Dear Friends in Christ,
As we enter the porch of Lent when life’s pace for many of us quickens, I’m reminded of a story. The Roman Emperor Hadrian was accosted once by an old woman whom he brushed aside by saying he was too busy to give her a hearing. She replied, “Then you’re too busy to be emperor” whereupon he stopped and listened to her complaint. So before you add to an already pressured life what you think it will mean for you to have a well observed Lent, consider these few thoughts.
The outward forms of the Lenten disciplines are not spelled out in our prayer book with any specificity, nor should they be. For I suspect that if each of us went to a doctor of the spiritual life, as one goes to a physician for a checkup, the diagnosis, and subsequent prescription for our spiritual maladies would be different for each of us. Perhaps in many cases we would not find the “soul doctor’s” prescription some dreadful duty of denial, but a welcome relief that we would gladly embrace if given “permission” to do so. I can easily imagine a devout, overly busy Christian being told by a doctor of the spiritual life that what he or she needs for Lent is physical exercise (I Timothy 4:8a), to read a good novel (note: good not cheap), sleep more, learn to laugh again, and fall in love with the Author of Life (I Timothy 4:8b).
One memorable spiritual master of Twentieth century England was Father Hugh Maycock. Connected with Cambridge between 1944-1952, and Oxford during 1952-1970, he was a formative influence on many young scholars. One of his former students, Kenneth Leech in recounting what he had learned from Fr. Maycock, noted two unusual disciplines: the value of sleep and laughter.
Sleep and payer are closely related, as any student of the Bible can observe. In fact on more than one occasion the disciples slept when they should have been vigilant in prayer, and at least once Jesus slept when the disciples thought he should have been praying (or at least bailing water). Both sleep and prayer call for slowing down, a relaxed condition, and “abandonment in trust.” Since many committed Christians today live their lives in a permanent state of semi-exhaustion to embrace a discipline of proper sleep can be spiritually helpful-a true preparation for the Sabbath rest of the people of God.
Then there’s the importance of laughter. Kenneth Leech writes, “Laughter is necessary to our sanity: a person with no humor is like an iron bridge with no give in it. It is vital, too, that we learn to laugh at ourselves.” Laughter has been shown to have therapeutic qualities for the mind and the body. It also has value for our life with the Lord. As the psalmist recalled in the day of God’s restorative presence:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
Then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filed with laughter,
And our tongue with shouts of joy. (Psalm 126:1-2)
So, how does one go about choosing a discipline for Lent? Oddly enough, one of the more spiritually refreshing Lenten seasons that I can remember as a busy parish priest was a year I decided I would take better care of myself physically. Regular exercise, eating well, and fully taking my day off was spiritually restoring in ways I did not anticipate-though do not misunderstand me here; I remained steadfast in prayer, in study of Scripture, the rhythm of Eucharist, and fully engaged in ministry. So don’t just decide you will do without chocolate, coffee, or some equally knee-jerk, and, possibly, fruitless undertaking. Rather, consider seeking the advice of a wise, discerning Christian friend or spiritual mentor. Ask the counsel of a priest or pastor; prayerfully listen to God while in prayer or in church. Just don’t be too surprised at what you hear. It may be a delightful prescription you hear uttered in stillness: “slow down,” “sleep more,” “laugh a lot” or “spend more quality time with your family.” Of course there will be those who hear, “get the lead out,” (Hebrews 12:12-13) “quit nursing your wounds and get on with the rhythms of grace,” (see Hebrews 12:15) and for most of us: “face into your sin, repent, and enter the joy of being reconciled to God and your neighbor.” It is just that the last of these, facing into our sin may include for some of us the recognition that we have been engaged in a vain attempt to shoulder a heavy yoke the Lord has not called us to carry alone and certainly not without the joy of a Sabbath rest or the Hope of the Easter Resurrection.
Gratefully and gracefully yours,
–(The Rt. Rev.) Mark J. Lawrence is Bishop of South Carolina