Conversatio Divina

Part 10 of 18

Lent as Forty-Day Retreat

Ancient Christian Wisdom for a Postmodern Age

Michael Glerup

01.  Introduction

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS). See <>Over the last decade Hollywood has become fascinated with prequels. It seems that for every successful film, movie studios want to create an elaborate backstory to reexamine the origins of popular heroes or villains. Some prequels were conceived as prequels at the outset. George Lucas conceived the first Star Wars movie as the fourth in the trilogy, so Star Wars I, II, and III were prequels that were projected to be released later. But most prequels—Batman Begins, Casino Royale, and the television show Smallville, for example—were conceived only after the original movie release was financially successful and the principal characters were embedded in the popular imagination.

Spiritual retreats were a rather late development in the history of Christian spirituality. As a formal process, spiritual retreats were established during the Catholic Reformation of the sixteenth century. Most historians acknowledge the significant role Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus played in the growth and acceptance of the practice of retreats across the Christian world. Some religious scholars are quick to suggest that the “original inspiration for ‘retreat’ can be traced to the notion of a ‘retreat of the whole church’ in the forty-day season of Lent.”The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Edited by Philip Sheldrake. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, 541. Pope Benedict XVI echoed this sentiment in his Ash Wednesday morning 2008 address: “Lent is like a great spiritual retreat lasting forty days.” This reading of the past through the lens of the present seems to make Lent a “prequel” to the developments of the sixteenth century.

02.  Lent and Leo the Great

Though the forty-day season of Lent was codified at the Council of Nicaea (325), Lent as a period of catechumen instruction,Typically performed Easter night. reconciliation of penitents,For Ambrose of Milan, Holy Thursday was the day of reconciliation for penitents. and preparation of the church for the Easter Feast did not emerge overnight. Most likely it had been developing over at least the previous century. During the Lenten season, the whole church was encouraged to participate in the practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer for the purpose of inner renewal. The forty-day period most likely grew out of the desire to imitate Jesus’ forty-day fast.Matthew 4:1–12.

An important source for understanding the church’s observance of Lent is the sermons preached at the beginning of the forty days. Numerous Lenten sermons have survived from the patristic period, but none more instructive than the twelve sermons of Pope Leo the Great. Leo the Great (fl. 440–461) was an exceptionally talented bishop of Rome in the fifth century. During his tenure he immensely increased the status of the papacy and secured a formal acknowledgment of Rome’s jurisdiction over all western provinces. Leo’s theological deliberations survive primarily in the form of letters and sermons. Though Leo’s works are not of the stature of those of Augustine or Ambrose, his writings occupy an important place in Christian history. His letters are the largest surviving collection of papal letters before Gregory the Great. In addition, his homilies survived almost intact, and therefore provide an invaluable resource for insight into church history and Christian spirituality.

03.  The Spirit of Lent

Leo considered Lent a very significant time in the life of the church and therefore an occasion for delivering some of his most thoughtful sermons. Twelve of these sermons are available to us today. The content of these sermons is fairly consistent. In most instances he seeks to encourage the faithful to make the season an opportunity for renewal. Leo encourages his audience:

Apostolic teaching, beloved, exhorts us “to put off the old man with his deeds”Ephesians 4:22. and renew ourselves from day to day by a holy manner of life. For if we are the temple of God, and if the Holy Spirit is a Dweller in our souls, as the apostle says: “You are the temple of the living God”:2 Corinthians 6:16. we must then strive with all diligence that the dwelling of our heart be not unworthy of so great a Guest. And just as in houses made with hands, we see to it with praiseworthy diligence that whatever may be damaged, either through the rain coming in, or by the wind in storms or by age itself, is promptly and carefully repaired, so must we with unceasing concern take care that nothing disordered be found in our souls, that nothing unclean be found there. For though this dwelling of ours does not endure without the support of its Maker, nor would the structure be safe without the watchful care of the Builder, nevertheless, since we are rational stones, and living material, the Hand of our Maker has so fashioned us, that even he who is being repaired may cooperate with his maker.Leo’s Sermon 43, “The Spirit of Lent,” found in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers. M. F. Toal, ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000). II.125.

For Leo, there is an unmistakable continuity between Christian faith and life. Christian belief involves spirituality. This spirituality is our renewal in the Spirit. It requires attentiveness to the condition of our souls and a confidence in the kindness of God, who dwells in our hearts through faith.

In another address, Leo suggests the season as an opportunity for “purification”:
In proposing to preach this most holy and important fast to you, dearly beloved, how shall I begin more appropriately than by quoting the words of the Apostle, in whom Christ Himself was speaking, and by reminding you of what we have read: “behold, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation.”2 Corinthians 6:2. For though there are no seasons which are not full of Divine blessings, and though access is ever open to us to God’s mercy through His grace, yet now all men’s minds should be moved with greater zeal to spiritual progress, and animated by larger confidence, when the return of the day, on which we were redeemed, invites us to all the duties of godliness: that we may keep the super-excellent mystery of the Lord’s passion with bodies and hearts purified. These great mysteries do indeed require from us such unflagging devotion and unwearied reverence that we should remain in God’s sight always the same, as we ought to be found on the Easter feast itself. But because few have this constancy, and, because so long as the stricter observance is relaxed in consideration of the frailty of the flesh, and so long as one’s interests extend over all the various actions of this life, even devout hearts must get some grime from the dust of the world, the Divine Providence has with great beneficence taken care that the discipline of the forty days should heal us and restore the purity of our minds, during which the faults of other times might be redeemed by acts of devotion and removed by chaste fasting.Leo, Sermon 42 (On Lent IV), NPNF 2.12.157.

In accordance with other patristic writers, Leo describes this process of purification in terms of restoring the image of God:

Let us then, dearly beloved, observe these venerable practices of this most acceptable time, and with anxious care clean the windows of our soul. For however chastely and soberly we live in this mortal life, we shall yet be soiled by some dust in the course of our earthly journey, and the brightness of our soul and formed to God’s image and likeness, is not so remote from the smoke of every vanity, that it will be unclouded by any stain, and need never to be polished. And if this is needed for even the most guarded souls, how much more is at needed for those who pass almost the whole year in carelessness and perhaps in total neglect.Leo, Sermon 43, 126.

In other sections of his sermons he describes these practices that restore the soul: pardoning offenses, seeking forgiveness, acts of charity, the giving of alms, fasting, regular prayer, and the study of Scripture. God, in his mercy, also has provided for our restoration through the “mirror of his commandments” and the “law of time”:

For the designing mercy of God has set up the brightest mirror in His commandments, wherein a man may see his mind’s face and realize its conformity or dissimilarity to God’s image: with the specific purpose that, at least, during the days of our Redemption and Restoration, we may throw off awhile our carnal cares and restless occupations, and betake ourselves from earthly matters to heavenly.Leo, Sermon 11.5.

When, dearly beloved, should we more fittingly have recourse to the divine remedies than when, by the very law of time, we are once again reminded of the mysteries of our redemption? And that we may do more worthily commemorate them, let us earnestly prepare ourselves by these forty days of abstinence.Leo, Sermon 43, 126.

Comparing ourselves to the standard of Christ, the perfect image of God, fosters a more honest assessment of our spiritual progress. By adopting the ways of Christ, we conform to God’s image, and harshness is replaced by compassion; anger, with gentleness; vengeance is forgotten, and forgiveness is sought.

The yearly celebration of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ (and for many in the church, the anniversary of their baptism) was an opportunity to renew baptismal vows and gratefully remember the redemption secured by Christ.

The whole church benefits:

And, therefore, because none of us, dearly beloved, is so perfect and holy as not to be able to be more perfect and more holy, let us all together, without difference of rank, without distinction of desert, with pious eagerness pursue our race from what we have attained to what we yet aspire to, and make some needful additions to our regular devotions. For he that is not more attentive than usual to religion in these days, is shown at other times to be not attentive enough.Leo, Sermon 43, 128.

04.  Conclusion

The purpose of Lent, as gathered from Leo’s sermons, was to step aside from the daily routine in order to become more attentive to God, to refocus, to pray, to fast, and to seek healing and restoration of purity—many of the same qualities associated with our present model of “spiritual retreat.” These parallel traits illustrate why many assume the original inspiration for spiritual retreats may be found in the church’s Lenten practice. Yet the rereading of Lent in light of current practices obscures the holistic spirituality of the early church.

Again, for Leo, there is an unambiguous continuity between Christian faith and life. Christian belief involves spirituality. This spirituality is our renewal in the Spirit and includes practices such as fasting, prayerful repentance, Scripture reading, and meditation on the life of Christ, particularly the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. However, Christian belief and spirituality also entail an ethical component. Leo, similar to other early Christian writers, describes this ethical program as a restoration of the image of God. This program includes but is not limited to works of charity, almsgiving, and asking and offering forgiveness. Leo’s sermons emphasize the importance of the unity in Christianity of faith, spirituality, and our ethical responsibilities. All three aspects are necessary elements for a fully Christian life, and therefore necessary for any program of Christian renewal.