done for you.” With all the evils both within and outside the Church, the easier choice is to be downcast and sullen for forty days. Yet St. Benedict challenges us to never lose our joy because Our Lord has conquered sin and death. If we want to be like Our Lord, Who died naked on the cross and abandoned by his closest friends, we too must slowly detach ourselves from everything that keeps us from Him and, most of all renounce sin, which is the greatest offering we can give to God, more precious than any candy bar, Netflix film, or Starbucks coffee.
For some of us, this might be our last Lent, as God can call us home at any moment. What better way than to live it joyfully by offering our own sacrifices and sufferings for the Church’s purification along with the conversion of sinners, including ourselves?
May our Mother of Sorrows, whose life was a continuous Lent, help us to keep our Lenten joy by fixing our eyes on in Him, Whose victory is certain. Or, as best said by Our Lord Himself, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
St. Benedict, intercede for us, so that we can “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”
Patrick O’Hearn is a husband and father. He has co-authored the book Nursery of Heaven: Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Loss in the Lives of the Saints and Today’s Parents and authored the soon to be released book Parents of the Saints: The Hidden Heroes behind Our Favorite Saints.