Through Lent with St Benedict: 1

Over the next few days I shall be writing a series of posts about St Benedict’s teaching on Lent. Today’s is concerned with the first few sentences of RB 49, On the Observance of Lent, which read as follows:

The life of a monk ought always to have a Lenten quality; but since few are capable of that, we therefore urge the whole community during these days of Lent to lead lives of surpassing purity, and in this holy season wash away the negligences of other times. That may be properly done by abstaining from all sinful habits and devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.

Let’s unpack that a little. Monastic life is a life of continual conversion, of turning back to the Lord, changing for the better, living a life of repentance in the sense of metanoia. Indeed one of our vows, conversatio morum, is precisely a vow to undertake this turning to the Lord every day of our lives. It is the dynamic of Benedictine life. What does Lent add to this? Surely it is the extra focus provided by a period of more concentrated effort.

Benedict accepts that we fall away from our ideals, that we become negligent. His remedy is to help us regain our initial fervour. The first thing he asks of us is a profound purity. It is sad that this beautiful word has come to be associated with sexual purity alone. In origin, it means much more: a focus upon God that is free from any contamination or distraction. It is concentrated energy, with a warmth and generosity about it that our narrower meaning does not really convey. So, Benedict asks us to focus on God and our search for him in community in a way that is truly joyous, and the tools he gives us are those we shall be exploring in more depth later this week

  • abstaining from sin
  • prayer with tears
  • reading
  • compunction of heart
  • self denial

Here I will just say a word about the first, abstaining from sin. We all know what sin is and how attractive we find it, despite our best intentions. The problem with sin is not only that it draws us away from God but that it quickly becomes habitual. Before we think about what we should ‘do’ for Lent in terms of what we should give up or take on, we need to look at our lives very honestly and ask ourselves if we have fallen into a habit of sin. If we have, it is there that our Lent should begin: with an attempt to root out sin from our lives. That is far more important than giving up sugar in our tea or saying one of the penitential psalms every day. It is the difference between life and death, but most of us are cowards when it comes to acknowledging our sins. That is why Benedict urges us elsewhere to begin every good act with prayer. To see our lives for what they are, to be able to bear the knowledge that act of seeing confers, we need the grace of the Holy Spirit. We can be sure that grace will never be withheld from anyone who asks. In other words, we can be sure that God will accompany us on every step of our Lenten journey.

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4 thoughts on “Through Lent with St Benedict: 1”

  1. I’ve not heard of the concept of *conversio morum* as such, but have come to believe that we should begin *every* act with prayer, or at least pray several times a day (as those with a Vocation do). That way, we have to confront who we are. We see with clearer vision our need for repentance. It is an ongoing process that enables God to ‘sort us out’ more thoroughly and helps us understand that the nature of sin is subtler than the breaking of defined rules, which can seem both too abstract and too particular.

    Our dialogue with God – as a loving Father who knows our weaknesses and wants to give us abundantly more than we can think of asking – should bring everything out into the open so that, stage by stage, we begin to change.

    In all this, the one thing we especially need to focus on is humility, which will call upon our capacity for self-denial.

    Sometimes, it is not obvious sin – and can be good things in themselves – that become our battleground with Satan.

    Gerard W Hughes states that sin in nothing more nor less than ‘the refusal to let God be the God of all things’.

    Thank you for this post, Sr Catherine. Please pray for those of us outside of a Vocation to have time and space – without contamination and distraction – that we may be stronger witnesses in our respective communities.

  2. Rosy, thank you for your comment but I must disagree with one thing you say. You not only have a vocation, you ARE a vocation! God called you into being and has given you a work to do that no one else can. You are unique and precious (in his eyes, if not in your own). You are so right to mention that sometimes the struggle is not so much with sin as with things apparently good in themselves but which lead us away from that which is better. Difficult.

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