‘Open to me, the doors of repentance, O Life Giver, for my spirit rises early to pray towards thy holy temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled…’
This week in Madonna House had one primary theme to it, and that was of course the beginning of the great Lenten season. So what do we do for Lent here at MH? On one level, very little changes. We do not have any particular communal fast that we take on—there is far too great a range in the age, health, and dietary needs of those living here to practically do anything along those lines. Young men who are working out in the bush chopping and hauling wood all day do in fact need a certain amount of calories that perhaps an older and more sedentary member of the community does not.
No, our life goes along in its own pattern, which is after all one of ora et labora, prayer and work, simplicity of diet and a moderate austerity of lifestyle along with a life of service to others. We are not wholly remote from the Lenten spirit throughout the year, in other words.
It is left to the individual to discern what he or she is going to do in addition for Lent. I would say that a lot goes on, prayer and fasting-wise, at that personal level, of course. Our main communal expression of Lent comes in the liturgy itself, which is so central in our lives. The music changes, most especially at Lauds, where we begin each morning with the hymn ‘Open to Me the Doors of Repentance’, taken from the Byzantine office. It is a sort of hymn supplement to Psalm 51, stichera or stanzas that intersperse the chanting of that great psalm of contrition.
And does it ever lay out the need for contrition for us, in graphic, almost brutal language: ‘I have wasted my life in laziness… I have profaned my soul with shameful sins… when I think of the many things I have done, wretch that I am…’ but always, each verse returns to what is far more important, far more central in all this Lenten business: the unfathomable, inexhaustible, total and tender mercy of God, and our crying out for that mercy.
There is something very bracing about this hymn, which is our first communal expression of prayer each weekday of the season. To just lay out before God (and one another, by the way) that I am not simply ‘misunderstood’ or ‘a victim of circumstances’ or ‘a really really nice guy just doing his best, you know!’ No.
I. Am. A. Sinner. Hurray for that! Because God loves sinners and delights in taking mercy on us.
So there is that, which is surely a major factor in our Lenten tone. We also have the Prayer of St. Ephrem at the end of Lauds, about which I may blog next week a bit. One of the other great gifts of our Lenten season is the selection of books for our post-lunch common spiritual reading. Have I mentioned that before, that after lunch each day we have about a half hour of spiritual reading, generally one of the priests reading through some book or other, followed by discussion.
In Lent we have some classic books we like to read, such as Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann or The Lenten Spring by Thomas Hopko, which have fantastic teachings on the Lenten spirit from an Orthodox perspective. This is one time of year when, while the liturgical expressions vary, our minds and hearts are truly one with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, so it is good to listen to them on this subject. I will be sharing excerpts from these books in the weeks ahead.
Otherwise, life goes on pretty normally in MH. The men have been doing their annual (?) job of oiling the floor in the dining room, which they rather ingeniously do in sections so as to minimally disrupt our common life. The guest numbers are up again, as several people have decided to at least begin their Lent at MH, and some have come for longer visits yet. Lent also means an upsurge in requests for retreats, missions, and the like, and so today some our staff are helping with a retreat day for the local Catholic college, and various priests (myself included) will be heading out on the (parish) mission trail over the weeks ahead.
Already Easter preparations are beginning. The handicraft department is carving the Paschal candle, the kitchen is preparing the special Easter foods of pascha and koolitch, the one a confection of cottage cheese sweetened and enriched with butter, eggs, and raisins, the other a sweet bread that is the standard Easter food of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.
And that’s about it for the news and views from here. May the doors of repentance swing open in your homes and hearts this Lent and may we all go through those doors together, so that God may welcome us within them, and escort us into the dining hall of the Paschal feast that lies on the far side of those doors.