Lent is just a week away. In our monastery–as in monasteries everywhere–we follow the practice of Lenten Reading prescribed by St. Benedict in his Rule. In Chapter 48 he writes: “During this time of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library, and is to read the whole of it straight through. These books are to be distributed at the beginning of Lent.”
How do we concretely do this? It’s our custom here for each of the solemnly professed monks to either choose a book himself and let the Abbot know what he’ll be reading or to ask the Abbot to choose a a book for him. Fr. Robert follows the ancient custom, as was observed in St. Benedict’s day, to count the First Sunday of Lent as the starting date. (The interval of Ash Wednesday to the Saturday after Ash Wednesday was a later medieval addition). The Novice Director chooses a book for anyone in the novitiate, attempting to adjust the reading to the interests or personal agenda of the postulants or novices.
What is the point of the practice? For one, it marks Lent as a special time. Granted most monks and nuns are readers, some voracious readers. But to make a very conscious choice of a particular book at this particular time, as the days grow noticeably longer and winter melts into spring, is an intentional identification of a season of renewal. I recommit myself to sacred reading. I re-identify the priorities of my reading habits. I carve out time each day, even take time away from something else, to make this reading special. I may even put aside other sorts of reading (the sort I do for entertainment, for example) to refocus spiritual reading. Another reason is that I review my experience, my problems, my present questions or discoveries through this particular reading and allow God to shed light through it. And to permit that, I might tighten up my reading habits: I may read with more attention, more depth, more consideration. I might weed out some bad habits that have invaded my reading.
How do I pull it off? There are as many strategies as there are readers, I suppose. I might keep a particular time in the day sacred for nothing but reading. I may designate a favorite spot for reading. I might divide the number of pages in the book by forty and set a daily quota. I might choose a very long book and resolve to continue reading into the Easter Season. I might set a dead-line in each day by which I will have gotten around to reading. Or plan that enough caffein is at hand to keep me awake for the reading.
This is one Lenten practice that’s as attractive to people outside the monastery as to monks and nuns. I recall my Mom telling me about her routine. She was a nurse and kept the house, sewed her own clothes and was a dedicated cook; she loved spending time with her friends and her family; talking on the phone was either an avocation or lifeline for her. But when she got the family in bed she had the quiet of the house to herself and she’d preside over the night from her chair at the kitchen table and do a little needlework–and her daily reading. Over the years I was surprised to hear her off-hand references to something Merton wrote or that she had just read The Ratzinger Report, or that the book by that Schmemann person made some pretty good points; and then there were the reflections by John XXIII that she read and re-read… That was her strategy for carving out time in her busy day. It can be done. It doesn’t take much and it creates some quiet and solitude in our hectic world. And if you’re reading this on your computer screen you may want to try something I’d never do: check out Google Books. They offer free down-loads for your phone; under “religion” you can find classics like The Imitation of Christ.
Think about Lenten Reading this year. In a future post I’ll suggest some titles you may find helpful.