Through Lent with St Benedict: 4

Today we come to Benedict’s ‘last word’ on Lent, but it isn’t in the chapter he devotes to Lent itself (RB 49) it’s in the one before, On Daily Manual Labour (RB 48):

During the days of Lent, they should devote themselves to reading from the morning until the end of the third hour; and from then until the tenth hour they should do the work assigned to them. In these days of Lent they should each receive a book from the library, to be read straight through in its entirety. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent.

Aha, you may think, she has already commented on that in an earlier post, A Book for Lent. Indeed I have, but here I want to draw your attention to some other aspects of this text.

Prayerful reading, lectio divina, is the characteristic activity of the monk. In a sense, it guarantees that we shall be in touch with God and he with us. When we pray or work we can go wrong; we can be so full of ourselves that we chase after our own ideas and end up making a mess of things. Not so when we listen to God. We may not ‘meet God’ in our work or prayer, but we can be quite sure we shall meet him in our reading because scripture is the word he has spoken definitively to the Church.

So, Lent without reading of this kind is a nonsense. Moreover, you notice where Benedict places his teaching on Lenten reading? In his chapter on work. Lectio divina doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it; and Benedict expects us to devote a sizeable chunk of time to doing so.

Why is that important? The emphasis on reading scripture is a reminder of what I call the ‘slow down and shut up’ approach to the spiritual life. Lent is a time for focusing, so we read one book, not zillions of them, and we read slowly, allowing God to speak to our hearts. We have to keep in mind that Benedict’s way of reading was different from ours. We skim, speed read, forget most of what we have just read. Benedict, by contrast, expected his monks to commit to memory much of what they read so that they had a rich inner library to which to return again and again in the course of the day. That is not a bad idea for us in the twenty-first century, when we are bombarded from dawn till dusk with all kinds of information clamouring for our attention.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional practices of Lent but they all rest upon the supposition that we are familiar with the Word of God. In his insistence on the importance of reading, Benedict reminds us that even if the more ‘active’ side of Lent is impossible, we can be attuned to what God wants of us through our practice of lectio divina. Our word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin word obaudire, meaning to listen carefully, listen hard. He knows well enough that anyone who truly listens to God will enter into a dialogue of love and union with him that is beyond all words and all doing. He will enter into the silence of God himself.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 3

Today we reach the final section of RB 49, although it is not Benedict’s last word on Lent (we’ll look at that tomorrow):

Each one, however, must tell his abbot what he is offering up, for it must be done with his blessing and approval. Whatever is done without the spiritual father’s permission is to be attributed to presumption and vainglory, unworthy of reward. Everything, therefore, must be done with the abbot’s approval.

I wonder how many readers of this blog consulted anyone before deciding what to give up or take on for Lent? In community we write a Lent Bill — a statement of what we propose to do — and hand it to the prioress, asking her permission and blessing. It is not unknown for something to be added or taken away, and very humbling the experience can be!

The point Benedict is making here is important: we are not always the best judges of ourselves, nor do we always choose wisely, especially where Lent is concerned. We are often muddled about what it is and how we should meet its demands. Pride and competitiveness can easily creep into our decisions. We get hold of the idea of penance then whip ourselves up into an ungodly fervour. ‘I will fast. I will keep vigil. I will . . .’ I, I, I. The whole purpose of monastic life is to lead us closer to God, which means forgetfulness of self. Very often what we think would be best is anything but. We believe we can ‘go it alone’, not realising that we go to God together or not at all.

For us, as Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. We have chosen to live according to the Rule, under a superior, so we submit our ideas to him/her — and take the consequences.  The encouraging part is knowing we shall have our superior’s prayers, and that can be a great comfort when things get bumpy (as they certainly will).

All very well for a monk or nun, you say, but what about those outside the cloister? I think there is value in talking over our ‘Lenten programme’ with someone we trust, not necessarily a priest or religious but someone whose judgement is sound and whose instincts are good. Articulating what we intend to do can sometimes make us aware that it isn’t quite sensible or will end up making us completely batty. Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves or making dramatic  gestures. It is about quietly and perseveringly focusing upon God and allowing him to transform us. That is why it is so joyful.

If you feel you have begun Lent wrong, take heart. To admit that we’ve made a false start is the beginning of grace. And if you feel you have begun in the right way, thank God, and ask him to protect you from all pride and presumption. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but this is the season when we must wage war against the principalities and powers of this present age. Whatever else Lent is, it isn’t dull.

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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.

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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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A Book for Lent

One of the Lenten disciplines required by the Rule of St Benedict 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). I think this one of the best ways of trying to draw closer to God. It is something we can all do, and although it demands no special skill or resources, there are several points to note.

First, the book is not chosen by us but by another. We don’t decide for ourselves what would be a good book to read, we submit to another’s judgement. That is harder than it sounds, especially for those of us who like to think we are ‘educated’, but I have often discovered books I might otherwise not have known simply because I had been told to read them. We begin by humbling our intellectual pride, and isn’t there a reason for that when we look back on the sin of Adam and Eve?

Secondly, the book is read ‘straight through in its entirety’, with no judicious skipping, no lengthy recourse to commentaries, explanations and additional material. It is not academic reading on which we are engaged but lectio divina. Now, there is a debate about what is meant by ‘a book from the library’. Benedict probably meant a book of the Bible; so we read a book of the Bible chosen for us by the superior — easy enough if her choice falls on Deutero-Isaiah, not quite so easy if she lights upon Numbers.

Lent is a time for meditating on the Word of God, allowing it gradually to sink in and change us. It is probably rash of me to say it, but if you have no one to choose a book of scripture for you, by all means email the monastery and one of us will make a suggestion. A ‘book for Lent’ is like a kind word, the best of gifts.

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Monday Morning Blues

It is amazing how many people suffer from ‘Monday morning blues’. In the monastery one day follows another without the ‘week-end’ as such intervening — the liturgical calendar is the all-important demarcator of days and seasons. This Monday, however, is different. With Ash Wednesday only a couple of days away, if we have not yet thought through how we are going to make a fresh start during Lent, this is the day to do it. Inevitably, one starts with the negatives: where do I need to pull my monastic socks up? It can all seem a bit dispiriting.

The advice St Benedict gives for making a good Lent is remarkably straightforward, and I’ll be going through some of it in a later post, but here I want to draw attention to just one element. He says of our Lenten observance that whatever we do should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ and ‘looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing’ (cf RB 49. 6, 7). Joy and longing are not necessarily the first things we associate with Lent, but Benedict’s words remind me, at least, that ‘Monday morning blues’ can be  a trifle self-indulgent — or as Kirkegaard remarked, ‘The trouble with Christians is that they don’t look redeemed.’ Another challenge to meet!

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Gracious Living

While shopping yesterday I noticed, almost subliminally, how many magazine covers deal with ‘gracious living’. Judging by the accompanying illustrations, gracious living could be summed up as a large house, swimming pool, fast car and plenty of alcohol. Add in permatan, perfect dentition and expensive clothes, and there you have it. Or rather, you don’t.

Gracious living surely has to do with grace, from the Latin gratia, and has its origins in what is pleasing and thankful. You will notice how many of the comments on yesterday’s post about living with uncertainty mention, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of gratitude. For a Christian, there is the further sense of grace as a divine gift, the free and unmerited favour of God. St Benedict is very keen on mindfulness of God, the sense that at every moment we are upheld by God’s mercy and love which inspire an answering response of gratitude and delight.

There is another meaning of grace often overlooked but rich in meaning: the short prayer of blessing and gratitude said before and after eating. A tiny, almost insignificant act in itself, it reminds us of God’s presence and action in our lives. Saying grace before we eat our baked beans won’t turn them into a gourmet delight, but it will make their consumption an act of gracious living.

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Reading the Liturgical Code in the Rule of St Benedict

The chapters of the Rule we are reading at present (often called the Liturgical Code of the Rule of St Benedict) might seem unpromising material on which to meditate —  rather like the less digestible sections of the Book of Numbers. They are, however, an important part of the whole. Take away Benedict’s prescriptions for the common prayer of the community, and you take away something essential for understanding what monastic life is all about. It is a quest for God, lived in community and worked out through the small detail of life. As Benedictines, we don’t do great things for God. We are, if truth be told, bumblers along the way of perfection. The constant return to choir and the prayer of the community as a whole bears us up, helps us over the difficult places, and will eventually, please God, lead us to the ‘heights of wisdom and virtue’ of which St Benedict speaks. Being reminded again and again how simple, straightforward and scriptural our prayer in community should be is a great encouragement. ‘Bumbling along with Benedict’ may not sound very challenging, but it certainly challenges me.

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Is Dr Oddie Unfair?

A number of articles have appeared recently commenting on the sale by the monks of Ramsgate (now Chilworth) of several of their treasures. Yesterday William Oddie addressed the same story in the online edition of the Catholic Herald here. I do not wish to comment on the internal affairs of another community, although my views on conservation are well-known and regular readers of this blog will know something of the struggle we ourselves are having to obtain even the most basic permanent accommodation. That is not the point I wish to take up. Dr Oddie enlarges his argument to embrace some more general censures of contemporary religious and these, I think, need challenging.

He refers to the monks’ sale then says

How typical of today’s religious is this, in my view, astonishing example of secularity? How is one to know? In the nature of things, lay Catholics know little of what goes on behind the closed doors of a religious community. And yet, there are visible signs that must mean something. In the same edition of the paper, we see (p11) a photograph of Archbishop Vincent Nichols with a group of Sisters representing female religious communities of the Diocese of Westminster. Of 14 sisters, only five (possibly six) are wearing habits: the rest just look like ordinary lay women with handbags (what could be more unambiguously secular than a handbag?) and one is actually wearing trousers and a polo neck sweater.

Ah, so the real subject of his article is not the sale of pretiosa by Ramsgate but the dress of female religious? You notice Dr Oddie has nothing to say about male religious, who frequently wear lay clothes. What is particularly ‘secular’ about ‘handbags’ or ‘trousers and a polo neck sweater’, I wonder?  Could prejudice be masquerading as an argument? Please don’t get me wrong: I enjoy Dr Oddie’s columns but I think he has allowed one of his King Charles’s heads to get in the way here. Although he mentions that the Holy See recognizes that ‘for valid reasons of their apostolate’, religious may dress otherwise than in a habit, he continues in negative vein and concludes:

It is a question of the unambiguous witness which consecration to the religious life should present to the world. I ask simply, are we necessarily always getting that witness from our religious today? Perhaps there are occasions when they should ask that of themselves.

Perhaps Dr Oddie and those who agree with him should ask themselves what witness they give religious. It is easy to criticize others for not being what we should like them to be, but I wonder whether Dr Oddie actually knows anything of the lives of the people he writes of so slightingly. Even allowing for journalistic exaggeration, I was left feeling that the article overlooked the generosity and fidelity with which most religious live their vocation. I know none of the religious sisters to whom Dr Oddie takes such exception, but I would dare to say that their fidelity to prayer and observance, the austerity of their lifestyle, and the renunciation of self that each of them represents counts for something in the eyes of God. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters?

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St Scholastica and Single-heartedness

Today is the feast of St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict. All we know about her comes from the second book of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. We are told that once a year she and her brother used to meet to discuss spiritual matters. On one occasion she wished her brother to stay longer, but he, anxious not to spend the night away from his monastery, refused. Scholastica prayed, and the result of her prayers was a storm so fierce and long that he was compelled to stay and passed the night discussing holy matters with her. He humbly acknowledged that she had prevailed with God because she loved much. The second reference to her occurs when Benedict sees a dove flying skywards and realises that it is an image of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven.

Pretty stories, or something more? It rather depends whom and what you want to believe. For some, Scholastica is no more ‘real’ than St Benedict, simply an image of prayer, the ‘feminine’ aspect of monasticism. For others, Scholastica is indeed an historical person, but merely an adjunct to the story of St Benedict. If she is remembered at all it is because she was, as the preface of the day says, ‘schooled in holiness by St Benedict’ and his bones were allegedly placed in the same grave as hers. I myself think the truth is more complex.

The Dialogues are not history as we understand it today. Scholastica’s appearance in the narrative has a didactic purpose. She is presented in the first incident as the  teacher of St Benedict. He had to learn, first, that his purely human legislation (not spending a night away from the monastery) might, on occasion, and for good reason, be abrogated. More importantly, he had to learn that the  power of prayer proceeds from the love and fervour with which it is practised. At many points in the Rule Benedict insists that prayer be short and pure, that we shall not be heard for our many words but for our purity of heart and devotion; the motive he gives for almost every act is love of Christ. This is particularly noticeable in those passages adapted from the Rule of the Master and gives a completely different character to RB. Benedict learned his lesson well.

With the second incident, the vision of Scholastica’s soul ascending to heaven, we come to a favourite topos or theme in hagiography. It confirms the holiness of both the visionary and the subject of his vision. Like the burial of brother and sister in a single grave (or side by side, as now) Benedict and Scholastica are both examples of Benedictine holiness, neither complete without the other. We cannot always be doing; we cannot always be praying in the formal sense; we can, and should, always be monastic, single-hearted in the service of our Lord.

May St Scholastica pray for us all.

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