Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lenten Suggestions: Lectio Divina, the Divine Office, Fasting and More

As noted yesterday, with Lent beginning in one week's time, it is a good time to begin to think about the observances and practices you might adopt this Lent. To help inspire your considerations, let us look at what St. Benedict had to say of the observance of Lent in chapter 49 of his Rule.

Although a Monk’s life ought at all times to resemble a continual Lent, yet because few have such virtue, we exhort all in these days of Lent to live in all purity, and during this holy season to wash away all the negligences of other times. This we shall worthily accomplish if we refrain from all defects, and apply ourselves to tearful prayer, to reading, to compunction of heart, and abstinence. In these days, therefore, let us add something over and above to our wonted task, such as private prayers, and abstinence from meat and drink; let every one offer to God, of his own free will, with joy of the Holy Ghost, something above the measure appointed him; that is to say, let him withhold from his body something in the way of food, drink, sleep, talk, laughter, and with spiritual joy and desire, await the holy feast of Easter.

Spiritual Reading

Evidently, one particular Lenten practice we touched upon yesterday, and which St. Benedict also touches on above, is the matter of spiritual reading. Aside from what we have already mentioned, I might further suggest the consideration of reading the various entries found within Dom Prosper Gueranger's books within The Liturgical Year that pertain to Lent, Passiontide and Holy Week. (Those books may be found online here: Lent, Passiontide and Holy Week). One might also choose to follow the Lenten readings provided within the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Lectio Divina

A specific practice of spiritual reading that deserves more attention is the practice of "lectio divina" -- the slow, prayerful, meditative reading of the Sacred Scripture defined by four aspects: lectio (the slow reading of some passages of sacred scripture); meditatio (meditating on what has been read); oratio (prayer to God); and contemplatio (the silent adoration and contemplation of the presence of God). Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, described these stages accordingly in his Message to the Youth of the World on the occasion of the 21st World Youth Day, April 9th, 2006:
...I urge you to become familiar with the Bible, and to have it at hand so that it can be your compass pointing out the road to follow. By reading it, you will learn to know Christ. Note what Saint Jerome said in this regard: "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (PL 24,17; cf Dei Verbum, 25). A time-honoured way to study and savour the word of God is lectio divina which constitutes a real and veritable spiritual journey marked out in stages. After the lectio, which consists of reading and rereading a passage from Sacred Scripture and taking in the main elements, we proceed to meditatio. This is a moment of interior reflection in which the soul turns to God and tries to understand what his word is saying to us today. Then comes oratio in which we linger to talk with God directly. Finally we come to contemplatio. This helps us to keep our hearts attentive to the presence of Christ whose word is "a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts" (2 Pet 1:19).

Pope Benedict has, at other times as well, spoken of and encouraged this practice of lectio divina, noting that he believes the practice can help bring a new spiritual springtime within the Church:
I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 25). If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church - I am convinced of it - a new spiritual springtime.

Certainly then, this practice might indeed be something to give serious consideration for this Lent -- and beyond.

The Divine Office

In addition to spiritual reading, how can we fail to mention the Divine Office? The Divine Office provides a particularly good way -- a liturgical way -- of joining oneself to the rhythm and progression of the liturgical season of Lent -- and all of the rest of liturgical time as well. One prays with the Church's voice, with the proper of the season that the Church presents to us, and with the psalms, canticles and the scriptures generally.

Our recent survey on the use of the Divine Office amongst laity showed a great number of people who either would like to take up the practice of praying the Divine Office in some capacity, or those who have taken it up on and off, but have simply found they have had trouble establishing the habit of it. Lent provides a good opportunity to help establish or re-establish that habit by making it a part of your Lenten spiritual discipline and commitments. For those who do not own a breviary proper, various sites are available online for both the older and newer forms of the Roman breviary. For those who would note that they are not yet familiar with how to pray the Divine Office, this may well provide a good opportunity to begin to learn -- which, in its own right, could certainly be understood to be a worthwhile Lenten exercise and discipline that will bear fruit well beyond Lent itself.

Remember as well that praying the Divine Office does not mean praying all of the hours. You might choose Lauds, Vespers and Compline (Morning, Evening and Night prayer), or perhaps simply Lauds and Vespers, or perhaps even only one of the hours. Whatever the case, my suggestion to you is to establish a routine, a discipline for yourself that meshes with your schedule -- and stick to it. Essentially, praying the Divine Office needs to be built into your day to day routine and rhythms. Establishing that routine, that "horarium" if you will, will indeed help you to establish and keep the habit. For example, that might meaning praying Lauds as soon as you awake, or as soon as you have readied yourself for the day; adjust your wake up time by 15 or 20 minutes if need be, and if that seems hard to do, recall the priority we should give to God in our lives and motivate yourself with a consideration of the much greater sacrifice accomplished for our sake on the Cross. It might mean praying Vespers first thing when you return home in the evening from work, or immediately after dinner. Much will depend upon individual schedules of course, both work and family schedules. Wherever it might fit in terms of your day to day routine, make it a part of that routine. By further making it a part of your Lenten commitments, this can be of great motivational help.

Fast and Abstinence

Being creatures of body and soul, it is important that we also treat of the matter of the body as part of our Lenten discipline -- something we are in desperate need of recovering in popular terms within the West.

Lent is traditionally a time of fast and abstinence. Evidently, the obligations surrounding this have been much relaxed in the West in the past few decades, but the relaxing of the obligation does not mean there is not value in still opting to pursue these practices. Indeed, there is nothing (outside of health and age) to prevent one from taking up the practice of devotional fasts and abstinence.

A common form of this, of course, is abstaining from some particular food you enjoy for the duration of Lent -- a worthwhile practice. In addition to this, there are further manifestations we could consider, particularly as it relates to fasting.

For example, one could avoid snacking between meals during the duration of Lent, or one might opt to take on the full rigour of traditional Lenten fast and abstinence discipline as it stood before the latter 1960's. It might mean something in between. Shortly after Lent begins, we traditionally observe the Lenten Ember days (this year, Wednesday, Feb. 24th, Friday, Feb. 26th and Saturday, Feb. 27th); whatever else one might do on this point of fast and abstinence, the traditional Lenten Ember days might provide a good opportunity to observe the fast and abstinence discipline associated with them as part of your own Lenten discipline -- while also reconnecting us to the practice of the Ember days more generally.

Concluding Thoughts

Evidently, one could go on, and no mention has even been made of the tradition of Lenten almsgiving, nor of some devotions that are well suited to Lenten observance (i.e the Chaplet of Divine Mercy or the Way of the Cross). However, my hope here is to give some ideas for Lenten discipline that are perhaps less considered but which I believe deserve more consideration, being rooted within the Sacred Liturgy, within the Sacred Scriptures and within the tradition of the penitential disciplines of the season.

These aspects are all aspects which are not only pertinent to Lent, but also beyond Lent. Indeed, if you manage to take up one or all of these things, I would encourage you to make it your intent to continue them beyond Lent and through the rest of the liturgical year.

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