A Purrfect Lenten Practice from the Feline Cloister

I mew a big hello and welcome to you!  I’m Resident Novice William.  Novice Master Br. Ricky asked me to write an article to help you get ready for Lent.   My guess is that he chose me for this article because I am known to be a tad self-focused.  And from what I understand, Lent is a time we turn away from focus on ourselves.  Instead, we focus on God and our relationship with God.  I found an idea which I would love to mew to you.  Here’s how it began.

A few days ago, we Resident Novices were mewing amongst ourselves ago about what we would do for Lent.  A number said they were going to give up cat treats [Humans – substitute chocolate or other food delight].

At that, Novice Sebastian Thomas mewed, “Oh, oh.  Watch out, novices!  My Aunt Flossie gives up cat treats each Lent.  She turns into a feline terror, spurred on by her discontent at missing those savory bits.”  Hearty feline chuckles resound.

Resident Novice William
focusing on himself

Aunt Flossie “enjoying” Lent

Novice William Explores An Alternative to Giving Up Cat Treats

This got me to thinking.  What I have observed in past Lents is this – when the bells are rung at the Easter Vigil, felines speed to their bowls overflowing with treats.  Their relief is matched only by the resounding noise of crunching.

Hmmm…Is there another way to approach Lent?  What could we give up for Lent that would serve a broader purpose?  How about a Lenten practice that would help us be more charitable and open-hearted towards others, feline and  human?  That way our Lenten practice would not be just about us, or make others miserable, i.e., Aunt Flossie.  Our practice would touch and benefit others.

Time to paw through The Rule of St. Benedict!

Lent in the Rule of St. Benedict

The Rule doesn’t mention giving up cat treats [Amma declares, “An oversight by the abbot!”]  But Benedict does say to deny things that we may have a difficult time giving up – sleep, needless talking, idle jesting. (RB 49.7)  

Benedict instructs that in Lent we are to keep our manner of life most pure and to wash away the negligence of other times (RB 49,2,3). How do we actually do this?  May I mew from the Rule?

“This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.”  RB 49.4

The first one Benedict listed caught my attention.  Evil habits.  Another translation reads to “restrain ourselves from bad habits of every kind.”  [1]

Truth is, evil habits can be fun, or at least perversely so.  Do you ever take pleasure in the Three G’s – grumbling, gossip, and grumpiness?  What was that like?  “Benedict tells us that Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”  [2]

Illus.  Compunction of heart

Novice William Is Inspired by William Law

Br. Ricky gave me a book of writings from William Law (1686-1761).  Law was an Anglican priest and theologian, and very wise.  In his work The Spirit of Love, Law highlighted the dangers of the “serpent of self,” that part of us that stokes our ego and self-will.  Law finds resentment a particularly poisonous  habit.  When we give in to resentment, Law says, our resentment strengthens the serpent of self.

“To give in to resentment and go willingly to gratify it
is calling up the courage of your own serpent
and truly helping it to be more stout and valiant and successful in you.” [3]

Illus. The Serpent of Self
Clarence Holbrook Carter
“Over and Above Surprise (Serpent)” – 1967

To me, it’s not just resentment that strengthens the serpent of self.  There are lots of other unhelpful, self-focused habits.  The evil ones love it when we fall into these habits.  Here are a few other habits I thought of.   Any look personally familiar?


Grumbling – Murmuring

Judgmental attitude and
negative thoughts about others





Garden Variety Resentment

Habits and Fear

I think under all these bad habits is fear.  What the specific fear is will vary. 

Envious?  Maybe we fear we aren’t good enough.  Jealousy?  Maybe we fear losing something or someone.  Gossiping?  Perhaps we don’t feel good about ourselves and so speak ill of others.  And so forth. 

Lent is a time we can ease up on those habits and better understand the fear that drives them.

Give Up a Bad Habit – Prefer Christ Instead

So here is my idea for Lent – Let’s identify and quiet an evil habit like resentment or any other habit that strengthens the serpent of self.

I won’t even mew that we can free ourselves entirely of these habits.  Emotions arise within us.  We’re feline, right? [or human].  We just cannot stop our thoughts.  But we don’t have to follow them and let them take off like horses at race track.  The benefit is immense, as Law shares.

“On the other hand, to give up resentment of every kind and on every occasion, however artfully, beautifully, outwardly coloured, [that resentment or evil habit is]…is the best of all prayers, the surest means of all means to have nothing but Christ living and working in you, as the Lamb of God that takes away every sin that ever had power over your soul.” [4]

“To have nothing but Christ living and working in you.”  That stopped my paws in their tracks.  This possibility makes me purr – the possibility of Christ living and working within me.  I can’t think of a better “doing” in Lent than to do and be whatever will help make this a reality.

William Law

“Oh,oh.  Looks like I am not going to get fed during Lent!”

Quieting the Serpent of Self


Here is my idea to stop feeding the serpent of self with unhelpful (bad/evil) habits.

 In Lent we can work on quieting our resentments and other negative habits so Christ can be living and working within us.  Here’s a way that we can do this.

STEP 1:  Identify Your Resentments

Name what most disturbs your heart, what activates your emotions in situations and/or with others.  Take a look at the above images.  Do you exercise any of these “evil habits?”  What pushes your paws?  What strengthens the serpent of self who blocks Christ living within you?

Be specific as you can.

Amma gets really bent out of shape when she encounters technical problems, be it the computer, cellphone or lightbulb.  I guess she expects everything to go her way, as do us felines.


STEP 2:  Be Alert

Awareness is the next step.

The need for awareness have been around a long time in the monastic world, especially being aware of the serpent of self.  In his Institutes documenting the practices of early Egyptian monasticism, John Cassian (c. 365 – c. 435) cautions us about the serpent.

“For the wily serpent is ever at our heels – that is, he lies in wait for our end, and he seeks even to the close of our life to overthrow us.  In order to persevere in the humility and poverty of Christ…you must always be on the watch for his heads – that is the beginnings of our thoughts – and bring them at once to your elder.”  [5]

Be alert to when personal serpent of self begins to take over, leading a you down a rocky path that, in all honesty, you don’t want to be on.

Name it but be compassionate with yourself.  “Oh, there’s that envy again.”  Or, “Ah, once again – impatience.”  We are feline and human.  The reactions will come, but we don’t need to follow them.

Ways to Recognize the Wily Serpent

You may be wondering how to be alert to the serpent as it raises its head.

It can be a physical reaction in the body or sudden thought in the mind.  Sr. Margaret Brackett, RSM, Sister Peg,  Amma’s spiritual director of many years, offers a good way.  If you are in a calm, peaceful or just ordinary state, and all of a sudden there is a sharp jab of emotion, beware.  It may well be the Evil One stirring up the serpent of self.  Take a deep breath.

The Evil One!

The serpent of self gets fat on obsessive thoughts, too.  You may notice yourself having an animated conversation with someone in your head.  Or discover the wheel of obsession spinning negative thoughts around in your head.  I mew that both are clues to the presence of this serpent.

The serpent of self is goaded on by the evil ones who take GREAT DELIGHT in goading.  And great pleasure in seeing our reactions that make us move away from Christ.

I shared this article with Resident Novice Little Jenny, our novice scholar.  Wisely she suggested this reminder from scripture for the need to be alert.

Be sober, be watchful.
Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion,
seeking some one to devour.  
Resist him, firm in your faith.”   1 Peter 5:8

Novice Scholar Little Jenny studying scripture

STEP 3:  Turn to Christ

You’ve identified the trigger.  You were alert to the raising of the serpents head.  Now, please turn to Christ!

Give this resentment or bad habit that is starting to emerge to Christ.  He will carry it away.  Benedict instructs us to do this in the Rule.

“They have foiled the evil one at every turn, flinging both the devil and these wicked promptings far from [the] sight [of their hearts]. While these temptations were still young, the just caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ” (Ps 15:4, 137:9).  Prologue 28

“As soon as wrongful thoughts come into your heart, dash them against Christ and disclose them to your spiritual guide.”  RB 4.50

Don’t hiss at yourself if the habit keeps rearing its head.  Just be alert to it and turn to Jesus.  I will mew again and again that we cannot do this on our own.  We need help from God.

STEP 4:  Give Thanks for the Habit is a Teacher

This may be a strange thing to hear, but I will mew it to you anyway – The emotions and thoughts stirred up by the serpent of self can be our teachers.  Our negative habits point to growing edges.

In a quiet moment you can reflect on what is beneath the emotion of jealousy, envy, grumbling, anger, self accusations?  What is the need that is not being met?  What is the fear?  Where is healing needed?   How might I be compassionate with myself?  This will help me be compassionate with others.

Sr. Espy and Br. Ricky in a cozy moment after Espy realized she was about to chase Ricky

Novie William Sums it Up

That’s my idea.  Bottom line, quiet the serpent of self through awareness and turning to Christ.  But also, give thanks and learn.

I sure hope that it is helpful to you.  We all can rejoice with Christ living and working within us, right?  Turning from our serpent of self will bring this key verse in the Rule to be the grounding reality in our lives.

“Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ.”  RB 72.11

I encourage you to continue this Lenten practice beyond Lent.  And thank you for reading my article.  Working on it sure got my mind off myself.  LOL!

 Have a blessed Lent and look forward to the joy of Easter!


Your friend in Christ,

Resident Novice William

Novice William tries hard to be alert to the serpent of self, but it is tough.  He’s working at it and places his hope
in God alone (RB 4.41)

“…let each one deny themselves some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”  RB 49.7


[1] Patrick Barry, OSB, trans., St. Benedict’s Rule (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2004), 120.

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crosswords Publishing, 2010), 226.

[3] Robert Llewelyn and Edward Moss, eds., Daily Readings with William Law (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1986), 82.

[4] Loc. Cit.  Italics added by Novice William for emphasis.

[5] John Cassian, Institutes (Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 2000), Book Four, Section XXXVII, p. 99.

© February 2024, Novice William and Jane Tomaine

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