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Lent is drill practice for our spiritual battle

Each day during Lent has, traditionally, assigned a church in Rome called a “station”. In ancient times the people and clergy would process singing litanies to the station church for Mass. This Sunday’s station is Rome’s cathedral, St John Lateran.

“Concede nobis, omnipotens Deus, ut, per annua quadragesimalis exercitia sacramenti, et ad intellegendum Christi proficiamus arcanum, et effectus eius digna conversatione sectemur.”

Quadragesima (“fortieth”) is the Latin word for the season of Lent. St Leo the Great (d 461) described Lent as quadragesimale ieiunium, “the Forty Fast”. Exercitium indicates military and other practices for preparedness – “exercises”. Arcanum means something that is “closed”, “a secret thing or place”. It refers to sacred rites, sanctuaries and mysteries. Conversatio, which tricks the unwary who equate it with the English “conversation”, is “manner of living”. Think of “crim. con.” and “conduct, intercourse”.

Current ICEL translation: “Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observances of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.”

That “observances” is a bit feeble. We of the Church Militant must exercise virtues and pious practices to fulfil our mission in life. St Alphonsus de Liguori (d 1787) refers to our Lenten disciplina, during which we, like soldiers who drill so that actions become ingrained, are instructed by our repeated penances. When behaviour becomes ingrained, second nature, it becomes virtue when good, vice when disordered.

In truth, I find the current official English version to be a little weak. Let’s try something more literal: “Grant to us, Almighty God, that, through the annual exercises of the 40-day Lenten mystery, we may both make progress in understanding the hidden dimension of Christ and imitate the consequences by worthy conduct of life.”

Speaking of exercise and discipline, I am reminded of the Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian (d 373), repeated with bows and prostrations during Great Lent: “O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition and idle talking give me not [prostration]. But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me Thy servant [prostration]. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen. [prostration – then 12 repetitions of:] O God, cleanse me a sinner [bow and repeat the entire prayer, ending with a prostration].

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