The Observance of Lent

At no other place in the Rule does St Benedict devote a specific chapter separately to a season of the Church’s year.  Certainly in dealing with the scheme by which the Work of God should be fulfilled the entire year is embraced in a sort of microcosm, and within that “holy Easter” is certainly highlighted.  But in offering us his short teaching in Chapter 49 on the season of Lent, Benedict wishes to see in it a reflection of the entire Christian journey, and therefore the journey undertaken, without counting a cost, by the monastic.

There’s no doubt that the Lent-Pasch hinge does just that.  The longing and looking forward associated with Lent stretches out to satisfaction and completeness in the Paschal Mystery-Event.  And so Benedict’s opening – “the life of a monastic ought to be a continuous Lent” – shouldn’t be as daunting a prospect as it might at first seem: we have a tendency to read back into a text our own, often limited, understanding and expectations.  And if we understand and expect Lent to be a time of unmitigated penance, suffering, self-accusation and terrified search for mercy and forgiveness, then that’s exactly what we will find in Benedict’s words.  But we would forget that Benedict, a master in redaction and editing of his text teaching, began this little Rule in an altogether different manner:

“We intend to establish a school of the Lord’s service.  In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.  The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness to amend faults and to safeguard love.  Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that lead to salvation.  It is bound to be narrow at the outset.  But as we progress in this way of life and faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delights of love.  Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom” 

(RB Prologue 45 et seq)

St Benedict leaves us in no doubt: the monastery and the monastic way which he proposes and teaches is established in a school – a gathering together of like minded individuals – in which love is both taught and learned, and the very members are both the students and the teachers, listening to the movements and promptings of the Holy Spirit as he speaks to them in this way of life and through them in how they live it.  And in a school one expects correction, the invitation to change – conversatio, conversion, the embracing of the tools of the monastic life which free us from one way of life and direct our attention to another, and ultimately to the Kingdom of God, through sharing in Christ’s life, sufferings and death.  Lent, then, becomes the refocus time for Benedict’s monastics: what we have forgotten in this life, the basic building blocks, are to be reclaimed and given new importance, renewed attention, because they serve a purpose sometimes hidden within them, but never to be overlooked: this long road which we have taken toward the final goal, the kingdom of God.

How Benedict accepts and responds to our humanity! “Few, however, have the strength for this….”  He is not going to be one who asks the impossible of his followers, nor is he one who is going to impose the impossible and so break us, as he reminds those who are called to the service of abbot in a monastic community: in Chapter 64, on the election of the abbot, Benedict is careful to remind the superior that he cannot drive his flock too hard, or he wear them down.  And always there is the key idea that each monastic is an individual, and so must be cared for, encouraged, and corrected as such: the monastic life, and the Rule which underpins it reflects the Gospel in this – it responds to the needs of each one, and can never provide a “one size fits all” solution or model.

So Lent is a time of careful, and joyful, reclaiming, not of ideas, but of tools and practices.  And it serves, as all tools do, to fix our gaze on something unsurpassable: Christ, and the salvific way which he lays out for us.  Benedict speaks of “negligences of other times” (RB 49.3).  It’s one of the great monastic faults, and so, obviously, a fault in the Christian life.  Negligence is that willful turning away from what is important; a deliberate ignoring of what needs to be done; the opting for the easier, and often what might seem at first the more convenient and more personally profitable.  It’s closely linked to another scourge of monastic life: curiositas, curiosity.  This rather specific term in monastic literature has an edge to it that our usual speech and understanding does not.  The Latin root, of course, is “cura” – “care” – which in itself is entirely neutral.  But give it a context and it assumes a different character.  Curiosity, then, for monastics, is care for that which is not important, indeed, care for that which leads us away from the essential.  To be curious is that disposition which allows my mind and senses and heart to wander and become tangled up in distraction.  Interestingly, as with other attitudes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing I become curious about, that I give my attention to, is itself bad or sinful.  Good things can also be inappropriate and their presence in my life can be misplaced.  Many things find a certain definite meaning according to their contexts, and discernment, and good counsel often, are necessary to help choose that which is of long lasting benefit to me.

Benedict is a top class teacher – he believes in a certain amount of repetition and rephrasing to make sure his point is going home with his listeners.  So, at the heart of this little chapter he begins to suggest areas, and tools, which might come to the fore in our monastic, and Christian, Lent.  He contextualises his suggestions: 

“During these days we will add to the usual measure of our service”

(RB 49.5)  

And service here calls us back, again, to the beginning – we shouldn’t forget just how important the Prologue to the Rule is!  It’s a huge mission statement, a declaration of intent, the hook to catch the fish!  There he reminded his listeners, knowing that their experience of a wartorn Italian peninsula keeps military themes high in their minds, that the one who chooses to embrace this life enters into service of Christ the true Lord: 

“armed with the strong and nobles weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord”

(RB Prologue 3)

This is a spiritual battle, and it takes place in the life of each one and in the world around us.  St Paul’s stirring recommendations in the Letter to the Ephesians spring to mind:

So, stand your ground, with truth buckled round your waist, and integrity for a breastplate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace, and always carrying the shield of faith so that you can use it to put out the burning arrows of the evil one.  And then you must accept salvation from God to be your helmet and receive the word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword

(Ephesians 6:14-17)

We can’t know for certain that Benedict had St Paul in mind in this way, but it doesn’t seem misplaced in his context.  The monastic – and the Christian – enters into a spiritual warfare, waged both within and without, and one needs to have the weapons and the armour to be up for the fight.  And St Benedict is sure that each one needs something a little different – in reading his little lists here we get the impression that he’s thinking out loud, mining his own experience and the experience of his monks, and that the list which he provides is not taxative, it serves merely to point us in the right direction: each one must give serious thought to how he or she will best add to the usual measure of their service.

The first group of suggested tools gives in first place an important monastic renunciation, identified by Evagrius of Pontus and given definite codification by John Cassian in his Institutes and Conferences.  Benedict uses language which will be immediately recognised by those familiar with the above: the rejection of the vices.  For Cassian, the second renunciation on the monastic way lay in the work associated with the renunciation of the eight afflective thoughts, or vices – food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory and pride.  These, of course, don‘t constitute a fixed programme, by which we progress step by step, but rather the awareness of a life converting into evangelical virtue.  That St Benedict should put this renunciation out in front signals his understanding of Lent as an intensification of the work that should already be taking place in the monastic’s life. He follows this by identifying three definite attitudes or practices, adding a final general evangelical disposition: prayer with tears, reading, compunction, and then self-denial.  In Chapter 20 of the Rule St Benedict has already given some pointers regarding what he terms “reverence in prayer”, and among these he notes that God sees our “purity of heart and tears of compunction”.  Are we to presume that this is what he intends in Chapter 49?  Perhaps.  Compunction is a living attitude of the heart – penthos in Greek – which indicates that the person has become overwhelmingly aware of the action of God’s grace and mercy in their lives.  Compunction, penthos, is the state of being gripped by the felt knowledge that I am forgiven, and perhaps even, in St Paul’s real sense of the term in his Letter to the Romans, justified.  It’s the absolute and undeniable restoration of right relationship with God, a thing which we can prepare in our hearts and lives, but which only God can grant when we are ready.  In this sense, it is the end point of real conversion, the whole point of the lenten aspect of the Christian, and monastic, life.  Benedict is asking us to do what we can to move towards this felt experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness, an acute awareness of our own sinfulness and sins, but total immersion in God’s redeeming mercy expressed in Christ’s death and resurrection for me.  That it should be an aspect of our prayer means that, of course, it is an aspect of our life: prayer becoming that ceaseless living in God’s presence, day and night.

Perhaps the Benedictine Rule holds out to us, supremely, prayer expressed in two pivotal practices: the Work of God, or the Divine Office, being the central prayer action of the community gathered together frequently through the night and day; and sacred, or “divine”, reading – lectio divina – the indispensable content of the monastic’s own personal prayer.  Like no other before him, Benedict places reading – by which we can take it he means the reading of Sacred Scripture – on a plane which allows it to become defining for Christian monasticism.  Yes, it had certainly always been there, and the Scriptures always, in one way or another, have supplied the central plank of earnest Christian conversation.  Even before the formal recognition of the canon of Old and New Testaments Church fathers were quoting Scripture, commenting on Scripture, and using Scripture as proof for the Church’s claims and teachings.  Monasticism, from its Egyptian cradle, placed common reading of Sacred Scripture at the heart of the community’s prayer life, and John Cassian cannot construct his Conferences without heavy reliance on the testimony of Scripture in the witnesses whom he introduces.  But Benedict does more: he legislates for Scripture’s inclusion in the daily fabric of the monastic’s life.  And so here, having spent time during his chapters dealing with the layout of psalms and readings for the Work of God, and having advised his monks that they must spend time, in their reading, memorising the texts of psalms and Scripture in general, he points to reading as a means by which the monk may correct the negligences of other times.  Indeed, the omission of daily lectio divina may be the negligence which must be corrected!

Rather oddly, in the preceding Chapter 48, St Benedict slips in his own important teaching on Lenten reading, and one which is still observed in monasteries today: the distribution of the Lenten books to each monk.  It’s highly likely that the books which Benedict speaks about – codices, in Latin – are the individual books of Sacred Scripture.  So, the monastic is to immerse himself in Scripture, and the book which he receives will be his companion – his bread for the journey – in all likelihood not just for the Lenten period, but for the year until the beginning of the next Lent, when the book will be changed.  Imagine, then, how lectio divina takes shape in one who gives himself complete to a single book of Scripture over the course of a year!  This really is an opportunity to come to know this text inside out, as it were, to memorise whole sections, if not, indeed, the whole text, and to be deeply touched by what one is reading, and ultimately, praying.  Perhaps we have, given our information driven culture, forgotten what it is to read, slowly, carefully, rereading, listening, hearing, understanding, questioning, rephrasing….  And it’s probable that the practice in Benedict’s day was to read out loud, or at least to gently vocalise the text – hence, the admonition in this very chapter for those who want to read during the midday siesta while others lie on their beds: 

“But after Sext and their meal, they may rest on their beds in complete silence; should a brother wish to read privately, let him do so, but without disturbing the others”   

(RB48:5)

Think of all those dreadful instructions which we received in our early school years: read into yourself!  One of the very ways in which we become familiar with a text, learn it, hear it, indeed, is to read it out loud for ourselves.

While technology and social media and the age of watching others talking via streamed services and the like has become normalised for most of us, it has undoubtedly led to the decline of being able to take up a text, a book, an article, and read it, not to strip it back to its basic points of information, but to delight in it, be consoled by it, moved by it, surprised by it….  Language is failing us, and we are failing language – spoken, written, heard, and understood, in that technical sense – when something is not said but is immediately apprehended without needing to be said.  When we fail in that regard then we will find it all the more difficult to begin to grasp the greatness of the Johannine concept of the Word, how Genesis explodes with the creative word being spoken, and Sacred Scripture itself hangs upon that key phrase: thus says the Lord.  We are ineffably impoverished by our and society’s forgetfulness concerning the word, spoken and written.

But not St Benedict, and not those who take his lead and example and teaching seriously.  In his monastery some seniors are appointed to make sure that no monk neglects his reading, or distracts others who should be at their reading.  St Benedict here guards the precious action of lectio divina, but also asks us to guard against the fifth afflictive thought: acedia, spiritual indifference and sloth, the tendency to see no worth in spiritual matters, tasks and tools:

“Above all, one or two seniors must surely be deputed to make the rounds of the monastery while the brothers are reading.  Their duty s to see that no brother is so apathetic as to waste time or engage in idle talk to the neglect of his reading, and so not only harm himself but also distract others”

(RB 48:17)

In many ways, in this Chapter 49, St Benedict is recalling for us aspects of that important chapter, 4 which he has called the Tools of Good Works.  One might do well to pick that up as a guide for our lenten pilgrimage.  It is both practical and aspirational; it builds on habit and stretches to virtue.  And here in Chapter 49 St Benedict reminds us that, like Chapter 4, usual and mundane practices constitute the building blocks of a life of conversion: the ordinary trumps the extraordinary.  Thus we add to the usual measure of our service through the willing increase in our private prayer and abstinence from food and drink.  We are back with the Sermon on the Mount, the foundation of our Christian lives, via prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  And Benedict continues, as we said above, to repeat himself and expand a little: we may deny ourselves some food, drink, sleep (to be more attentive to keeping vigil), needless talking and idle jesting.  Yes, Lent is a time for renunciation, but renunciation must be preceded by discernment.

Discernment.  For St Benedict “the mother of virtues” (RB64:19).  Perhaps this is also why the superior should be consulted, and informed, of the monk’s Lenten undertaking.  Nothing should be accepted which is unnecessarily burdensome, or vainglorious – done simply for the sake of attracting attention, be that good or bad, or glory, which should be given to God alone (RB57:9).  And key in all of this is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit:

“So that each of us will have something to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit”

(RB49:6)

The Spirit is not often mentioned in the Holy Rule, so when we hear him spoken of it’s usually of weighty significance:

“Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear.  Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.  All this the Lord will by the Holy Spirit graciously manifest in his workman now cleansed of vices and sins” 

(RB7:67-70)

Two typically monastic attitudes: the work of humility, and the work of conversatio, monastic conversion and life.  In both of these matters the Spirit is at work, prompting, enlivening, correcting the glum look of the vainglorious with the joy given as gift by the Risen Christ.  St Benedict is letting us know firstly, that we undertake this work of monastic conversion – the intense living of evangelical metanoia – by our own will, having made the decision freely for ourselves; secondly, that it should be a work of life marked by joy, not regret.

The last points in this very substantial chapter teaching of the Rule concern our placing ourselves in the wise hands of another, who accompanies us through our Lenten – and Christian – life.  In this, St Benedict stands in a long tradition of seeking out wise elders who will give us, to use that frequent phrase heard amongst the disciples of the desert fathers and mothers, a word to live by.  He warns us, in a way, that we cannot undertake this work under our own steam, according to our own gifts and strength, but rather that we need to open our hearts readily to another who can resonate our thoughts and actions for us, and see what we cannot, or would not, see.  That fraternal accompaniment, and even correction, is a hallmark of our Christian living, but is as much an art as any other spiritual direction: if it lacks love and charity then it becomes more akin to control than service.

So, exercising discernment, the sorting of thoughts so that God’s will be made manifest to each, we take a step, daily, on the Lenten path to holy Easter.

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