Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.


12 thoughts on “Through Lent with St Benedict: 2”

  1. Thank-you. Although the translations I have seen of Benedict’s Rule are not in obscure language, it is always helpful to have a guide through these texts, and I cannot think of any guide I would rather have.

    We are attempting to host an online house group on Lay Anglicana for Lent, following the Big Read project started by the Big Bible project (following an introduction to Mark’s gospel by Professor N T Wright).

    I have taken the liberty of quoting a chunk of this post in the hope of channelling any of our readers back here to amplify their reading of the gospel with a better understanding of the observance of Lent.

    • Thank you, Laura. Your online house group is a brilliant idea, and the Big Read project is one that I also would commend to all readers. Always rather chuffed when you quote me, will have to work harder at humility!

  2. Thank you so much for directing us to the ‘prayer with tears’. I guess it’s often only through that hard path of being broken open before God that we are in a place to receive his grace. Your words were important for me in a conversation I had with someone today, so thank you for that.

    • Thank you, John. You (unintentionally, I’m sure) reminded me of the only sentence of Kahlil Gibran that has ever stayed in my head: ‘Pain is the breaking open of the shell that encloses your being.’ I suppose that is analogous to what we see in the Cross, though there it is of cosmic significance: the body of Jesus broken for our sins and opening to us the way of salvation.

  3. “We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling.”

    My previous understanding of Lent is being rather turned on its head! Good! How very beautiful is Lent.

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