Advent – beginning the adventure

Today is the first day of Advent, the start of preparation for Christmas. After years of frustration with the materialism that overwhelms this season I never imagined that a book about the Liturgical Year written by a Benedictine nun would be the place where I found release and hope.

chittister-the-liturgical-year

Sister Joan Chittister published The Liturgical Year in 2009 as part of a series of books on Ancient Practices. The books respond to the hunger in every human heart for connection to God.  Joan Chittister has lived and taught spiritual practices as an internationally acclaimed speaker for over 30 years. Her writing flows like warm oil on my soul. She knows and understands the deepest longings of the heart and  she has wrestled with the complexity of living a life of faith in a cruel world. Reading her words is like sitting at the feet of a wise mentor.

The liturgical year is the christian church calendar that begins  at Advent and rolls through the following November. It walks us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But rather than it being a catalogue of days, Sister Chittister speaks of it as a framework for spiritual growth.

The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus. It does not concern itself with the questions of how to make a living. It concern itself with the questions of how to make a life.

“How to make a life” – now that sounds practical and relevant.

We live our lives in a cycle of years with each bringing us something new and significant. The year I was born. The year my father died. The year I got married. Each year is unique.  It marks our lives like the rings of a tree and tells the story of who we are becoming.

Jesus walked the earth through many years. As we follow his life through the liturgical year he leads us deeper into the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Today we can go back to the beginning to re-enter the Jesus story.  We can learn more of what his birth, death and resurrection mean for us. We can gain wisdom to name and claim our days.

The liturgical year is the year that sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ. It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God. The liturgical year is an adventure in spiritual growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening. page 6

Follow Jesus all the way to the heart of God?  Let’s think, pray and live our way into the adventure.

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LENT – making it meaningful

 giving up for lent

Twitter was buzzing recently as 140 thousand people shared information about what they plan to give up for Lent. While Twitter users are not necessarily representative of the general population, the results make interesting reading. Using social media, eating chocolate and drinking alcohol are high on the list. Ranked 11th is giving up Lent itself. Looks like we know our soft spots well –  the places where we give in to self-indulgence and carry a bit of guilt.

For years I put myself alongside those who gave up giving things up. I have dabbled in giving up chocolate, or coffee, but I usually struggled to stay committed. You see my heart has not been in it.  Lent carries us directly to Good Friday where we remember the suffering and death of Jesus. In contrast to this, my small attempts at self-denial felt trivial and led me to nothing that was remotely life changing. I couldn’t see a meaningful link between chocolate and crucifixion. The church I attended paid little attention to Lent. Easter for us at that time was about Holy Week – but it all seemed to happen too quickly.  The momentum of life charged on and I was left once again feeling cheated.  This was a big moment and I missed most of it.

Lent draws us in. We share an unspoken belief that self-denial is a good thing to do and 40 days feels like an amount of time that can be endured. Some of us use Lent to kick-start change in our lives. Others use it as a way of proving to ourselves and to others that our self-indulgent habits are reversible. We reckon we are in control of what we choose to do. And we believe that the tension between self-control and self-indulgence can be mastered. After all, we cheered through the Olympics as countless athletes panted through their victory speech, elated at their success and struggling to believe the unbelievable.

And yet there is a spiritual dimension to Lent that we also acknowledge. All of the major religions recognise a period of fasting for the development of the soul. This is about taking time to reflect on who we are becoming. It can be serious stuff. The ancient ascetics gave their lives to the pursuit of this spiritual maturity, practicing harsh penances and purging themselves of all comfort. Our meagre 40 days of giving up a few pleasures would be wholly inadequate in their eyes.

The story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness is sobering. It shows us that the battle against self-indulgence is part of being human. We constantly face temptation about who we are, what we own and what we do. Our choices have consequences.

So how can we engage with the tension between self-indulgence and self-control and use Lent in a meaningful way to gain some spiritual muscle?

Here are two resources that link together ancient spiritual practices with modern technology and amazing people. Together they have been transformational for me.

First I have read and re-read The Liturgical Year – the spiralling adventure of the spiritual life. This is a book written by a Benedictine nun that explores the liturgy – the major seasons of the church. In the liturgy, with its annual repetitions, we meet Jesus in history and we learn to recognise him with us today. Far from being a round of Christmas and Easter celebrations, walking in an annual cycle through the life of Jesus becomes ” an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fulness, the heart to alert and the soul to focus . . . It concerns itself with the questions of how to make a life”.

Seeing the rhythm of the years from the perspective of Jesus’ life keeps me focussed on God’s bigger picture. It reminds me of the significance of time. It helps me to understand who I am and to explore the purpose of my life.

24-7 PrayerAnd the second change for me has been to engage with a rhythm of prayer, specifically to pray the Lord’s prayer at midday every day. I discovered the richness of this through 24-7 Prayer, an organisation that exists to encourage Christians in bringing prayer into all aspects of life. This online community has been an enormous encouragement to me. Many christians run away from set prayers that could become a religious ritual. But the Lord’s Prayer is deeply significant. It challenges who I am, what I believe and how I behave. And best of all, it reminds me at the very beginning, that I am a child of God.

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was once asked, “If you could reduce all of Christianity down to the back of a single envelope what would you write?” To which he replied: “Well that’s simple, I would write out the words of The Lord’s Prayer”.

The 24-7 community gave us a challenge to set an alarm on our phones and pray the Lord’s prayer with them at midday every day. Have a look at the website here and consider whether this might work for you. The challenge is for life, not just for Lent.

How do you make Lent meaningful?