During the Pre-Lenten Season it is indeed time to begin thinking about how we will observe Lent. The Rt. Rev. A.C.A. Hall was Bishop of Vermont about a hundred years ago. The following is very direct in giving sound advice. (Coming also this week, a look at Richard Hooker's sacramental theology, rooted in the Incarnation.)
Some Hints for Lent By the Rt. Rev. A.C.A. Hall
Bishop of Vermont (Episcopal Church) in the early 20th century
"WHAT mean ye by this service?" the Jewish child was to ask his parents; it the yearly celebration of the Passover. Many who endeavor to "Keep Lent'' lose much of the profit they should derive from its observance, because they have not clearly before them the object and purpose of the season.
The recurrence (if Lent is a call to renewed spiritual effort. This is the great object of the Lenten Season, that we may ''grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ" (2 S. Peter iii. 18). To this end all its exercises are to be directed. The chief duties of Lent, to be undertaken with this Purpose constantly in mind, are Retirement, Prayer, Fasting, Repentance, and Almsgiving.
I. Lent is a time for Retirement. We are bidden at this season to follow our Lord, in some measure, into the wilderness, and give a few weeks to a closer inquiry into the state of our souls, and a nearer approach to God.
We cannot, nor ought we to, withdraw from the duties of our state of life, whether in the family or in business. The retirement to which we are called is from the unrestrained social intercourse and from the amusements which at other times may be perfectly innocent, and even beneficial, but which we now put aside for a time, in order to give ourselves the better to higher and more important interests.
It would be well to make a rule not to go during Lent to any place of public amusement, and, as far as possible, to keep from social entertainments. Try to be sometimes alone. "Commune with your own heart, and in your chamber, and be still:" this is one great rule for Lent. Secure time, and freedom of mind, for prayer, for the study of God's Word, for self-examination, and the works of repentance, and for gaining instruction in religious matters.
Many persons remain in ignorance of much that they ought to know concerning Christian faith and practice, because they do not take pains to gain instruction. Persons often in these days are bewildered by some infidel objection or argument which is brought before them, and which, even if they cannot directly answer, they should, by their assurance of the positive truth of their religion, be able to withstand. For our own sake, for the sake of others whom we may help, and for the honor of our Lord, we ought to be ready with meekness and reverence, as St. Peter bids us, to give to every man that asketh us a reason of the hope that is in us (i S. Peter ii. 15). While carefully avoiding a controversial spirit it would be well in Lent to take in hand some instructive religious reading (e. g. of Church History), as well as that which is more distinctly devotional. Some time might be saved from newspapers and other light reading for this purpose.
II. Lent is a time for more frequent Prayer, both Public and Private.
A. Public Prayer.--Make a conscientious use of the opportunities provided for you in your own Parish. Very likely you cannot attend all the services. It may not be desirable that you should do so. Services of different characters and at different times are intended to meet the needs of various classes of persons. You will probably find it best to choose some one or more courses of services (as the daily prayers, or weekly service and instruction), and make a rule of regular attendance at these. If you are in a large city, where there are several churches, be on your guard against the danger of religious dissipation, going about with itching ears to hear different preachers, or to take part in different services, moved rather by curiosity than by devotion or a desire for edification.
If a Communicant, you may well desire to receive the Sacrament more frequently during this season. Abstaining from earthly food, and from social pleasures, you may approach more often the Holy Table to feed upon the Bread of Life, and hold communion with your Lord. No general rule can of course be given about the frequency of Communion. Each person must decide the question (with the help of such advice as he can get), according to his own needs and opportunities.
If not yet admitted to Holy Communion, or if you should have ceased to be a Communicant, remember that one special purpose of your Lent should be by a true repentance (concerning which some hints will be given presently) to be prepared worthily to receive the Holy Sacrament at Easter. If we are rightly to commemorate our Lord's Passion, the atoning death of the spotless Lamb of God Who taketh away the sins of the world, we must "shew forth His Death" according to His commandment, pleading in His own appointed way His Sacrifice as the ground of our hopes, and seeking to have its merits applied individually to ourselves. In the typical Sacrifice of the Passover, the lamb was not only to be slain, but for any to share in the benefits of the sacrifice the blood of the victim must be sprinkled upon their house, and they must feed upon its flesh (Ex. .ii.). "Christ our Paschal Lamb is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast'' (i Cor. v. 7, 8).
If you have not been confirmed, you should in Lent set yourself distinctly to prepare, both intellectually and morally, for that holy rite, that by the Seven-fold Gift of the Holy Spirit you may be strengthened for your Christian life, and be ready to receive the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of Christ.
B. Private Prayer,--Do not let anything hinder from (nothing can take the place of) private personal communion with God. It would be very helpful to make a rule to pray over, for a few minutes, quietly in your room, and on your knees, each sermon and instruction that you hear. How many good impressions fade away and are lost for want of subsequent and prayful recollection, by which they should have developed into deliberate resolves, and so have been found fruitful in our lives The fowls of the air are too often allowed to snatch away (even at the Church porch) the good seed which has been sown.
Be careful to say your regular prayers with earnestness and devotion, adding, perhaps, morning or night, one or other of the Seven Penitential Psalms (vi, xxxii. xxxviii, li, cii. cxxx, cxliii), and one or more of the Ash-Wednesday collects from the Prayer Book. In the use of such prayers you will unite your private devotions with the penitential prayers and exercises of the Holy Church throughout the world at this common fast of Christendom.
Lent is a good time to begin or take up a fresh practice of meditation or the devotional use of Holy Scripture, reading and praying over a few verses, as one miracle or parable of our Lord, or one mystery in His Passion, and begging God to apply its lessons to yourself. Most persons could give a few minutes each day during Lent to this practice, and by its means would certainly be enabled to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In making any rule for this practice, it is better to devote a certain time (say five, ten, or thirty minutes, as you may be able), rather than to resolve to read a certain quantity.
III. Fasting.--All the forty days of Lent, the Prayer Book tells us, are to be observed with "such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion." Fasting is intended
1) To subdue the flesh to the spirit;
2) To express sorrow and humiliation, acknowledging ourselves undeserving freely to partake of God's good gifts, and avenging past wrongful indulgence;
3) To quicken the soul for prayer.
For all these purposes God's servants under both the Old and the New Dispensation have practised bodily mortification; nor can we without grievous fault and loss disregard a practice enjoined by our Lord's own example and constant teaching. All should form some rule for bodily discipline. Such a rule must vary with different persons, occupations, temperament and strength. It must not interfere with health, but should be such as to be really felt. All but very few could resolve to eat more sparingly and of a plainer diet, and to abstain during Lent from luxuries. Many perhaps by making a rule to rise somewhat earlier than usual would at once combat sloth and gain undisturbed time for devotion.
Amidst the enervating luxuries of our modern civilisation it is especially incumbent on Christian people to learn to endure hardness.
"What a shame," exclaimed a holy man of old, "to be the soft and luxurious member of a Head that was crowned with thorns!"
In Lent especially, when we commemorate first the Fast and then the Passion of our Lord, the Church, His mystical Body would have her members in sympathy with the suffering experiences of His natural Body, now much of the excess, intemperance and sensuality that among all classes bring disgrace on a so-called Christian land may be traced to the softness and absence of discipline of which perhaps we have boasted as the sign of Christian liberty, though in direct violation of the example and precept of Christ!
If the Word of God, the example of our Lord, the practice of His Church, the experience of His saints, and our own so far as we have followed in their steps, are to be of any weight, we must, if we would grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God, set ourselves to mortify the flesh with its affections and lusts. It is by the practice of self-denial with regard to things that may be innocent that we gain the power of self-control, and are enabled at once to say No when tempted to some unlawful action.
It is not of course the body only that needs control, though that in the disordered condition of our fallen nature is the cause of many sins. There must be a universal self-denial, including the discipline of our words, our tempers, our thoughts, our will. We must seek by degrees to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.
IV. Repentance.--This is the great work of Lent.
"Turn ye even to Me," saith the Lord, "with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning." (Joel ii. 12).
"Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him: and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (Isa. liv. 6, 7).
The work of Repentance in its several parts of self-examination, sorrow for sin, confession of sin, amendment and satisfaction, cannot be better summed up than in the weighty words of the exhortation in preparation for Holy Communion in the Prayer-Book. Those who would find acceptance with God are therein bidden:--"First, to examine your lives and conversations by the rule of God's commandments: and whereinsoever ye shall perceive yourselves to have offended either by will, word, or deed, there to bewail your own sin-fulness, and to confess yourselves to Almighty God? with full purpose of amendment of life. And if ye shall perceive your offences to be such as are not only against God, but also against your neighbors; then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them, being ready to make restitution and satisfaction, according to the uttermost of your powers, for all injuries and wrongs done by you to any other; and being likewise ready to forgive others who have offended you, as ye would have forgiveness of your offences at God's hand."
With regard to Self-Examination, consider not only your past life, but also your present state before God, the real condition of your soul in His sight: consider the graces and virtues that should adorn it, as well as the vices that actually disfigure it. Be definite in your examination and in all your repentance.
"I so run, not as uncertainly: so fight I, not as one that beateth the air," said the Apostle, (i Cor. ix. 26). Many of those who are really trying to serve God would have to say of themselves if they truly described their manner of struggle, "I run indeed but very uncertainly"--not keeping in view the goal to be reached, and stretching continually toward it, with no particular virtue that I am striving for, no definite standard before me; '' so fight I just like one that beateth the air," spending my strength in vain because I do not clearly see the enemy with whom I have to contend, and against whom I ought to direct my blows. Find out your besetting sin or sins, the faults into which you most commonly fall, that are at the root of most evil in your life, the habits that more particularly hinder and mar your Christian life. Set yourself during Lent in good earnest to combat these. Concentrate the force of your prayers, your self-denials, your sacraments upon these strongholds of the enemy within you.
"What evil habit," ask yourself, "am I specially to grapple with this Lent? What virtue in particular am I to cultivate?"
The Seven Capital Sins (so called because under one or other of these heads of evil all possible sins whether of thought, word, or deed, can be classified) are sometimes more helpful than the Ten Commandments as an outline for self-examination, because we are thus enabled to trace the symptoms of evil (condemned by God's commands) to the roots of evil horn which they spring. Pride, Envy, Anger are more especially the works of the devil; Covetousness, the worldly sin; and Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, the sins of the flesh. The capital sins are the development of the three-fold root of evil, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, which draw away from the love of God (i St. John ii. 16).
The knowledge of our sins must be followed by a humble Confession of them before Almighty God, with a true sorrow for the offence we have thereby committed against Him, and a sincere purpose of amendment. There can hardly be a better form of confession, if one be needed, than the General Confession in the Service for Holy Communion, if we say it in the singular number, slowly, and pausing at the end of each clause, to recall our own special transgressions, and to let the words we repeat find a real echo in our hearts.
Concerning the special further confession of our sins to God in the presence of His Priest, the exhortation which has been already quoted thus concludes; "Because it is requisite that no man should come to the Holy Communion, but with a full trust in God's mercy, and with a quiet conscience, therefore, if there be any of you, who by this means [of private personal repentance] cannot quiet his own conscience herein, but requireth further comfort or counsel, let him come to me [the Parish Priest], or to some other minister of God's Word, and open his grief; that he may receive such godly counsel and advice as may tend to the quieting of his conscience, and the removing of all scruple and doubtfulness."
Let none whose consciences are troubled, either with the burden of past sin or with evil habits from which they find themselves unable to break free, shrink from seeking the help and assistance of those whom (as Richard Hooker puts it) "our Lord Jesus Christ hath left in His Church to be spiritual and ghostly physicians, the guides and pastors of redeemed souls, whose office doth not only consist in general persuasions unto amendment of life, but also in the private, particular cure of diseased minds."
The bringing home to the individual soul of God's pardoning word may be of unspeakable comfort to the penitent, while the personal guidance of one accustomed to deal with spiritual things may be of great value to a soul in struggling against temptations.
Among "works of repentance" by no means forget the necessity of reparation for wrong done and of the forgiveness of injuries suffered, if we are to be ourselves at peace with God. Take care that you incur not the rebuke of the prophet, "Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness" (Isa. lviii. 4). Put away in Lent the leaven of malice and wickedness that you may celebrate the Paschal feast with "the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (i Cor. v. 8).
V. Almsgiving is another special duty of Lent. Some of the money which is saved from luxuries, from amusements, and from dress, should be devoted to pious and charitable purposes. Some of the time which is rescued from society may be well employed in works of mercy and kindly offices to those in spiritual and temporal need. "Break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor" (Dan. v. 27).
"Is not this the fast that I have chosen, saith the Lord, to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?" (Isa. lviii. 6, 7).
We may think of Lent as being spent under the teaching of St. John the Baptist. First he preaches Repentance, drawing the people after him into the wilderness, bringing home the conviction of sin, leading to confession, and enjoining works meet for repentance. Then to those thus prepared the Baptist pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world (St. Matt, iii., St. Luke iii., St. John i. 29). Having in the earlier weeks of Lent endeavored to deepen our repentance we too in Passion-tide are pointed to the Saviour and His Cross, that we may behold at once sin's work and its remedy. It is at the foot of the Cross that the great lessons of the Christian life are to be learned. Remember that the Son of God was given to be both a sacrifice for sin and also an ensample of godly life. Seek more truly to die with Him to sin that with and in Him you may rise to newness of life.
Three dangers we ought specially to guard against, lest we lose the benefit of Lenten observance.
Avoid formality; whatever measure of strictness you may be able to adopt, be real.
Avoid aimlessness; be definite in your purpose and endeavors.
Avoid gloominess; there should be a true joy even in penitence, since in penitence we are returning to Him Whose love has borne with us and recalls us to Himself.
The end of this, as of every, commandment is charity, the love of God above all on account of His own intrinsic worth, and of our brethren for His sake, out of a pure heart, cleansed by grace, and a good conscience, set at peace by true repentance, and of faith unfeigned, and strengthened by spiritual exercises, (i Tim. i. 5).