It was noon and I heard the abbey bells announce that it was time for the Angelus prayer. The word Angelus, Latin for Angel is the first word of a simple prayer said three times each day: sunrise, midday and sunset. This prayer which dates back to the Middle Ages is intended to help people mark the beginning, the middle and the end of the day with prayer, helping them to focus on God from whom all good things come.
As was our custom in the abbey, when the bells announced the angelus everyone stopped to say this prayer quietly. That day, the cloister was dotted with praying monks. The sun illuminated the frescos on the cloister walls. It was beautifully quiet. After finishing our prayer I watched the monks enter the refectory while I remained behind. Father Remacle, a senior monk walked by me and quizzically turned around as he noted I did not move.
Little did he know I stayed motionless because I had decided to crank up the severity of my Lenten fasting. Being young and enthusiastic I resolved to limit myself to one meal each day for the entire season, with the exception of Sundays. And, having just learned about saints who spent their lives standing in the same position or sitting on a pillar I elected to stay in my “angelus spot” until the monks returned from breakfast or lunch. I joined them for dinner.
On his way back from lunch, Father Remacle found me still standing in the same spot. He stopped and asked what I was doing. I very enthusiastically told him what I was doing. He looked at me and asked me how it made me feel. “Hungry” I told him, as hunger and thoughts of food had filled my day. “And silly” I added, as standing there for 30 minutes seemed a bit over the top. “Is that what Lent is about” he asked? “Might it be better to sit with us at table and eat maybe a bit less, rather than stand here dedicating all your thoughts to food and displaying your Lenten vigor for everyone to see? Fasting is an interior discipline not an exterior display.”
The next day I sat with the monks and ate a bit less than normal. My thoughts shifted from hunger to the meaning of Lent. I have always been grateful for Fr. Remacle’s brotherly correction. Fasting, I have discovered, is a great spiritual exercise when it is done for the right reasons. He further helped me understand that we fast so we may re- focus. We fast to focus on Christ.
Our world is filled with distractions, more so than ever before. We carry our primary cause of distraction in our hand, our pocket or purse: the ubiquitous electronic device. Only sleep keeps us away from it and many of us even cut back on our sleep because of it. It distracts us from focusing on what we ought to do or on who we ought to be. Most importantly it prevents us from focusing on the one we should be focusing on the most, especially during Lent: Christ.
Reflecting back on my time in the abbey, I now realize that I was offered so many opportunities to focus myself, even outside of Lent. Listening to our Basilica bells ring the Angelus, I now realize that those three prayer times offered to me every day were and continue to be a great invitation to focus on Christ and my response to his calling. So, when you hear our tower bells announce the Angelus at 9:00am, noon and 6:00pm I invite you to stop for just a moment and focus on Christ and what He is calling you to do. And since we are called to focus on Christ during Lent, why not start now.