Ash Wednesday this year falls on February 22nd. That’s exactly one month and one day from today. In past years, I’ve found myself waiting until the last minute to haphazardly make commitments to Lenten spiritual disciplines or practices. This year, I’m trying to think carefully ahead of time about how to pursue a deeper relationship with God during that penitential season. For me, this Lent may entail taking on certain practices around food and fasting. I also plan to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which I’ve heard is traditional Lenten reading in some strains of Eastern Christianity. I’ve been reading other writings from the early Church on spiritual disciplines for a few years now and have been enriched by the fathers’ immense wisdom, their challenging calls to holiness, and their teachings on prayer. Now I’m looking forward to learning from St. John Climacus this Lent.
For those who want to engage such literature from the fathers, but aren’t quite ready to dive in with something as massive as The Ladder of Divine Ascent, I have another book recommendation. On the Way to the Cross: 40 Days with the Church Fathers is a Lenten devotional published this year by InterVarsity Press which combines a rhythm of daily prayer with commentary on scripture from the great leaders of the early Church.
On the Way to the Cross follows a simple format. Each day’s meditation begins with a confession of sin taken from the Book of Common Prayer. A reading from the Gospel of John follows confession, then commentary from various church fathers and a closing prayer, also from a patristic source. Each day also has suggested Psalms for evening reading. The commentary from the fathers is very similar to what one would find the Ancient Christian Commentary series – quotations from early Church writers which give insight into the text from a different point of view than that used by many modern biblical scholars. For example commentary on John 4:1-26 includes a lesson spiritual prayer from Abraham of Nathpar:
Do not imagine, my beloved, that prayer consists solely of words or that it can be learned by means of words. No, listen to the truth of the matter from the Lord: spiritual prayer is not learned and does not reach fullness as a result of either learning or the repetition of words. For it is not to a man that you are praying, before whom you can repeat a well-composed speech. It is to him who is Spirit that you are directing the movements of prayer. You should pray therefore, in spirit, seeing that he is spirit. He shows that no special place or vocal utterance is required for someone who prays in fullness to God. (Pages 33-34.)
My favorite parts of the devotional are the prayers themselves. These offer a glimpse into the passionate worship and devotion that shaped the fathers’ interpretation of scripture. They also offer inspiration to believers today and give poetic voice to what may be deep prayers of our own hearts. For example, the same reflection on John 4:1-26 concludes with a prayer from the Irish missionary Columbanus:
I beseech you, merciful God, to allow me to drink from the stream which flows from your fountain of life. May I taste the sweet beauty of its waters, which sprang from the very depths of your truth. O Lord, you are that fountain from which I desire with all my heart to drink. Give me, Lord Jesus, this water, that it may quench the burning spiritual thirst within my soul, and purify me from all sin. I know, King of Glory, that I am asking from you a great gift. But you give to your faithful people without counting the cost, and you promise even greater things in the future. Indeed, nothing is greater than yourself, and you have given yourself to mankind on the cross. Therefore in praying for the waters of life, I am praying that you, the source of those waters, will give yourself to me. You are my light, my salvation , my food, my drink, my God. (Page 34.)
Amen. May God grant us ways to drink from that stream of life this Lent.