The Life of a Continuous Lent

St. Benedict writes in the 49th chapter of his rule that “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.” He goes on, acknowledging that since few have such strength, so should the monks take on certain Lenten disciplines. “Wash away in this holy season,” Benedict says, “the negligences of other times.”

What is true in monastic life is often true in others. Lay persons, religious, clergy, bishops. Even the Cardinals and the Pope. Every vocation comes with its own Lent, its own unique cross and suffering.

One of the most provocative explorations of suffering is Albert Camus’ 1942 novel, The Stranger. Its opening lines—famous in themselves—set the story:

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”

The speaker is Meursault, the infamous protagonist who embodies Camus’ philosophy, absurdism.

Absurdism maintains that the universe is irrational and meaningless, and that man’s attempts to find or uncover meaning will be fruitless. Thus are our lives “absurd.” We have ultimate questions that can never be answered.

Meursault, we will learn, is wholly indifferent: to people, to others, to violence against women, to law, to order, and to God. He has no bonds or substantive relationships. For Meursault, all is meaningless.

The Christian life as manifest in Benedict’s Rule operates as a sort of antidote to the meaninglessness of Camus’ Meursault, and more broadly to the modern world’s crisis of meaning. Unlike Camus’ Meursault, the Christian believes that life and suffering are not meaningless; rather, our existence is always being transformed by the Paschal Mystery, in our everyday sacrifices as in moments of profound suffering.

This is what we celebrate in Lent: that in the passion, death, resurrection of Christ, we are not only forgiven and saved, but our suffering can take on a new dimension. We “rejoice to the extent that [we] share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed [we] may also rejoice exultantly” (1 Peter 4:13).

By virtue of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, suffering is not meaningless. It is not removed, certainly, but transformed. What Paul Claudel said is true: “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His Presence.”

Our lives are “graced” by nature of our baptisms, and whatever sufferings we might bear going into Lent—and whatever disciplines we may take on—are opportunities for Christ to suffuse us with His grace. For after all, we must cooperate with the saving grace of Christ. We cannot earn it. But we can accept it, then cooperate with it.

Laying on his prison bed the night before his execution for committing a senseless crime, Meursault reflects: “For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a  brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”

This Lent, we are offered a chance to reorder our lives, not around an indifferent world, but around a loving God. Our prayer would thus look very different from Meursault’s:

“I opened myself to the grace of Christ. Finding Him so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.”

May our details of “some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting” help us “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing” (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 49).

St. Benedict, pray for us.