O what a cunning guest
Is this same grief! within my heart I made
Closets; and in them many a chest;
And, like a master in my trade,
In those chests, boxes; in each box, a till:
Yet grief knows all, and enters when he will.
No screw, no piercer can
Into a piece of timber work and wind,
As God’s afflictions into man,
When he a torture hath designed.
They are too subtle for the subtlest hearts;
And fall, like rheums, upon the tend’rest parts.
We are the earth; and they,
Like moles within us, heave, and cast about:
And till they foot and clutch their prey,
They never cool, much less give out.
No smith can make such locks but they have keys:
Closets are halls to them; and hearts, high-ways.
Only an open breast
Doth shut them out, so that they cannot enter;
Or, if they enter, cannot rest,
But quickly seek some new adventure.
Smooth open hearts no fast’ning have; but fiction
Doth give a hold and handle to affliction.
Wherefore my faults and sins,
Lord, I acknowledge; take thy plagues away:
For since confession pardon wins,
I challenge here the brightest day,
The clearest diamond: let them do their best,
They shall be thick and cloudy to my breast.
George Herbert, 1593-1633
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace, may mercifully be relieved; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. – Collect for Lætare Sunday, Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘There seems almost to be a suggestion of pious, cloistered humour in the collect for Mid-Lent Sunday. As this is Refreshment Sunday our forefathers in the faith, while recognising their responsibility for the sin that made necessary the austerity of the season, yet claim some momentary relief before they enter on the special rigour of passiontide. If that is so, they certainly pass on from the thought of the particular relief to the more general consideration of final redemption and its release from the consequence of sin.
The attitude of the prayer is one of complete sincerity before God. We recognise our true condition. There is no attempt to offer excuses. We do not begin, as so many poor things have done when faced with the imminence of severe illness, bereavement, or death: “But I’ve done no wrong: why should this happen to me?” We admit our evil deeds and the justice of our punishment. We throw ourselves on God’s mercy. We admit that we worthily deserve to be punished.
Is this sincerity true of us individually as we repeat the prayer? How conscious are we of our own guilt? It is very easy to listen to the words as they are said or sung by the priest. We can even in a fashion accept them without letting them penetrate very deeply into our consciousness. All our responsibility and conventionality toughen the fibre of our self-respect and make it really difficult for such sentiments to pierce through to the heart. We need therefore to examine ourselves seriously as to our own state of mind.
To what evil deeds are we confessing? Mere peccadilloes, for which we excuse ourselves as soon as they are committed? Or real faults, for which we know in our heart of hearts there is no adequate excuse? Certainly, if we look deep enough, we shall find much of which we must honestly say, “My fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault”. We feel guilty both for what we have done and probably more for what we have left undone.
…For all this we acknowledge that we “worthily deserve to be punished”. No doubt we are talking in rather childish language. But as this is Mothering Sunday it is perhaps natural that we should revert to the language of the nursery, where, after all, the foundations of our moral life were laid. In any case there is an honesty and simplicity about it that is very refreshing. It is better than much of the psychology of today, which would put the blame for our bad dispositions on our environment, heredity, or childhood misadventures’.
from Reflections on the Collects, 1964
by William Wand KCVO, 1885-1977 (Bishop of London 1945-1955)
We beseech thee, O Lord, mercifully to have compassion on thy people: that they, who by thee are enabled to serve thee in all godliness, may ever be comforted by thy gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. – Collect for Ember Friday in Lent, Divine Worship: The Missal
‘On Ember Friday [in Lent] we are reminded of the ancient Lenten discipline of the Church. We would frequently be at a loss to understand Her liturgy of this season, unless we picture Her to ourselves as preparing the public penitents for a renewed participation in the Sacred Mysteries. But first they must be reconciled to God, Whom they have offended. Their soul is dead by sin; can it be restored to life? Yes; we have God’s word for it. The Lesson from the prophet Ezechiel, which the Church began yesterday for the catechumens, is continued today for the benefit of the public penitents. If the wicked do penance for all his sins, which he hath committed, and keep all My commandments, and do judgment and justice; living he shall live, and shall not die. But his iniquities are upon him and rise up against him, crying to Heaven for eternal vengeance! And yet God, Who knows all things, and forgets nothing, assures us that He will not remember iniquities which have been redeemed by penance. Such is the affection of His Fatherly Heart, that He will forget the outrage offered Him by His child, if this child will but return to its duty. Thus then the penitents are to be reconciled; and on the Feast of the Resurrection they will be associated with the just, because God will have forgotten their iniquities; they themselves will be just men. Thus it is that the Liturgy, which never changes in its essentials, brings frequently before us the ancient discipline of public penance’.
from The Liturgical Year by Dom Prosper Guéranger OSB, 1805-1875
Betwixt and between the delights of tossing - and then, all importantly, devouring - tasty pancakes on this day colloquially known in these islands as ‘Pancake Day’ a deeper spiritual significance is to be found. At the heart of this final day of Pre-Lenten Septuagesimatide preparation is of the essence. Though today is more widely known as Shrove Tuesday, it doesn’t immediately evoke in the popular mind its true origin in the ancient practise of confessing and being forgiven - being shriven - for one’s sins today. But that’s what today surely ought to be about for Christians, at least: the knowledge of the absolute necessity of being right with God before we enter into the great and solemn season of Lent; a time of reform and renewal, which, like any good endeavour, first requires proper preparation and planning. Whether North American pancakes with sausages and maple syrup, or English crepes with lemon and sugar, the point of such feasting is predicated on a joyful farewell to the delights of our usual condition before we get down to serious business. And sin - and the need to be shriven of it - is central to that. A clean slate, as it were, before we receive the blessed ash tomorrow and are reminded that dust we are, and unto dust we shall return. So if we truly wish to celebrate the culinary delights of this day’s merriment, our souls ought to be as willing as our bodies to receive those good things that God so desires us to have. Go to confession!
‘For our religious life Lent is a season of tremendous significance; it is the Church’s forty day retreat, the time par excellence for spiritual reform and interior renewal. As baptised penitents we enter the arena with Christ in order to share in His resurrection at Easter. The Lenten liturgy is as luxuriant as spring itself; no other season of the entire year is so rich in liturgical texts. We who wish to make the liturgy our guide to piety will devote ourselves during Lent to the task of intensifying our religious life in accordance with the spirit of Mother Church.
The purpose of Pre-Lent is to condition ourselves for the proper observance of Lent, since every good work needs due preparation. During the few days left before Ash Wednesday we should arrive at a definite answer to the serious question, “How am I going to keep Lent this year?” A liturgical parish will also take counsel with its leader on the problem, “What can we as a body do this Lent?” Perhaps a word of caution is needed here: do not undertake too much lest you find it impossible to continue after a brief but over-zealous beginning. No one cares to be like the man in the Gospel who began to build a tower and then could not finish it, thus incurring the scorn of his neighbours. Therefore, not too much; but some specific resolutions whereby this Lent will be different from previous years are necessary.
…What shall I do about fasting? Do not underestimate the value of this holy discipline; the liturgy speaks of it in terms of the highest respect… Each one should determine exactly how much and what he will eat at breakfast and supper; whether he can give up afternoon coffee; how often during the week he will abstain from desserts, and so on. Fasting in the wider sense – abstinence from our favourite action – should likewise be on the agenda.
…Closely related to fasting is almsgiving. Our alms for Christ’s poor brethren we lay upon the altar at the Offertory of the Mass. And what of our prayer life? Certainly we will devote more time to the Church’s official prayer book, the Breviary; perhaps it would be good to say certain Hours at very definite times and with special fervour’.
from The Church’s Year of Grace, 1953, by Pius Parsch, 1884-1954
‘The three Sundays preceding Lent are called Septuagesima (seventieth), Sexagesima (sixtieth), and Quinquagesima (fiftieth). Actually they are not the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth days before Easter as their names would indicate. These titles seem to have been arbitrarily chosen for the sake of round numbers, in keeping with the much older term of Quadragesima (fortieth) which denotes the first Sunday of Lent.
The preparatory time of pre-Lent was established by the practice of the Greek Church, which started its great fast earlier than the Roman Church did. We find the pre-Lenten Sundays mentioned as early as 541, in the fourth Council of Orleans. At the time of pope Saint Gregory I (604) they were already celebrated in Rome with the same liturgical Mass texts that are used today.
The spirit of pre-Lent is one of penance, devotion, and atonement, the Sunday Masses and the liturgical rules reflecting this character. The Gloria is omitted, purple vestments are worn, and the altars may no longer be decorated with flowers.
In ancient times, when the law of abstinence was much stricter and included many other foods besides meat, the clergy and a good number of the laity started abstaining progressively during the pre-Lenten season, until they entered the complete fast on Ash Wednesday. After Quinquagesima (i.e., the last Sunday before Lent) this voluntary fasting began with abstinence from meat; consequently, this Sunday was called Dominica carnevala (Farewell-to-meat Sunday), from which comes the word “carnival”. Another, more scholarly, explanation of the derivation of carnival is that it comes from the Latin Carnem levare (carnelevarium) which means “withdrawal” or “removal” of meat.
The Oriental Church, too, abstained first from meat, but began on Sexagesima (the second Sunday before Lent), which is called “Meatless” (apokreo, in Greek; miasopust, in Slavic). With Quinquagesima the Eastern Church began (and still begins) the abstinence from butter, cheese, milk, and eggs. Thus in eastern Europe that day is called “Cheeseless Sunday” (syropust).
In preparation for Lent the faithful in medieval times used to go to confession on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. From this practice, that day became known as “Shrove Tuesday” (the day on which people are shriven from sins). An old English sermon of the eleventh century exhorts the faithful thus: “In the week immediately before Lent, everyone shall go to his confessor; and his confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do”’.
from The Easter Book, 1954, by Fr Francis Weiser SJ, 1901-1986
‘The grave maternal voice of the Church will soon be heard, inviting us to the Lenten penance; but she wishes us to prepare for this laborious baptism by employing these three weeks in considering the deep wounds caused in our souls by sin. True the beauty and loveliness of the Little Child, born to us in Bethlehem, are great beyond measure; but our souls are so needy that they require other lessons than those He gave us of humility and simplicity. Our Jesus is the Victim of the divine justice, and he has now attained the fulness of his age; the altar, on which he is to be slain, is ready: and since it is for us that he is to be sacrificed, we should at once set ourselves to consider what are the debts we have contracted towards that infinite Justice, which is about to punish the Innocent One instead of us the guilty.
The mystery of a God becoming Incarnate for the love of his creature has opened to us the path of the Illuminative Way; but we have not yet seen the brightest of its Light. Let not our hearts be troubled; the divine wonders we witnessed at Bethlehem are to be surpassed by those that are to grace the day of our Jesus’ Triumph: but that our eye may contemplate these future mysteries it must be purified by courageously looking into the deep abyss of our own personal miseries. God will grant us his divine light for the discovery; and if we come to know ourselves, to understand the grievousness of original sin, to see the malice of our own sins, and to comprehend, at least in some degree, the infinite mercy of God towards us, we shall be prepared for the holy expiations of Lent, and for the ineffable joys of Easter.
The Season, then, of Septuagesima is one of most serious thought... [T]he Christian, who would spend Septuagesima according to the spirit of the Church, must make war upon that false security, that self-satisfaction, which are so common to effeminate and tepid souls, and produce spiritual barrenness. It is well for them, if these delusions do not insensibly lead them to the absolute loss of the true Christian spirit. He that thinks himself dispensed from that continual watchfulness, which is so strongly inculcated by our Divine Master, is already in the enemy’s power. He that feels no need of combat and of struggle in order to persevere and make progress in virtue (unless he have been honoured with a privilege, which is both rare and dangerous), should fear that he is not even on the road to that Kingdom of God, which is only to be won by violence. He that forgets the sins, which God’s mercy has forgiven him, should fear his being the victim of a dangerous delusion. Let us, during these days, which we are going to devote to the honest unflinching contemplation of our miseries, give glory to our God, and derive, from the knowledge of ourselves, fresh motives of confidence in Him, who, in spite of all our wretchedness and sin, humbled himself so low as to become one of us, in order that he might exalt us even to union with Himself’.
from The Liturgical Year by Dom Prosper Guéranger OSB, 1805-1875
‘Raymond was a noted canonist; he rendered great service to the Church through his redaction and codification of Pope Gregory the IX’s Decretals, a collection of juridical documents. At the age of forty-five, he entered the Dominican Order. He assisted in founding the Order of Our Lady of Mercy for the ransom of captives, by drawing up a rule. He also had the gift of miracles, the most remarkable of which occurred on a return from the Balearic Isles to Barcelona. On that occasion he stretched his cloak on the sea and sailed the distance of 160 miles in six hours; arriving at his monastery, he entered through closed doors. He died in 1275, almost one hundred years old. Raymond was an excellent confessor, for which reason he is honoured as the patron saint of those who hear confessions’.
from The Church’s Year of Grace, 1953, by Pius Parsch, 1884-1954
O God, who didst appoint blessed Raymond excellently to minister the Sacrament of Penance, and didst wondrously make for him a passage upon the waves of the sea: grant, we pray thee; that, at his intercession, we may bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, and be found meet to attain to the harbour of everlasting salvation; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Divine Worship: The Missal
‘For the third time this year, Holy Church comes claiming from her children the tribute of Penance which, from the earliest ages of Christianity, was looked upon as a solemn consecration of the Seasons.
The beginnings of the Winter, Spring, and Autumn quarters were sanctified by abstinence and fasting, and each of them, in turn, has witnessed heaven’s blessing falling upon their respective three months; and now, Autumn is harvesting the fruits which, divine mercy, appeased by the satisfactions made by sinful man, has vouchsafed to bring forth from the bosom of the earth, notwithstanding the curse that still hangs over her. The precious seed of wheat, on which man’s life mainly depends, was confided to the soil in the season of the yearly frosts, and with the first fine days, peeped above the ground; at the approach of glorious Easter, it carpeted our fields with its velvet of green, making them ready to share in the universal joy of Jesus’ resurrection; then, turning into a lovely image of what our souls ought to have been in the season of Pentecost, its stem grew up under the action of the hot sun; the golden ear promised a hundredfold to its master; the harvest made the reapers glad; and now that September has come, it calls on man to fix his heart on that good God, who gave him all this store. Let him not think of saying, as that rich man of the Gospel did, after a plentiful harvest of fruits: My soul! thou hast much goods laid up for many years! take thy rest! eat! drink! make good cheer! And God said to that man: Thou fool! this night, do they require thy soul of thee! and whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? Surely, there is too much of the Christian among us to allow us to be senseless in that way. If we would be truly rich with God, if we would draw down his blessing on the preservation, as well as on the production, of the fruits of the earth, let us, at the beginning of this last quarter of the year, have recourse to those penitential exercises, whose beneficial effects we have always experienced in the past. The Church gives us the commandment to do so, by obliging us, under penalty of grievous sin, to abstain and fast on these three days, unless we be lawfully dispensed.
Let us not, in our prayers and fasts, forget the new Priests and other Ministers of the Church who... are to receive the imposition of hands. The September ordination is not usually the most numerous of those given by the Bishop during the year. The sublime function to which the Faithful owe their Fathers and Guides in the spiritual life has, however, a special interest at this period of the year, which, more than any other, is in keeping with the present state of the world, which is one of rapid decline towards ruin. Our Year, too, is on the fall, as we say. The sun, which beheld rising at Christmas, as a giant who would burst the bonds of frost asunder and restrain the tyranny of darkness - now, as though he had grown wearied, is drooping towards the horizon; each day we see him gradually leaving that glorious zenith, where we admired his dazzling splendour, on the day of our Emmanuel’s Ascension; his fire has lost its might; and though he still holds half the day as his, his disc is growing pale, which tells us of the coming on of those long nights when Nature, stripped of all her loveliness by angry storms, seems as though she would bury herself forever in the frozen shroud which is to bind her. So it is with our world. Illumined as it was by the light of Christ and glowing with the fire of the Holy Ghost, it sees in these our days that charity is growing cold, and that the light and glow it had from the Sun of Justice are on the wane. Each revolution takes from the Church some jewel or other, which does not come back to her when the storm is over; tempests are so frequent that tumult is becoming the natural state of the times. Error predominates and lays down the law. Iniquity abounds. It is our Lord himself who said: When the Son of Man cometh, shall he find, think ye, Faith on earth?
Lift up, then, your heads, ye children of God! for your redemption is at hand. But from now until that time shall come, when heaven and earth are to be made new for the reign that is to be eternal, and shall bloom in the light of the Lamb, the Conqueror, days far worse than these must dawn upon this world of ours, when the elect themselves would be deceived, if that were possible! How important is it not, in these miserable times, that the Pastors of the flock of Christ be equal to their perilous and sublime vocation; let us then fast and pray; and how numerous soever may be the losses sustained in the Christian ranks of those who once were faithful in the practices of penance, let us not lose courage. Few as we may be, let us group ourselves closely round the Church, and implore of that Jesus, who is her Spouse, that he vouchsafe to multiply his gifts in those whom he is calling to the - now more than ever - dread honour of the Priesthood; that he infuse into them his divine prudence, whereby they may be able to disconcert the plans of the impious; his untiring zeal for the conversion of ungrateful souls; his perseverance even unto death in maintaining, without reticence or compromise, the plenitude of that truth which he has destined for the world, and the unviolated custody of which is to be, on the last Day, the solemn testimony of the Bride’s fidelity’.
from The Liturgical Year by Dom Prosper Guéranger OSB, 1805-1875
Grant, we beseech thee, O Lord, to us thy humble servants: that we, who do refrain ourselves from carnal feastings, may likewise fast from sin within our souls; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Collect for the Ember Wednesday in September, from Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘The Ember days of the “seventh month,” September (from septem meaning “seven”; September was formerly the seventh month in the calendar, March being the first) have retained more of their original “ember" character (i.e., a time of thanksgiving and spiritual renewal) than the other Ember days, which reflect more or less the spirit of the current liturgical season. Three themes are prominent in the Masses, that of harvest, that of the Jewish feasts of the seventh month, that of spiritual renewal. Originally the autumn Ember days commemorated a “wine-press feast,” and this accounts for the many references to the subject.
Secondly, the Jewish festivities during the seventh month were prognostic of the Christian Ember liturgy. For among the Jews three feasts were kept, the civil new year at the beginning of the month; the Day of Expiation, a day of strict penance on which the high priest entered the Holy of Holies with sacrificial blood; and, thirdly, the feast of Tabernacles, the joyful harvest festival which likewise was a memorial of the time Israel dwelt in tents while on the journey through the wilderness. Our present Ember days are not without relation to the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, the time at which the people lived in twig houses.
And lastly, the Ember days mean serious spiritual renewal, an occasion at which we ought to pray and fast and do penance. The character, then, of this week is thanksgiving and penance’.
from The Church’s Year of Grace, 1953, by Pius Parsch, 1884-1954
‘Thou, O man, hast two enemies, sin and death, that is to say, the death of the soul and the death of the body. Christ is come to conquer both, and from both will He save thee. Only be not afraid. Even already He has vanquished sin in His own Person by taking upon Himself our human nature, free from all defilement. For great violence was done to sin, and it manifestly sustained a heavy defeat, when that very nature which it boasted of having entirely corrupted and completely subdued, was found in Christ wholly reclaimed from it. After this first victory, He “will pursue after (thy) enemies and overtake them, and (He) will not turn back again till they are consumed”. Fighting against sin during His mortal existence, He will oppose it with His words and example; in His passion He will bind it, He will bind “the strong man and plunder his house”. Then, as regards death, He will in the same manner and order vanquish it first in Himself, when He rises from the tomb, “the first-fruits of them that sleep... the First-Begotten of the dead”. Afterwards He will overcome it in us also, when He will raise up again our mortal bodies: so shall our enemy, death, be at last destroyed. Therefore will He be “clothed with beauty” at His resurrection, not, as now in His nativity, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Therefore He whose Heart is now brimming over with mercy, Who now judgeth no man, will then, at His rising, gird Himself, and with the cincture of justice will seem to restrain, so to speak, the flowing robes of His mercy. For from that time He shall be prepared for the judgement, which is reserved for our resurrection. And therefore He comes now as a Little One, in order to give mercy the precedence, and that mercy, going before, may temper the severity of the final judgement which must follow’.
from the first sermon for Christmas Day by St Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090-1153
O God, by whose grace the blessed Abbot Bernard, kindled with the fire of thy love, became a burning and a shining light in thy Church: grant, at his intercession; that we may be inflamed with the same spirit of love, and ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘The Lenten journey, in which we are invited to contemplate the Mystery of the Cross, is meant to reproduce within us “the pattern of his death” (Ph 3:10), so as to effect a deep conversion in our lives; that we may be transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit, like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus; that we may firmly orient our existence according to the will of God; that we may be freed of our egoism, overcoming the instinct to dominate others and opening us to the love of Christ. The Lenten period is a favourable time to recognise our weakness and to accept, through a sincere inventory of our life, the renewing Grace of the Sacrament of Penance, and walk resolutely towards Christ.
Through the personal encounter with our Redeemer and through fasting, almsgiving and prayer, the journey of conversion towards Easter leads us to rediscover our Baptism. This Lent, let us renew our acceptance of the Grace that God bestowed upon us at that moment, so that it may illuminate and guide all of our actions. What the Sacrament signifies and realises, we are called to experience every day by following Christ in an ever more generous and authentic manner. In this our itinerary, let us us entrust ourselves to the Virgin Mary, who generated the Word of God in faith and in the flesh, so that we may immerse ourselves - just as she did - in the death and resurrection of her Son Jesus, and possess eternal life’.
from Rediscovering our Baptism: Message for Lent 2011, given at the Vatican by Pope Benedict XVI
Fr Lee Kenyon
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