We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
A LECTIO FOR LENT
It seems that our lectio of Mark’s Gospel has happily reached a point which perfectly mirrors this moment in the liturgical calendar: the conditions of discipleship are placed into the context of our common and personal Lenten journey!
Just for a moment we need to take stock of where we are and what is happening. We have completed the compelling lectio around Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ-Messiah and Jesus’s rebuke to Satan to get away from him and know his place – one of defeat, and the antithesis of all that is God’s will. We have, in that moment, been invited to recalibrate our relationship with Jesus, and, following Peter’s example, feel the grace at work in us which calls us – allows us – to address Jesus in these terms. This is, above all, the work of the Holy Spirit, as St Paul affirms in the First Letter to the Corinthians:
“I want you to understand that on the one hand no one can be speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit and say ‘Curse Jesus’, and on the other hand, no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ unless he is under the influence of the Holy Spirit”I Corinthians 12:3
This invitation to be in relationship with Christ Jesus, Messiah and Lord of history, bears within it an undeniable grace to move away from all that will separate us from him. Such is the stark rebuttal which Christ hands out to Satan: what that one brings can have nothing to do with Christ, and so can equally have nothing to do with Christ’s real followers. St Paul again:
“With God on our side who can be against us? Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that he will not refuse anything he can give. Could anyone accuse those that God has chosen? When God acquits, could anyone condemn? Could Christ Jesus? No! He not only died for us – he rose from the dead, and there at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us.
“Nothing therefore can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked. As scripture promised: For your sake we are being massacred daily, and reckoned as sheep for the slaughter. These are the trials through which we triumph, by the power of him who loved us.
“For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord”Romans 8:31-39
This is Paul speaking as one who has made the journey from the anti-Christ camp to the fullest belonging to Christ, and who has led others to do the same. And his conviction, above, is almost overwhelming in its exultation!
So, returning now to the lectio. With all that has just happened and been placed before us, the evangelist Mark does something wholly unexpected – he lets his guard down! Just as it seems that Paul could not contain himself in writing to the Romans, so Mark, here, cannot hold back. With virtually no preparation, with no signalling, and only the slightest hint of what lies ahead forJesus in the first prophecy of the Passion, Mark throws before us the reality of the cross for the true follower of Jesus.
I don’t think anything can quite prepare us for the shock of what happens in these verses. Obviously, Mark shows himself here, very clearly, as one who is writing after the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The cross has not been mentioned – the preceding few verses say only that Jesus will be “put to death”, and not how that will happen. But it must be clear that Mark’s work here is intended for those who have at least heard something of how Jesus died, and that the cross has been central to that event. Mention of the cross at this point will have been far from meaningless for that first audience. But it will have had an immediacy which perhaps we cannot know or feel or experience.
We take for granted, perhaps, that Jesus died by crucifixion. It has, after all, been the compelling message of Christianity since the crucifixion itself. In some way, Mark, by suddenly throwing the cross into the narrative here, wants to strike us, take us by surprise, stop us in our tracks. We are confronted by the cross – and not, in, fact, by Jesus’ cross, but by our own cross!
“If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”Mark 8:34
The three conditions of true discipleship are clear here: renunciation of self; taking up one’s own cross; following Jesus. Perhaps there is even a sense of chronology: this renunciation, the growth which all serious seekers must undertake in humility and true knowledge of and acceptance of self, is fundamental as the first step. I cannot make the journey to Christ unless I have first made the journey toward self. It implies a real undertaking of separation – and this in itself necessitates the practice of discernment: if my heart’s desire is to follow Jesus, and be counted among his followers, then decisions about how I allow this world and its ways to embrace me, and hold me, must be identified and taken. I can’t belong both to Christ and the world.
It’s as good a time to begin Lent as any reading these words: renounce myself. The obvious question is: how?
In his chapter in the Rule on the observance of Lent (RB49), St Benedict gives us some assistance in this. It might serve us well to look at how he approaches the practice of Lent (and perhaps we should let ourselves into this secret: Lent is not simply a time or period of time, or liturgical season – it’s a spiritual practice)
“The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times”.Rule of St Benedict, RB49
Let’s begin with this little introduction. Benedict says, rather discouragingly, that the whole life of the monk should be a perpetual Lent! At face value, this probably enough to put any prospective vocation off the monastic life! But in another sense, Benedict is summing up here the invitation which Christ makes to his prospective followers in our lectio: Lent is the continual choice for Christ above everything else. It’s a long road, and will stretch us – we like our creature comforts, we often lack perseverance and are prone to throwing in the towel and returning to the familiar, and suffering, for most of us, is best avoided, principally because we find it difficult to find meaning in it. And Lent is a journey: it begins in our lives, at a certain point when we put our foot definitely on the path, and it leads to a very definite point: redemptive suffering, and new life. So, Benedict asks us to think for a moment: Lent isn’t simply about penance and deprivation. It’s about willed transformation in conversion aided by freely given grace.
Second, we don’t undertake this journey alone. St Benedict is very clear: we urge the entire community to take this on. He knows that we work better at tough endeavours if we do so in company with others. The Lenten journey is not a go-it-alone undertaking. This is not some nut going out into the forest to do reality TV, living on roots, insects and raw meat, fashioning clothes out of the biggest leaves he or she can find. The journey is one made in company with others, whom we carry and who, when the moment comes, will carry us. Lent becomes a microcosm of community living, because we can’t ignore those who believe and witness with us, and those who, conscious of our weaknesses and limitations, still live with us and encourage us.
Then he makes a wonderful point: Lent means correcting negligence. This, in monastic tradition, and especially in Cistercian teaching, is a major fault. To be negligent means that I act without care, ignoring what is important and taking no heed of the moments of grace in my life, and instead do as I please. Negligence pits my own will against God’s will, and settles for the former. So, the Lenten journey asks us to become more attentive. And this attention is about turning the ear of the heart to God’s voice in my life. Should we forget, Benedict brings us here right back to the beginning of the Prologue to the Rule:
“Listen, carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart”.Rule of St Benedict, Prologue 1
Thus, in Lent I become attentive again; I remind myself that God has not moved away from me, nor has he stopped addressing me, but I have stopped receiving what he has been always offering.
How, then, does all this happen?
“This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food and drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit. In other words, let each deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”Rule of St Benedict, Prologue 1
In case we are stuck for something, Benedict throws a few suggestions into the mix. It’s fascinating to see that, essentially, penance has not changed too much over the centuries: perhaps because we have refused to change with them! The works which Benedict suggests (and we might just as easily take as our Lenten discipline the chapter of the Rule which we call The Tools of Good Works, Chp 4), are, at first sight, utterly ordinary, almost banal. And yet they place the responsibility for our Lenten tools – and that’s what they are: means to an end – squarely on our own shoulders. Nothing is imposed here: Benedict wishes us to exercise our discretion – discernment – and make decisions about the tools which will best re-address our negligence in living our discipleship, and apply them as our Lenten tools to help us along the road to Easter.
And they do point very much in the direction of correcting negligence. Have we allowed “evil habits” to deflect us, having begun as little acorns, as it were, and grown to mighty oaks? We are asked in our discipleship to adopt a different kind of habitual behaviour – and there’s something enticing in the idea of “habit”: I shouldn’t really have to think twice about acting out of virtue, or charity, or forgiveness, or encouragement, or thanksgiving, or praise, or gentleness, or patience, or kindness, or love. My following Christ puts these as coins in my pocket, the common currency of daily life.
What are the good habits that I would like to plant in my life this Lent, to replace the evil habits that I’m going to pull up by the root?
Again, Benedict wants the serious seeker to be a person who gives themselves over willingly and with full attention to prayer, and deep prayer: with tears. This isn’t to be scoffed at. Prayer with tears is a sign of the Spirit’s work in our innermost being. It’s fascinating that Benedict has already spoken about these things in the chapter concerning reverence at prayer:
“We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words”RB20
Purity of heart is that ongoing work which strives to infy the heart as the dwelling place for the Trinity. It is, if you like, the day today banal work of laying aside the thoughts which distract us from the single God-thought that must consume us. Here Benedict links tears and compunction. This compunction is the gift of the pierced heart, my heart pierced by the loving mercy which God pours into me in forgiving me, and with this, the overwhelming realisation that I came close to forfeiting all this because of my own negligence and sin. To know compunction, I would suggest, is to know justification.
Self-denial is always going to be a tough one, both to define and to activate. It has something to do with humility, and yet humility is above all self-acceptance! So perhaps this self-denial is indeed the important work of the denial of false selfs, all those façades which serve to present various faces to the world which hide me and avoid revealing me. This is certainly a first step in self-denial: to remove those artificial personas which in the fullest sense deny the self which is me. But it is to be hoped, and realised, that this is never, and can never, be something which we undertake in isolation: no one ever found existence to have meaning unless it is expressed in relationships which are revelatory: I, in relation to another, come to know the other, and at the same time, allow the other to show me myself. This, indeed, might be the very root of so much rootlessness today, and not just today: the search for oneself is too often undertaken as the search for one alone with themselves.
Benedict holds out a few well-kneaded monastic examples to finish this little paragraph, but they don’t just find place and relevance in the monastery. And he introduces them by talking about “the usual measure of service”. This is really striking: our Christian life and discipleship is above all about service; it is founded on offering myself to the other; it finds its relevance and resonance in mirroring the example of the one who became a slave, even to the point of going to the cross. So, in all its fundamental starkness, my Christian discipleship pivots about this one point: service. My self-denial? To facilitate service. My prayer, of thanksgiving, praise, petition and intercession? To facilitate service. My fasting and abstinence, my discernment about speech and needless talk? To facilitate service.
“And this service is, first and foremost, service given to God”Romans 12:1-3
Lastly, in this short note about Lent and the lectio of discipleship: it must be framed within the beautiful wonder of the joy of the Holy Spirit. Above all, we shape our lives stamped by this anointing of joy: a joy which indicates that, while we always undertake the journey of Lent, because this work of conversion and transformation is never completed in this world, we are already men and women who know the experience of the Resurrection, and the Risen Jesus’ gift of peace and joy to his disciples, and look forward to the great Easter which will see all things and ourselves transformed.
We might say, if we have managed to get this far, that this passage in Mark’s Gospel should tell us definitively that in true lectio divina I cease to read the word and the Word begins to read me. Christ asks us here to reflect with him on our lives of discipleship: We can reframe these verses so that we place our own self in the first person with each statement, either as statement or as question:
Am I a follower of his? (Or, Are you a follower of mine? Christ is asking!)
Do I want to be a follower of his?
How do I renounce myself?
When do I take up my cross?
How do I show that I am following him?
What life do I want to save, that would forfeit the life that He promises?
How can I lose my life (in service?) for his sake and the sake of the gospel?
Am I ashamed of Christ and of his words?
Lent is about Christ only and the journey that he makes, again and again, until we decide that we can journey with him.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-