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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Witnessing to What or to Whom?

Today’s gospel, Luke 24. 35-48, tells us what happened after the disclosure at Emmaus. What fascinates me is not the disciples’ obvious failure yet again to recognize Jesus, nor that piece of broiled fish and what it says about Christ’s resurrected body (and believe me, the speculation to which it has given rise over the centuries is immense), but the words at the end:

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Perhaps I am being very dim but the kind of witness being posited here is actually a little strange. The disciples had seen Christ suffer and die and rise again and had had the scriptures explained to them, but now he is asking them to witness to a future event: the preaching of forgiveness and repentance in his name. We hear our preachers exhorting us to ‘witness to Christ’ in various ways, but I wonder how often we think of that in terms of a past event: the death and resurrection of Christ as something located in history, made present through liturgical anamnesis, but essentially something to which we look back rather than forward. We are in the business of retelling the story rather than helping to tell it for the first time.

I am probably trembling on the brink of heresy again, but the idea of witnessing to a future proclamation of Christ which must embrace the whole world is quite stunning. It reminds us that Easter is the beginning of the story, not the end. There is still something for us to do, and do it we must, for it has been entrusted to us by Christ himself. As we shall sing at Pentecost, ‘All is made new.’

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Emmaus Every Day

The Emmaus story (Luke 24. 13-35) is much loved by Christians. Most of us long to have the scriptures opened to us by Jesus himself and one often hears people commenting along the lines of ‘If only . . . .’ The trouble with that particular ‘if only’ is that it is nonsense. The scriptures are ALWAYS opened to us by Jesus. Whether it be through prayerful reading by ourselves, with the grace of the Holy Spirit to assist us, or through the teaching of those entrusted with authority to do so, we can only make sense of the scriptures because Jesus reveals himself in and through them. He is present, not absent. We seem to find that very difficult to take on board. ‘What would Jesus do?’ we ask, forgetting that the real question is, ‘What is Jesus doing; what does he want to do through you/me/us/them?

I think today’s gospel is particularly encouraging for those of us who might be labelled ‘professionals’ in the religious sphere. We go around with our eyes half-closed sometimes, not expecting to be surprised. We miss the glory that is spread before us. Perhaps today we could open our eyes to the divine light a little more fully, a little more expectantly. The Risen Christ is here and now and walks with us every day.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Filled with Awe and Great Joy

The Resurrection of Christ
Michelangelo: Sketch of the Resurrection

After the splendour of the Easter Vigil we now have a quiet hour or two when we can reflect on what the Resurrection means for each of us. All three synoptics tell us that it was the women going secretly to anoint Jesus who were the first to hear that ‘He has risen from the dead’. In our very male-dominated Church, it is easy to forget that women were (and are) apostles of the Resurrection, called to ‘tell the disciples and Peter’ what they have seen and heard. To be an apostle in this sense, to witness to the reality of the Resurrection, to proclaim it fearlessly, is indeed to be filled with awe and great joy.

May you have a blessed Easter.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail