Those familiar with the Rule of St Benedict will know that his approach to Lent is much simpler, and in some ways much harder, than we have become accustomed to in the West because the one thing he demands is that we give up what we most cherish: choosing for ourselves. In the monastery, we do not choose what we give up or take on as a Lenten penance or discipline without the superior’s scrutiny (or, in her case, that of another nun). It is not unknown for permission for something to be withheld or an addition to be made because the whole point of Lent is to enable us to draw closer to the Lord. Self-will has a horrible habit of intruding into this and scuppering our best efforts as we admire our own virtue or heroism just a teeny, weeny bit. So, maybe we should listen carefully to the guidance Benedict gives for a fruitful way of living Lent and lay aside, at least for a few weeks, our own ideas about how to proceed.
One of Benedict’s most important Lenten disciplines is that we should each receive a book from the library which we are to read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48. 15, 16). Given the time at which he wrote and the way in which books were made up, almost certainly this meant a book of the Bible. That is exactly what we do in the monastery, read a book of scripture chosen for us by another. That means there can be no avoidance of books we would rather not read, and because we are meant to read the book as lectio divina, i.e. slowly and prayerfully, there can be no losing ourselves in concordances and commentaries. No, it is just us confronted by the Word of God. The thoughts that come, the difficulties we encounter, the encouragement we receive is from the Lord. Reading is therefore an act of faith as well as of love and devotion.
Books for Lent
In previous years we invited people to apply to the monastery for a suggestion about what scripture to read but numbers grew so great that we have now fixed upon an alternative method of ensuring that the Lent Book is not a matter of personal choice. Members of the community — nuns, oblates and associates — will all receive their personal assignment. But if you would like to share in this practice, please take the first vowel in your first name and read the book listed below:
a — the Gospel of Mark. The earliest, shortest and in many ways simplest of the four gospels (it has no Infancy narrative, and the traditional ending at chapter 16 excludes the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus), it nevertheless conveys a strong sense of Jesus as Suffering Servant and Son of God but cloaked in the ‘messianic secret’. How do we see Jesus? Is he hidden from us — or are we trying to hide from him?
e — Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55. The Book of Isaiah is the first of the major prophets in Christian tradition, so highly regarded it is sometimes called ‘the fifth gospel’. These chapters include the four ‘Servant Songs’ important for our understanding of Jesus’ role as Messiah.
i — The Letters of St John. It is often said that St John has only one theme, love. Is that true, or does he have something to teach us about faith and membership of the Christian community that poses some searching questions?
o — I and II Corinthians. Read this in the context of what was happening in Corinth and what St Paul says has an uncomfortably contemporary ring to it. How do we live our faith today?
u — Deuteronomy. This book would have been familiar to Jesus because it contains many of the precepts and ordinances by which he lived as a Jew. For us, today, however, it presents a challenge. It contains the Ten Commandments and details of the covenant between God and his people. How do we live them? Do we really believe them?
A method of reading
Begin by asking the Holy Spirit to come upon you as you read. Try to find a word or sentence that you can carry with you for the rest of the day (or night, if you can’t get down to reading until the evening) and never close the book without thanking God for the gift he has given. Try to make this a daily practice. If, despite your good intentions, you find it impossible, do not despair. There is an alternative ‘Lent book’ chosen for us by the Church: the Mass readings for every day of Lent. One way or another, our Lenten reading can lead us to the joy of Easter. Be encouraged!