Christ in the Desert, Ivan Kramskoi, 1872. (Source)
Some of my readers will no doubt recognize the name of Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory. He achieved some small notoriety as the priest who nearly converted Oscar Wilde in the 1870’s. He was also a well-respected spiritual teacher, though sadly neglected today. I would like to make some of his wisdom available, especially as it bears on the season we enter on this Ash Wednesday.
Here’s Fr. Bowden’s advice for Lent:
Consider the bearing that Lent has upon Death. Lent is given us as a time of preparation, and the way it is spent has great influence on the times that follow it: a carefully spent Lent will bring about a careful month after it, and the influence of that may go on through the year. So, we may look upon each Lent as a bringing us nearer to a good state for death, by making a fresh mark on our life:—for as we live so we must die. Therefore enter fully into this spirit: withdraw as far as you possibly can from all outer things, in thought, during this season: let the things of Time go to a distance, and be as nothing to you. Be alone with God, and try simply to learn more and more where you are, and what you are worth, in His eyes only; and thus prepare yourself for joining Him in Eternity.
Give yourself thoroughly to the Spirit of the Passion. Do not look, in anything you do, for success, pleasantness, or comfort: expect crosses, failures, disappointments, and take all these readily:—go to meet them, receive all with perfect resignation from God’s hands—take their impress on your soul. Aim, in preparation for death, at caring for nothing so much that you will not be ready in a moment to give it up.
Remember that, perfect and infinite as are the merits of Christ’s Passion and Death, there is one thing still wanting to them:—that is, our part in them: our taking and accepting His sufferings as ours, and bearing them with Him. Without this, His Passion remains worthless. To what purpose is the Head crowned with thorns, if the Members remain dead, paralyzed, mortified and motionless? And so it is if we, who are Christ’s Members, will not enter with Him into His Passion, and will to suffer with Him. Let us, therefore, now, go in with Him into the life of suffering, giving ourselves to Him completely. It is difficult and painful to human nature to face the thought of a penitential life, but it must be done if we would be His true followers. And at this season it should be done specially by some outward thing:—no lessening of food or sleep for those who need strength to work; but, still, in some way—if it is only by restraint of attitude, by some posture at times different from the ordinary—no matter what, but by some means—we should daily remind ourselves that it is Lent.
Of course, it is hard to realize the good of the Cross: it often seems to our eyes so purposeless—so gratuitous—as well as so hard. It is in Faith alone that we can bear it; human nature must feel and suffer by it,. Let us try, during Holy Week, for a “broken heart”: that is, not feeling, but the certain conviction of our own nothingness and the nothingness of everything but God’s will. It is not merely the having, or the not having, to suffer this or the other thing: it is in all that we must be crushed: it is that there is absolutely nothing of importance except to do the Will of God: and this is the Cross.
The Sacrifice [acceptance of crosses or voluntary renunciation] always seems greater than we expected: when the Cross presses inward it must take hold of us. But we must treat it by looking beyond, remembering that, after all, it is all, in reality, but nothing; living in daily Faith in God, and Hope; and reminding ourselves that all will pass. Feeling, at the moment, we cannot help. (Spiritual Teaching of Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory, 1921, pp. 17-20)
Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory. (Source)
I would add two brief thoughts that come from a later portion of the book. They seem admirably suited to our meditation on this penitential day, the start of a journey of penance that will not end until we face the cross.
The best way of realizing our Free Will is St. Philip’s way: “Lord, keep Thy hand on my head, or I shall betray Thee.” This consciousness of how easily we may at any moment commit any sin, however great, is simply the truth. It is the experience of everyone who knows anything of human nature, and especially of every priest. He knows it first for himself, and then for others. This it is that fills our prisons with criminals: the sinfulness of human nature—greed and avarice, lust and passion. To know our own weakness is our only safeguard. (p. 98)
Recollect that it was Christ on the Cross that redeemed the world: not His miracles—not His life of preaching—but His naked body offered on the Cross to God. And so it must be with us if we would follow Him: the will simply to suffer must be ours—to this our whole lives must be bent. It is not by great and heroic deeds that we are to succeed in Eternity: it is by the daily round of silent, humble suffering of whatever God sends. We are to become what He was: holocausts: to be stripped of Self on all sides:—of our will, of our powers, of our very individuality if He chooses, so as simply to be in His hands to do what He likes with. Remember that here we see everything exactly as it is not: to us, success seems to lie in what shows—in active deeds, in energy, in strength and power. But this is not so before God; and when we die we shall see it all in its right light. Let us live, therefore, for the things which are great in Eternity, though not in Time, and be patient. (pp. 79-80)
May we all learn from Fr. Bowden’s sound practical wisdom and make a well and holy Lent.
The Temptation in the Wilderness, John St. John Long, 1824. (Source)