The Christian life is always a struggle across time. To quicken the heart, to still the spirit, to tame the passions—these are the work of a lifetime, assisted by the grace the Holy Spirit supplies. But the Scriptures consistently testify that the period of forty days opens us to God in a special way.
Especially when focused by prayer and fasting and carried out in a withdrawal from the world’s haste and distraction, a period of forty days gives space for deepened communion with God. Moses fasted for forty days before God revealed the commandments to him at Mount Sinai. Elijah fasted for forty days before receiving a vocation that would define the closing days of his ministry. Jonah warned the Ninevites that they had only forty days to repent of their sins and to seek God’s forgiveness. And of course, as we recall each year on the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus was sent forth by the Spirit into the wilderness to face the Devil’s temptations, fasting for forty days and discovering His saving mission.
When the leaders of the early church were aiming to fix a period of public penance before notorious sinners could be readmitted to communion at Easter, forty days was the natural choice. And when, a few centuries later, penance became privatized, it was only natural that all the faithful should be urged to a similar forty-day period to repent of their own sins in fasting and prayer, the period we still keep as the season of Lent.
The forty days of Lent should be a season apart from the world’s distractions, when we delight in silence and learn to feed on God’s Word. As you think through the rule you will keep this Lent, consider how you can set aside some time apart, slowing down your frenetic routine enough to listen and seek deeper wisdom and peace. Can you set aside ten minutes each morning to listen to God in silence? Can you turn off the tv or social media for forty days? Can you read a chapter of the Bible each night before bed, slowly, turning the words into your prayers? Could you get away for a day or two to make a retreat?
The Lenten retreat is a seasonal discipline that many have found fruitful over the past few centuries. We go away to a quiet place, beyond the reach of our technology, to rest and pray, to examine our consciences and turn to God in a new way. Some Christians, like our own patron Saint Francis, have retreated for a full forty days (he prayed alone on an island in Lake Perugia, living on just a half-loaf of bread). For most of us, only a few days would be possible, or just a single day, or maybe even a half-hour of retreat each day throughout the six-week span.
I will be away from you for five days to make a Lenten retreat early next month, staying with the All Saints Sisters of the Poor at their convent in Catonsville. I’m a priest-associate of their order, and have made retreats with them many times before. I’m looking forward to the silence and the time to tend my own soul, with some help from the prayers they chant together seven times a day.
You could try a few days with the All Saints Sisters yourself this Lent (just google them to find the details) or you could go to Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, where Pastor Allison generally makes her retreats. Or you can try just a day away. My friend Merrill Carrington, a spiritual director who is a member of Christ Church, Georgetown, will lead a retreat on the Lenten Ember Day, March 8 at Dayspring Retreat Center in Germantown.
I will be leading a half-day retreat, a “quiet day,” here at Saint Francis from 9-1 on Saturday, March 18. In keeping with our focus on Christ’s Cross this Lent at Saint Francis, I will offer a few meditations on a series of prayers called the Fifteen Os of St. Bridget. Written in the fourteenth century by a Swedish mystic, they were extremely popular in late medieval England, and provide some helpful guidance for how we can think and pray about the Cross today.
Finally, Pastor Allison and I will also be leading a Busy Persons’ Retreat from the First Sunday in Lent (March 5) until Holy Saturday (April 15). We are looking for up to five people who will commit to slowly reading two short books recently written by Archbishop Rowan Williams, Being Christian (2014) and Being Disciples (2016), and devoting time each day to reflecting on and praying about the core issues about the Christian life they present. Being Christian includes chapters on baptism, prayer, the Bible and the Eucharist. Being Disciples treats faith, hope and love; forgiveness; holiness; social action; and life in the Spirit. Retreat participants will meet individually with one of us for a half-hour once a week to discuss their progress, and we will gather as a group at least twice. To sign up, contact the Church Office.
Whatever your schedule and spiritual temperament permit, I hope you find the right way to seek deeper communion with God this Lent. Forty days, given to Him in faith and hope, can bring deep renewal and lasting change.