Thursday, February 18, 2016

LENT


           For forty days, the Church relives in the most literal sense the most sacred event in the history of the Cosmos, namely, the Resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  In forty days, the Lord Himself will resurrect in our parish church.  Indeed, it is an event so sacred that, properly speaking, none of us should be there.  Or rather, none of us deserves to be there.  That is why, in the psalmest sings: “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths, Guide me in your truth and teach me.”
            We have just started Lent.  That means that we get to spend the next forty days thinking about death, and that is why, on Wednesday, you came to Church and had your foreheads smeared with ash.  And while the minister applied this morbid reminder to your skulls, he said something along the lines of “Remember  you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
            So this week, we began our forty days of fasting, repentance, and self-denial. "This is the time of fulfillment,” says Saint John, “The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel."
            But why all the mourning and weeping, all the gloom and doom, all the self-denial and self-abasement.  Above all, why all the talk of death? 
St. Benedict said that a monk should reflect every day on the hour of his death.  And this isn’t bad advice for non-monks either.   St. Francis de Sales wrote in his Introduction to the Devout Life,  “Only one thing in life is certain.  You will die.  And sooner than you think.”
At St. Louis Abbey, we had this old monk named Br. Ed.  He was a genius. At the age of 76, he taught himself to play the harmonica and drew a cartoon version of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great.  He knew absolutely everything there was to know about bluegrass music, early American cinema, and Earnest Hemmingway.  In fact, his single most treasured possession was an autographed biography of Hemmingway that he had found at a used book store about twenty years ago.  He really loved this book.  And he kept it in a special place in his room.
In addition to all this, Br. Ed was also a total nut case.  He absolutely could not endure chaos, and if even one of his utensils was slightly out of line when he came to prayer, he could spew the most vile litany of expletives, the likes of which even the most seasoned sailor or criminal would be hard pressed to equal.  Br. Ed absolutely hated chaos, so he tended to avoid people whenever he could.  And he tended avoid me too.  In fact, I think it is not too great of an exaggeration to say that I was one of his all-time least favorite people ever.  And I can’t say I was one of his greatest fans either.  Now, shortly before I left for England three years ago, I celebrated my departure by cooking a big meal for the monks, the crowning achievement of which was a chocolate walnut torte.  I did this partly with Br. Ed in mind because I knew he liked his desserts.  As a matter of fact, I made three chocolate tortes, so that there would be plenty for everyone---and as a little gift to myself, I cut a piece off of one of them and placed it in the refrigerator wrapped in aluminum foil, with the intention of coming back for it the next morning, after all the cooking and baking and feasting was done.
So that’s what I did.  On Monday morning the next day, after we’d finished matins and lauds and breakfast, I made myself a big cup of coffee, and I found a good book, and I found a big comfy chair next to a window, and I went to the refrigerator to get my slice of chocolate torte.  But when I unwrapped it, I discovered that someone had gotten there first—indeed, had taken a bite out of my chocolate torte, wrapped it back up, and returned it to the refrigerator.  I can’t describe for you the depths of rage that I felt at that moment, contemplating my half-eaten, slobbered on slice of chocolate walnut torte.  And there was no doubt in my mind who had done it.  This work of colossal insensitivity had “Br. Ed” written all over it.
            So I went back to the kitchen, cut another slice of chocolate torte, wrapped it in foil just like the first one, and placed it in exactly the same place in the same refrigerator—BUT, not before soaking it in Lea and Pepper’s Super Hot Cajun Pepper Sauce.   The next morning, after we had finished matins and lauds and had our breakfast, I made my cup of coffee, found my spot by the window, and went back into the kitchen, there discovering, to my immense satisfaction, a whole spray of chocolate torte regurgitated on the floor next to the refrigerator.  Arguably, it was one of the most triumphant moments of my life.  A few weeks later, I left for Oxford.  Br. Ed didn’t even wish me goodbye. 
And when I came back from my studies three years later, Br. Ed was on his deathbed.  As far as I know, the chocolate torte incident had nothing to do with that, but I was suddenly struck with the realization that I could have been a little nicer to him.  And now, Br. Edward is dead.  He died that Christmas.  And he left me his biography of Hemmingway.
So this is why we are asked to reflect on death during this season.  Because thinking about death has a way of putting things in perspective.  There are people here today that you may never see again.  So this is a good time to tie up loose ends.  Make some apologies or say thanks to someone who has shown you kindness.  Above all, this is the time to make amends with God.  To set straight our spiritual lives so that we can look upon the day of our death with hope and joy.  So that we may not cringe when we hear the words which some angel will inevitably say to each one of us:  “"This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.”