instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, February 16, 2013

P40X: Doctor's orders

Here's what the Rule of St. Benedict has to say about Lent:
Although the life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance, yet since few have the virtue for that, we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent the brethren keep their lives most pure and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the negligences of other times. And this will be worthily done if we restrain ourselves from all vices and give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore, let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service, as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink.Thus everyone of his own will may offer God "with joy of the Holy Spirit" (1 Thes. 1:6) something above the measure required of him. From his body, that is he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting; and with the joy of spiritual desire he may look forward to holy Easter.

Let each one, however, suggest to his Abbot what it is that he wants to offer, and let it be done with his blessing and approval. For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward. Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot's approval.
A few things that strike me about this:
  1. The moderation. Yes, it calls on the monks to "keep their lives most pure" and to "restrain...from all vices," but would you expect a rule of monastic life to call on the monks to keep their lives mostly pure? And when you get to specifics, it's an invitation to "increase somewhat the usual burden," to "offer God...something above the measure required of him," to "withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting." St. Benedict knows his monks won't become perfect the night before Ash Wednesday, and he doesn't require it of them by rule. But he knows they can do something. As can we all.
  2. The activity. Lent is not a time of passivity. It is a time to "give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence." Prayer with tears, reading, compunction of heart: these are actions, an increase in the usual monastic burden of service.
  3. The focus of activity. The actions prescribed are, moreover, actions with a penitential focus. It isn't just an increase in acts of virtue, but virtuous acts of penance. What is the first commandment Jesus gives in the Gospel of Mark? "Repent."
  4. The balance. Prayer with tears and compunction of heart frees the monk to experience the joy of spiritual desire. A Lent done right makes Easter a day of overflowing joy, but it also makes Lent itself a time of joy.
  5. The freedom. Each monk is free to decide what he wants to offer. Even within a community as regulated as a monastery, a Christian is free to choose what sort of person he will be -- by which I mean, how he will love God, in this life and for eternity.
  6. The prudence. Acts of great penance may be undertaken for good reasons, bad reasons, or a mix of both. They are also, necessarily, undertaken within a community, and their effects on the community must be considered ahead of time. Most of us don't have an abbot to judge our Lenten plans, but I think we can still ask ourselves two questions along these Benedictine lines: "Am I doing this out of presumption and vainglory?" will help us to recognize when our motives are impure, and to try to do something about it. "Am I speaking of what I want to offer during Lent in a way that might reasonably lead others to impute it to presumption and vainglory?" will help us to be discrete, so our conversation is an aid to others, not a scandal.