Lent has a habit of sneaking up on us. We’ve barely finished the Christmas leftovers and taken down the last strand of tinsel when Ash Wednesday pops up on the calendar.
Often there isn’t much time to prepare for the 40-day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, beyond a hasty resolution to give up something — alcohol, fast food, Twitter — that we’d been meaning to ditch anyway.
We sense there’s more to Lent than this. But what, exactly? Who better to ask than someone who follows the Rule of St. Benedict, which says that “the life of a monk ought always to have a Lenten character”?
Bishop Erik Varden belongs to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, who are known for their austerity. He is also the bishop-prelate of Trondheim, the leader of a diverse Catholic community in central Norway.
Varden talked to The Pillar shortly before leaving Trondheim for the New York Encounter, an annual cultural and faith event sponsored by Communion and Liberation, where he shared a stage with Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S.
In a phone interview, Bishop Varden discussed the power of the penitential season, the difference between fasting and dieting, and what to do if you’re having a “bad Lent.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Inspired by Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, Catholics observe Lent each year before Easter. But why?
It’s good to broaden the perspective a bit, because, yes of course, the Lord’s 40 days in the wilderness is the primary paradigm. But if we think back to the story of Noah, the flood filled the Earth during 40 days of unremitting rain. In Egypt, 40 days were required for the embalming of Jacob. When Moses stood before God on Sinai, he stayed enwrapped in the cloud for 40 days. When Moses sent spies to Canaan, to see what sort of land it was, they returned to camp after 40 days. And underneath all that and through it shines the example of the 40 years of Israel’s exodus journey.
So this 40-day period is not only a particular reference to Jesus’ fast — it is that too — but it also evokes a biblical pattern, a time of preparation for a grace to be received, during which time God acts in and through the people.
And that’s the really important thing: that these 40 days aren’t just a time during which we have to grit our teeth in order to arrive at our destination. But it’s a time during which the Lord would do something with us and in us, and that’s why it’s such a precious time.
Lent begins with the marking of a cross in ash on our foreheads as we hear the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Why does the Church want to give us this stark reminder of mortality on Ash Wednesday?
To ground us in the real, which the Church is good at doing, if we listen. And when you think about it, it’s a marvelously countercultural ritual and it’s a countercultural statement to walk out of church on Ash Wednesday with ash on your forehead.
I think it’s true to say that our Western culture is profoundly mendacious when it comes to death. We keep pretending that it doesn’t exist. And we do everything not to look it in the eye. And there is the Church, our Mother, telling us: Look, this is just the way it is. You know it’s the way it is. Face up to it. Face up to the fact that you are not God. Face up to the fact that you are a contingent being and that one day this life will cease. But face up also to that voice in your heart which speaks the truth, which tells you that death can’t be the end. Because that, of course, is what the Church goes on to say: well, of course it isn’t the end.
And the whole point of Lent is to prepare us precisely for Christ’s victory over death. There’s a case for saying that that is the fundamental dichotomy of Christianity. We easily think of Christianity, of the New Testament, as being structured on the dichotomy of sin/grace, sin/forgiveness, sin/redemption, and that is true.
But the fundamental conflict is between life and death. What we’re being taught during Lent is that death is real, as a consequence of sin, but it hasn’t got the last word.
The Church teaches that Lent should be a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But in everyday conversation, people ask each other: “What are you giving up for Lent?” Why do you think that Lent is associated mainly with “giving something up,” rather than prayer, fasting, and almsgiving?
I don’t think those things are necessarily disconnected, because giving something up is one way of exercising fasting. And it can be one way of preparing yourself for almsgiving if you give something up that is an expense and you save the money in order to give it to someone else. That is a good thing. But everything depends on the motivation with which and for which we give something up.
It all depends on whether I’m giving something up with a finality of self-improvement in mind: say I give up fatty foods because I want to look different at the end of Lent. That’s not so easy to connect with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But if I’m giving something up for Lent because it’s superfluous, or because I can see that whatever it is I’m giving up is not doing me much good, then it can have a real spiritual dimension. The intention is all-important. It matters to carefully reflect on this, and honestly above all.
In your Lenten pastoral letter for 2022, you encouraged your flock to “focus this Lent, not primarily on what we are, but on what we are called to become.” You added that “To be a Christian is to look ahead.”
Why do you think it’s important to look in that direction in Lent?
Well, I think we should look in that direction always, but particularly during Lent. Easter is at the heart of Christian existence. It’s Easter, if you like, that defines the Christian condition. And Easter is the assurance that life eternal is restored to us. It’s a real possibility. Easter is the assurance that all the things that condition our lives negatively — sin, disease, enmity, hatred, warfare, mortality — all those things have been overcome, and can still be overcome, insofar as we conduct our lives in Christ and let ourselves be formed by Christian hope.
It’s crucial never to lose sight of the fact that God is actually doing something with us. God is realizing a purpose in human history, which is a purpose of redemption. We’ve got to set our sights there and also to keep hearing his call. He calls us to follow him, to be where he is, in order to be happy with him forever, and thereby to orient and mobilize our lives.
That’s why it’s always helpful to have a pretty clear idea of where we’re going and why we’re going there, in order to mobilize our desire, which is our chief motor that will keep us in motion.
Historically, many Christians observed a “Black Fast” during Lent, consuming one meal a day after sunset. Today, Orthodox Christians still avoid meat, eggs, and dairy products during what they call the Great Fast.
But for most Catholics today, there are just two obligatory fast days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On those days, Catholics may eat one full meal and two smaller “collations.”
What do you think of the relaxation of fasting practices? Is it good, bad, or unimportant?
Like all changes in the Church, this one was certainly well intended. I think the intention was to emphasize the spiritual nature of Lent and not to make it into just an ascetic marathon. It was also, I think, a desire to be humane and not to place excessive burdens on people. And those are good considerations. It’s a way in which the Church shows itself our mother.
But we are perhaps, on the whole, lacking in ambition as far as ascetic practice is concerned. Obviously, in fixing a minimum, the Church doesn’t oblige people to limit themselves to the minimum. What could be quite helpful is to rediscover the benefit of fasting as a spiritual and prayerful practice.
It’s very edifying to see how many Eastern Rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians observe a very serious Lent, as it’s very edifying to see how many Muslims observe Ramadan. A little bit of trial is part and parcel of us being reminded that it is in fact a serious matter; it’s not just an optional devotion. There’s quite a lot there which we can rediscover with profit.
What do you think of the rise in the Church today of challenging ascetic programs like Exodus Lent? Do you see it as a response to the relaxation of Lenten norms?
I think so. Deep within us, we do actually want someone to place demands on us. Because if no one places demands on us, it’s because they don’t expect much of us.
There’s also a generous desire in very many people to want to give something extra as a way of manifesting their seriousness and their love. And I see that as a very positive thing, as long as it doesn’t just become a self-realization trip and an occasion to manifest the triumph of the self-will, because the whole point of Lent and of Christian fasting is to show the limitations of self-will, to free us from imprisonment in self-will and not to systematize it and glorify it.
What should you do if you’ve chosen a particular Lenten challenge but then realize that your motivation for it wasn’t right? Should you just abandon it and go for something more achievable?
The thing to do is to work on your motivation and then to see whether what you proposed for yourself is realistic. If it isn’t realistic, redefine it in a way which is actually doable. That is an instance of humility, which is also a great virtue to practice during Lent.
That can be the point of ascetic practices. Monasticism is very rich in that insight. Sometimes, we can do something without really knowing why and perhaps we’re asking ourselves even if it isn’t pointless to do it. But suddenly we realize why we’re doing it, what this actual practice or abstinence can lead to. And then we embrace it with greater intelligence and more fervent will to actually realize it.
What do you make of increasingly popular secular ascetic observances such as Dry January and Sober October? Are they Lenten penance replacements?
I’m not sure that they’re penance replacements so much. But I think that they testify to a recognition on the part of many that we live lives of excess, and that’s not good for us in the long term. That I see as wholly laudable. If anything, I’d want to encourage initiatives like that.
What we as Christians, as Catholics, could ask ourselves profitably is: We have in fact got this already in Lent, so why don’t we make better use of that? We don’t, strictly speaking, need these auxiliary initiatives. Why don’t we make better use of what we’ve got? That is a fundamental question that touches so many aspects of being a Christian and being a Catholic.
Is there a difference between fasting and dieting?
Yes, there’s a categorical difference. Dieting has me as agent and focus, and my desire to emerge from the diet and be able to put on clothes that I could put on three years ago. Whereas fasting has its object outside myself. I deprive myself of food or some kind of enjoyment, whatever it is. It’s an ecstatic practice in the strict sense of that word: It helps me to step outside myself and toward the other, and to grow in attentiveness. Dieting, I think, can sometimes be doing the opposite and make us excessively focused on ourselves.
If you have an addiction, say to alcohol or cigarettes, would you recommend attempting to give that up for Lent, or should you tackle your addictions separately from your Lenten practice?
There is a particular grace in Lent. It’s a time during which we enjoy God’s blessing through the Church’s blessing, and that’s something we should really use. If one has an addiction, or a sense of being unfree, with regard to whatever sort of enjoyment that may be, it’s an excellent thing to mobilize the spiritual energy of Lent as part of that process of becoming free from one’s addiction. And to underpin that with prayer, to root it spiritually.
But at the same time, as always with addictions — and addictions are extremely common — it’s important to tackle them quite pragmatically, and where there is need, to seek the professional help and assistance that may be required.
We know we should devote more time to prayer in Lent. Do you have any advice on how and when?
The first thing would be to follow the Church’s liturgy. Just reading the Collects for Lent is a marvelous exercise. We simply don’t realize what a treasure we have in that great collection of prayers. Taking the Collect for each day, reading it slowly, and analyzing it to make sure I really understand what it says — because those are very, very dense texts — then trying to apply it to my life. That would be an excellent way of praying in Lent.
Basically, praying with the Church is the fundamental thing to do. And it’s an extremely nourishing and life-giving thing to do.
Also, by praying with and through the Church’s liturgy, I have that constant awareness of not being on my own doing it. Catholics worldwide are being touched and formed and challenged by these same texts, rituals, and gestures.
Does almsgiving just mean giving more money to charity than we normally do?
Increasing the amount one gives to charity is an excellent thing. There are many good charities that depend on our help. But it may be useful to reflect on what almsgiving means. The English word “alms,” through a tortuous route, has been derived from a Greek noun, eleēmosunē, which is based on the same root that we use when in Church we say “Kyrie eleison.” So it’s got to do with mercy. Almsgiving is aid given to the less fortunate inspired by mercy.
A crucial aspect of almsgiving is hollowing out that capacity for mercy in myself and touching that vulnerable core where my heart is touched in compassion by the need and the misery of others. It’s another very good thing to be aware of during Lent. We are faced with so much misery through the media. We’re exposed to it relentlessly. And so quite naturally, we harden because we can’t take it all in. But Lent maybe is a time to stop, take a step back, and just allow my capacity for compassion to defreeze.
I had an experience in my first year at the monastery which really made me aware of this. We could listen to the BBC News after Vespers, at six o’clock. There was a group of about three or four who went. I’d gone after Vespers to have my supper. I had a quick supper and came up the cloister, and I bumped into one of my oldest brethren. He was almost 90 years old, a wonderful man called Brother Gabriel, who was graced with a tremendous cheerfulness. He was a great encourager of the brethren.
I saw him from a distance coming down. He was bent over and he didn’t look himself. When I came up to him, I could see that he was crying. So I said: “Brother Gabriel, what’s going on?” He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said: “Fourteen people! Fourteen people dead in that earthquake.” It was something he’d heard on the radio, about an earthquake in a far corner of the world.
What impressed me was that he hadn’t simply recorded that “Oh, there’s been a terrible earthquake in which 14 people have died,” but he had a heart which was alive enough to sense what that actually means to say “14 people have died in an earthquake.” And that is the foundation of almsgiving ultimately.
Do you have any recommendations for Lenten reading?
In monastic tradition, Lent is the traditional time to reread “The Ladder” of John Climacus, which is a great manual of ascetic life. For those who want something substantial and quite hefty, that might be a thing to do.
Another wonderful book to read during Lent is a book by then-Professor Ratzinger. It’s a book that Joseph Ratzinger published in 1977, which simply bears the title “Eschatology,” the Last Things, about judgment, death, and resurrection. It’s simply a luminous book. I find it very striking that in the recentish German complete works edition, then-Pope Benedict XVI furnished this book with a new preface and he said: “Of all my works, this is the most carefully elaborated.” For him, who was an extremely careful writer, to say that is quite something. It’s a marvel that book, and it really puts Lent and Easter in perspective.
For those who might want something a bit shorter and more compact, I’d recommend a favorite book of mine which is called “Christ is in Our Midst,” with the subtitle “Letters from a Russian monk.” These are letters written by a monk called John who belonged to the community of Valaam that had to leave Russia during the time leading up to the Second World War, and was exiled in Finland, where this monk lived until he died in 1958. It’s an extremely lucid, brief, dense, humane, kindly but radical exposition of the foundations of Christian living. Particularly these days when so much that comes out of Russia fills us with such grief, it’s important to touch that other aspect of what Russia represents. That’s a book I often recommend to people and would particularly recommend over Lent.
Are there any artistic works that can help us have a “good Lent”?
One that I tend to revisit during Lent — and I fully intend to do that this year as well — is a film. It’s Pasolini’s great film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” produced in 1964.
Pasolini was a kind of wild card in Italian cultural life. He wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a devout Catholic. He lived quite a chaotic and unruly life. And when the rumors spread that he was making a film based on the Gospel, the Catholic establishment was extremely anxious because they thought it would be some sort of blasphemous, sarcastic travesty.
Pasolini filmed it with amateur actors. It’s funny to reflect that the now again quite fashionable philosopher Giorgio Agamben features in that film as the Apostle Philip. Mrs. Pasolini, the director’s mother, is the Blessed Virgin Mary.
People, priests, and devout Catholics were expecting it with trepidation and then what came out was just extraordinary. Pasolini devoted it to Pope John XXIII, and it is a moving and, I think, extremely realistic depiction of the Gospel. So if anyone hasn’t seen that, I’d recommend seeing that over Lent.
I’ve read that it’s paced like St. Matthew’s Gospel, which explains why some scenes are very abrupt and others expansive.
Absolutely. Something really wonderful about the film is that when Christ speaks, he speaks fast, with verve, energy, and passion, and then he charges off because he’s got so much to do. That’s quite a useful corrective to our extremely slow-motion engagement with the Gospel narrative.
If anyone wanted something to listen to during Lent, I would recommend a work by Buxtehude, that early contemporary of Bach’s, who Bach walked long distances to hear. It’s a work which sets to music a Cistercian poem from the 13th century, “Membra Jesu Nostri.” It’s a meditation on Christ crucified, and the different parts of Christ’s body, his head, his arms, his feet, his side, etc, and the salvation brought through those wounds. It’s a very, very beautiful text and the music is just exquisite.
At the end of Lent, is it good to look back and ask ourselves if we’ve observed the season well? Or does that just lead to unhealthy self-recrimination or navel-gazing?
The important thing at the end of Lent is to ask: Have I arrived? Have I actually done the journey? Where am I now? Does the proclamation of Easter, the eruption of the Hallelujah, fill me with joy? Has my heart expanded a little, become a little bit more vulnerable? Have I become freer? Those are the really important things to ask, not analyzing every step of the journey.
What if the answer to that is “no” – That you haven’t arrived at joy?
The thing to do then is to pray again, to pray, “Lord, even if I ended up having a miserable Lent, give me the hundredfold now, in your grace, and let my heart be opened to the fullness of the richness of your promise, that I may carry it and bear witness to it.” There too it’s important to keep looking ahead and to keep believing that God actually desires to realize his purposes. And he will. But it takes time.
How are members of your Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance expected to observe Lent?
In the Rule of St. Benedict, which we follow, St. Benedict says that a monk’s life should be a perpetual Lent. So, in a way, it shouldn’t be all that different. But what he means when he says that it should be a perpetual Lent isn’t that the monk should be perpetually miserable, because he emphasizes that Lent is a joyful season because it orients our eyes toward what is the source of our joy, which is Christ’s Pasch.
As we can’t always live at that altitude because we’re frail human beings, we can use Lent to make up for the shortcomings of other times. And he asks each monk to make an additional gesture in Lent “in the joy of the Holy Spirit.” And he emphasizes that theme of joy and the joyfulness with which each monk should offer something over and above what he normally does as a sign of his seriousness, his love, and his attachment.
But St. Benedict also stresses that the monk should make known to the abbot what he proposes to do and get the abbot’s blessing. Otherwise, there’s a risk that he will simply give way to presumption. That’s a good principle as well: to let whatever undertaking we adopt for Lent be blessed by the Church, so that it can be a source of blessing.