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A Benedictine Journey through Lent
By Albert Holtz
MOREHOUSE PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2015 Albert Holtz
All rights reserved.
The Days After Ash Wednesday
Imagine that we are in a church in Le Puy, up in the rugged central mountains of medieval France. The group has been gathering for an hour already and there is a growing feeling of festivity and excitement in the air; we are about to set off on a pilgrimage to the great shrine of Saint James, Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain. Many of the people in the church are carrying the walking stick and drinking gourd that mark them as pilgrims; some are wearing a scallop shell, the traditional badge of pilgrims on the difficult and dangerous 800-mile journey over mountains and across desolate uplands to Compostela. There is a spirit of joyful anticipation as we greet friends and check our supplies while waiting for the priest to send us on our way with some words of spiritual advice and encouragement, and, of course, a blessing.
Ash Wednesday and the three days following it were added to the six weeks of Lent in order to reach the symbolic number of forty days of fast and penitence (Sundays were not counted because Christians never fast on Sunday). These four days added on before the first Sunday of Lent now make a sort of "porch," a place for us modern Lenten pilgrims to gather and prepare ourselves for the journey to Easter.
The meditations for these first four days start us on our way with some wise advice for the road. The first meditation, "Canterbury," set in the famous pilgrimage city, sends us off with some encouraging words about staying the course and not turning back once we've begun. "The Channel Tunnel" reminds us that Lent is not a project to be accomplished but rather an opportunity to let God act in us. Next, "La Paz" introduces the important Lenten practice of introspection that we will explore further during the entire first week of Lent. Finally, "Rue de Sèvres" challenges us to make our repentance real by helping others through almsgiving and other works of charity.
The priest calls for quiet. We all fall silent and bow our heads as he extends his hands over our little group and reads from a beautiful old missal this blessing written about the year 1200:
The almighty and everlasting God, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, dispose your journey according to his good pleasure, send his angel Raphael to keep you in this your pilgrimage, and both conduct you in peace on your way to the place where you would be, and bring you back again on your return to us in safety.
In a loud voice he chants in Latin, "Procedamus in pace!" "Let us proceed in peace." "In nomine Domini. Amen!" we all sing in response, "In the name of the Lord. Amen!" We all turn and walk silently toward the church door. We are on our way.
Canterbury, England: Patrons for the Journey
Canterbury is lively and welcoming this November afternoon. Her streets, lined with pubs and souvenir shops, are noisy with the tongues of a dozen different lands. People still flock to visit the magnificent Gothic cathedral and its tomb of Thomas Becket, just as they've been doing since the late 1100s. Along these bustling lanes once walked the Wife of Bath, the bawdy Miller, the courtly Knight, the Pardoner, and the other colorful pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, who told each other stories to pass the time on the road.
But if Canterbury breathes welcome and warmth, she also has an air of Saxon solidity, thanks to her cobblestone pavements, granite fences, moss-covered church walls, and grumpy gray ramparts of rough flint. Canterbury is a stony place.
I've left behind me her bustling streets and crowded pubs. Behind me, too, are the towers of the cathedral and the ancient city walls. I'm off in search of a special spot that hides about a half-mile outside of town.
I turn left up a narrow road that climbs a wooded slope. After a few minutes, a tiny church peeks out from behind the trees on the hilltop. This is Saint Martin's, the earliest place of continuous Christian worship in all of England. It was already ancient when Bede the Venerable wrote in the early 700s that it was "built of old while the Romans were still inhabiting Britain."
In the year 580, when Canterbury was the capital of the kingdom of Kent, the pagan King Ethelbert married a Christian princess named Bertha. The Queen had an oratory on this spot, and it was here that Ethelbert, now converted to Christianity, was baptized in 598 by Saint Augustine of Canterbury.
Near the crest of the hill I turn up a footpath that leads through the little churchyard and stand for a while looking at the old building. Despite improvements made in the twelfth century, some of the outside walls still show original Roman brickwork.
I walk slowly into the dark, silent chapel, overwhelmed by the sense of holiness of this sacred place whose roots have tapped deep into the rocky Kentish soil since the time of the Romans. All alone in the silence, I sit on a wooden bench and let my imagination wander easily back over the centuries.
Pope Saint Gregory the Great has chosen Augustine, prior of a monastery in Rome, to lead a band of monks to evangelize the pagan territory of the Angles. Their vow of obedience and their missionary zeal speed the little band on their way, full of joy and enthusiasm. But as they travel overland through Gaul, they begin to hear disturbing tales of the savage and murderous English natives. There are graphic details of the strange customs and the unpronounceable tongue that await them. There are sailors' hair-raising reports of the treacherous currents and killer storms that lie in wait for travelers crossing the English Channel. The list of hazards gets longer every day. The missionaries' enthusiasm for their task evaporates like the morning mist, and finally they hold a meeting to discuss whether this mission is really such a good idea after all. Caution wins out: they send Augustine back to Rome to explain to Pope Gregory the impossibility of the task and ask papal permission to return to their monastery in Rome. If Augustine and his little band get their way, the Saxons may have to remain in their pagan darkness for a few more centuries.
But Pope Gregory, the first biographer of Saint Benedict, knows the Rule for Monks and its Chapter 68, "The Assignment of Impossible Tasks to a Brother." According to that chapter, if a monk is assigned "a burdensome task, or something he cannot do," he should try it anyway. Then, if it proves beyond his ability, he is to explain humbly to his abbot why he cannot perform the task. Benedict continues: "If after the explanation the superior is still determined to hold to his original order, then the junior must recognize that this is best for him. Trusting in God's help, he must in love obey." We don't know the pope's exact words to Augustine, but we do know that he sends him right back to his companions with a letter of encouragement—and strict orders not to turn around again!
So the monks obediently continue their journey to Britain and today are venerated as the courageous missionary monks who first evangelized England. But it's nice to know that they, too, were subject to an occasional case of cold feet! Like me, they were susceptible at times to discouragement and doubt. Their lives, like mine, included fear as well as faith, defeats as well as victories, weaknesses as well as virtues. The Canterbury monks are the patron saints of people who get cold feet. In the dark vaults of Saint Martin's church, they whisper to me this afternoon to keep up my courage every day and struggle faithfully with my fears and doubts and hesitations.
I bid good-bye to the voices in the chapel and step outside into the chilly churchyard cemetery on the hilltop. Gray clouds still hang low over the roofs and towers of Canterbury below. The first raindrops begin to tap me gently on the shoulder, and I shiver in the November dampness; I turn to head back down to the bus station.
Begin this Lenten journey the way Augustine and his monks began their voyage to England, with hope, enthusiasm, and joy. The journey with Jesus into the truth about yourself may not turn out to be as daunting as their trip across the English Channel, but it will certainly have its difficulties.
Think for a few moments about a couple of obstacles you have encountered along the way in past Lents, and ask yourself how you might prepare yourself to overcome them this time. Then compose your own pilgrim's prayer, asking the Lord to bless you as you set out on your journey and bring you to a joyful celebration on Easter morning.
Sacred Scripture (Joel 2:12–13)
"Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing."
Rule of Benedict (Prologue, vv. 48–49)
"Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love."
THURSDAY AFTER ASH WEDNESDAY
The Channel Tunnel, England: Waiting for the Lord
8:09 a.m. Ping-pong-ping! The electronic chimes sound their warning. The shiny silver doors of the Eurostar train slide closed, and we roll smoothly out of Paris' Gare du Nord. On its second day of regular operation, the train smells of new carpeting and upholstery. Everything around me is sparkling and high-tech. This streamlined train, specially designed to run through the new tunnel under the English Channel, will whisk me to Waterloo Station, London, in three hours and six minutes. The sooty slate-blue of the November morning glides past my window as the train hums through suburban Paris.
8:20 a.m. We're now in high gear—186 miles an hour. The farm fields are pouring past like a river of pea soup.
9:36 a.m. An announcement in French and English warns us that in one minute we will be entering the Channel Tunnel. The automatic doors at each end of the car slide closed, and I begin watching for the tunnel entrance. A concrete wall starts running along on our left side, getting higher and higher. I glimpse a part of an arch that covers the tracks like the corner of a giant's mouth. Whoom! We dive into the dark. I look out the big window and see nothing but my own neon-colored reflection in the glass. By shading my eyes against the light and leaning my head against the cold windowpane I can make out a dark brown-gray blur of wall. There won't be anything to see out there for twenty minutes.
9:57 a.m. Sunshine. Welcome to Great Britain. Please turn your watches back one hour. The constant high-pitched whistling sound that the train has been making in the tunnel disappears and the scenery takes up where it left off: rolling hills of green. Sheep graze under a clear blue sky. A strip of black road cuts under the railway, with two cars driving on the wrong side of the road.
9:28 a.m. (British time). Passing through Tonbridge, the first town since Paris to show me its name on a station platform. We are not moving as fast as we were in France, riding on old tracks laid through one of the most densely populated parts of the United Kingdom. In the Channel Tunnel train system, the British tracks are one of the problems still to be solved.
9:44 a.m. We slow to a crawl of maybe sixty miles an hour and glide through Orpington, a town of brick houses and clotheslines that back up onto the tracks. We're still thirty minutes from Waterloo Station.
9:50 a.m. We've stopped. From high up on our embankment we look down onto row houses and a gasworks.
9:51 a.m. The train starts rolling, but very gently now, like a science-fiction monster picking its way carefully among the backyards. Sunshine is bathing the forty-four empty seats—there are only twelve passengers in the car on this almost-maiden voyage.
10:00 a.m. We stop for the second time. It seems odd to be sitting on top of a railway embankment in this sleek futuristic cabin looking down into the narrow wintry backyards of brick row houses. An old man in a gray tweed cap is spading up his garden patch not a hundred feet away. Rich, brown soil, probably nourished with kitchen scraps and lawn clippings.
I'm struck by the contrast between the leisurely pace of his garden and the headlong rush of my high-speed train. The old gardener patiently turns under last summer's stubble to prepare the soil for the winter. Then he'll wait for spring planting time and then wait for the seeds to sprout. Then he'll gently nurture and weed and water his vegetables—and patiently wait for them to ripen.
This train, on the other hand, is designed to cover the greatest distance in the least possible time, delivering passengers efficiently and without ceremony from one city to another. In the process it reduces trees and flowers near the tracks to a nervous blur. For it to actually stop dead on the tracks like this is simply an unthinkable outrage.
It occurs to me that when I set to work at something, I'm a lot like this streamlined train: efficient and effective, zipping along my gleaming rails as fast as I can go. Heaven help anyone or anything that gets in the way.
The man in the tweed cap stops his digging a moment and rests his crossed forearms on top of the spade handle. He squints up toward the shiny metal cars and stares at the twenty-first century, which has just expired up here on the tracks. He is looking right at me. His glance Thursday after Ash Wednesday 9 cuts through the window and touches me like an icy finger. A moment later, he turns back to his gardening.
If my life is like this speedy Eurostar, then being on this sabbatical year is sort of like being stalled on the tracks. I'm able to pause and look at myself. This morning this old gentleman and his little garden are challenging me to examine my approach to life. He moves slowly, while I rush around at 186 miles an hour. He spends most of his time waiting patiently—for spring to arrive, for seeds to sprout, for tomatoes to ripen. I spend all my energy trying to make things happen on or ahead of schedule and according to my specifications. He works gently within the limits of the situation—a tiny patch of land, a given kind of soil, a certain amount of sunshine, his own decreasing strength. I fight my limits on every side—squeezing more minutes into one hour, reaching beyond the bounds of my own physical and mental energy, refusing to accept that certain things are just the way they are....
10:08 a.m. The Eurostar begins laboring forward at walking speed. We tiptoe through the tiny suburban station of Kent House, with tarmac platforms closing in on both sides.
10:14 a.m. We're now late. Ping-pong-ping! "Ladies and gentlemen, due to certain difficulties, we will be traveling at a slower speed than usual. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause."
10:17 a.m. We leave the residential suburban scene and jump into a dark tunnel where we pick up some speed. I wonder what the engineer's thinking right now as he gazes at his flickering computer screen. The Eurostar travels so fast that visual train signals along the track become useless blurs; the engineer has to rely on a computer screen for all his information.
I have to admit that sometimes I start zipping along so fast that I can't see any of the warning lights, and I miss important signals about slowing down for my own good or for the sake of others around me.
10:20 a.m. Out of the short tunnel ... Sydenham Hill Station... Herne Hill ... apartment buildings and row houses ... worn-out neighborhoods of brick and asphalt ... rough, shuddering tracks ... A double-decker bus below ... a wide river alongside—probably the Thames.
I think about the little man in the gray cap, and a snatch of Scripture from the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind. God's chosen ones, he declares, "will be like a well-watered garden." Hmm.... What if I were less like a speeding train and more like a watered garden?
If my life were a garden, then my heart would be a place of calm, patient waiting for things to come in their own due time: seasons of blossoms, seasons of plenty, and seasons of sleet and snow and seeming sterility. If my life were a garden to be tended, then my desire to control everything would no longer make sense, because a garden can't be forced or pushed or hurried along; a garden needs to be nurtured, not driven headlong like a train on a track. Then my efforts at prayer or work would take on a different meaning, because anything that a garden produces comes not as my accomplishment but as a mysterious, beautiful gift of nature's bounty.
I'm startled by the familiar electronic bell: Ping-pong-ping!
The triumphant announcement comes in two languages—we're arriving at Waterloo Station, London.... sorry for any problems caused by the delay. My ticket says, "Arrival Waterloo Int 10:13." We're pulling in at 10:35.
Being twenty-two minutes late is really embarrassing if you're an express train, but it's not so important if you're a well-watered garden.
Excerpted from Pilgrim Road by Albert Holtz. Copyright © 2015 Albert Holtz. Excerpted by permission of MOREHOUSE PUBLISHING.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPREFACE TO THE REVISED EDITION,
THE WEEKDAYS AFTER ASH WEDNESDAY: SETTING OUT,
THE FIRST WEEK OF LENT: MEETING MY TRUE SELF,
THE SECOND WEEK OF LENT: HOLY COMBAT,
THE THIRD WEEK OF LENT: THE CALL TO CONVERSION,
THE FOURTH WEEK OF LENT: AWARENESS OF GOD'S PRESENCE,
THE FIFTH WEEK OF LENT: HOPING IN THE LORD,
HOLY WEEK: ARRIVING IN JERUSALEM,
APPENDIX: INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR,