So Lent comes round again. For me, this year's 'forty days and forty nights' will feel very different from any previous Lent I've known. The reason is simple. This is my first Lent in retirement.
When I started visiting France frequently, I used to be surprised at the number of signs pointing to a maison de retraite. 'Retreat house' I thought - every town seemed to have one. Was this the sign of a contemplative people for whom regular time out of the normal routines of daily life was regarded as a priority? Alas, no. I soon discovered that retraite means 'retirement', and only carries the sense of 'retreat' as a secondary meaning. Retirement home, retreat house: not quite the same thing.
But it got me thinking about the relationship between these two linked words 'retreat' and 'retirement'. Both mean a withdrawal from working life, the one temporary, the other permanent. At least, that's the traditional understanding. The implication is: you can live at a different pace, be more present to the gift of being alive, cultivate reflectiveness, draw nearer to God.
However, if we've ever been on a retreat, we know that it entails real work: emotional work, spiritual work, work on the development of our whole human selves. It's not a matter of idle wool gathering. And no-one who retires imagines that laying down your life's 'work' means an existence free of commitments, obligations and tasks. There is work to do, even if it's not the same as quotidian ordinariness. Here, the French can help. It's the sense of oeuvre that I'm thinking about, what we might call life-work, heart-work, and not just travail.
I've been retired long enough (a full four months!) to know that travail doesn't vanish the moment you lay down your paid employment. But I also know that it supplies abundant opportunities for oeuvre, giving time and attention to the kind of work that ultimately matters most if we want to become fully human: our values, our aims and aspirations, our quality of life, our personal relationships, the part we play in society and the local community, our sensitivity to human need, and above all, the formation of our human selves: our emotional health, our spirituality, our prayer. This oeuvre is about what John Keats called 'the vale of soul-making'.
All these things seem to me to be true of Lent as well. We've become used to thinking about Lent as a kind of annual opportunity for retreat. For some, this will mean nurturing silence and contemplation, perhaps by literally going away for a while to spend time in a place of 'retreat'. For others it will bring the gift of opportunities to deepen their understanding of faith and its practice in the contemporary world. There will be many who actively 'take on' rather than 'give up', whether it's undertaking some project that will help the suffering and needy, or making a financial commitment to charity or church, or adopting some discipline of spiritual reading, study, fasting or some other way of deepening faith and life.
All these things can - maybe should - be good projects for retirement as well. In previous Lents, when I have led a demanding life in church leadership as a cathedral dean, I've been impressed and helped by resources developed under the rubric of 'I'm not busy- give up busy-ness for Lent'.** My mantra became 'Do less well'. I would say it to myself to catch the different nuances of that phrase: 'Do less well' meaning 'give up your perfectionism that so often cripples you - be content with what is good enough'. 'Do less - well' meaning 'don't do so much, but concentrate on the quality of what you need to do'.
Now that I'm officially 'not busy' (or supposed to be), these Lenten questions now feel like everyday challenges, and not specific to six weeks in February and March. Retirement is a marvellous opportunity to do what St Benedict advises - living the whole of life as if it were one continuous Lent. He doesn't mean us to be miserable or burdened. I think he wants us to cultivate as a daily habit the art of being as 'present' as possible: present to God, to other people, to ourselves and to life itself. This is the only oeuvre that ultimately matters.
Benedict called daily prayer the opus dei, the work of God. What did he mean by this? God's 'work' in us, or our 'work' for God? The answer is surely, both. If it were only God's work, we would be disengaged, our hearts and wills inactive rather than co-operating with God's grace. It would make us lazy. If it were only our work, it would be a matter merely of human effort and achievement. I suspect that to the Pelagian British, the latter is the far bigger temptation giving birth to the sins either of pride or despair.
I'm trying to learn to see the whole of life as opus dei. Retirement has given me a more space and time to pay belated attention to this, but Lent is a special opportunity for us all to try to focus more on it, whatever life stage we have reached. So I wish you a holy and fulfilling Lent. I hope and pray that we all find it to be the gift it's meant for, a joyous journey in the company of the saints, an adventure of spiritual exploration and discovery in which we find grace, find God, find one another and find ourselves in new and life-changing ways. Go in God.