Jews celebrate Passover. Christians experience Lent. Muslims practice Ramadan. Why do these faith communities affirm these spiritual practices? Call it springtime for the soul. For Christians, the 40-day season of Lent is an annual time of renewal, a springtime for the soul. The Latin word “Lent” means renewal or springtime. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three monotheistic religions all believe that our soul springs to life when we join in annual communal spiritual disciplines.
Many people in the west today have been immersed in a value system that elevates the individual higher than the community, raising self-fulfillment above responsibility to our others, and choosing pleasure before discipline. Gardeners of the soul know better. Like it or not, we are part of a larger human family. As part of that community, Christians have celebrated the annual springtime for the soul for centuries. Fifteen hundred years ago, in the early 6th century, St. Benedict wrote about the springtime practice of Lent.
Although the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lenten observance, yet since few have strength enough for this, we exhort all, at least during the days of Lent, to keep themselves in all purity of life, and to wash away during that holy season the negligences of other times…. so that everyone of his or her own will may offer to God with joy of the Holy Spirit, something beyond that measure appointed him…awaiting holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing.[i]
Benedict invites us into the annual season of Lent by calling us to “offer our lives to God with joy”, to take delight in giving yourself away to others and to God. That’s the heart of Lent, the “joy of spiritual longing” as we await the coming of Easter. Even if you are not into Easter, most people in the northern hemisphere have known that inner exhilaration in the months of March and April as we see the earth springing back to life. Benedict offers two paths for the spiritual gardener, the Path of Emptying and the Path of Filling. Take a few minutes and walk along these two garden paths.
The Path of Emptying
Discover ways to simplify your life by removing fruitless ways of living. Every garden has sections where weeds have overtaken the flowering plants. Springtime for the soul comes from the willingness to withhold from our lives even normal delights of food, drink and sleep to evaluate what is fruitful and what is fruitless. The specific soul disciplines along this Path of Emptying involve fasting, abstinence, and restraint. Ask yourself, “What am I willing to give up?” Choose any normal, regular activity. Cut short your night sleep by thirty minutes, waking up half an hour earlier to sit in the stillness of the morning and journal or pray. Give up lunch at restaurants, and giving that cash to an orphanage. Zip your lips when tempted to criticize your neighbor or co-worker. Try spending five minutes a day sitting in silence. These are steps along the Path of Emptying. Along this path we prune back the deadwood, pull weeds and get our yard ready for spring.
The Path of Filling
Along with the spiritual work of emptying comes the delight of planting new growth in the interior of your soul. Benedict offers several suggestions. Add personal prayer to your interior garden. Try praying for others as you go walking along the pathways of your soul. Bring people to your awareness, lifting their lives before the face of God, and seeing the sunlight and the beauty of God shine in their lives. Or, fill your garden with sacred reading. Take fifteen minutes each morning to sit in a comfortable chair. Get a good book, one that nurtures your soul. A wise ancient book, a collection of poetry, a good novel, or the Bible. Slowly read through several pages, allowing your soul to take time as you read, to delight in the beauty you discover. If one phrase stands out, read it over several times to soak in the goodness of what you see there. Allow yourself a few minutes to think more deeply about places in your life that need renewal.
Benedict mentions “compunction of heart”, that is, allowing our heart to feel the pain of brokenness, our own as well as the brokenness of others. Perhaps you’ve let someone else down or neglected someone recently. Springtime of the soul comes from dealing with these places of hurt, no longer avoiding them, but bringing them to the front of your awareness, being willing to experience the sorrow or pain of brokenness for those arenas in your life which are less than you had hoped them to be.
All this becomes a way of spiritual growth, the giving of our lives with joy through self-emptying and self-offering. What will I withhold today from my body, mind or soul to better focus my limited energies upon that which will bring springtime joy? What will I offer to myself, to my neighbor or to God as an act of joyful self-giving? Every year, the physical world calls us to celebrate the renewing and regenerating force of nature. The season of Spring also invites us to enter that deeper work of spiritual renewal, the springtime of the soul.
[i] RB 1980, Chapter 49, 71.