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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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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Baptism of the Lord 2012

I’ve written about this feast, its history and theology, many times, most recently here. Perhaps today a single thought will suffice. The Baptism of the Lord marks the beginning of his public ministry. It represents something new in his life, and in the life of the world, yet it was, at the time, an obscure act in an obscure corner of the Roman empire. The baptism of an unknown Galilean by an eccentric preacher out in the Judean wilderness was hardly likely to cause any ripples in Rome.

Life is full of new beginnings. Some of them seem significant, at least to ourselves; others are unremarkable; yet if we are open to the grace of God, even our most obscure actions become capable of uniting us with Christ and his mission. As many of the Fathers loved to recall, when Christ went down into the waters of the Jordan, he took us with him. We must also rise with him to become beloved children in whom the Father is well-pleased.

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Families: holy and unholy, perfect and imperfect

Readers of iBenedictines’ predecessor, Colophon, will know that neither I nor the community to which I belong really ‘like’ the feast of the Holy Family. It’s a fairly recent addition to the calendar and often sentimentalised. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were hardly an average family, so not much use to us as role models, unless we are prepared to live with a constant feeling of failure because we can’t begin to emulate their perfection.

The fact that we don’t like a feast or find it difficult is, paradoxically, all the more reason for thinking about what it has to teach us. Maybe if we could drop the ‘role model’ idea for a minute we might see more clearly, because it is not the perfection of the Holy Family we need to aim at but its imperfection.

Jesus grew in stature and understanding, just as Mary and Joseph grew in understanding and obedience. The key words, I think, are ‘growth’ and ‘understanding’. Mary gave her consent to the angel without realising all that would be asked of her in the future. She grew as her vocation grew, constantly renewing her initial acceptance of her role as Mother of God. Joseph obeyed the angel, only to find that one obedience demanded another. Jesus himself seems not to have understood all at once what his Sonship would entail. He had to choose obedience to the Father step by step, had ultimately to accept death on the cross. For all three, it was a process, a perfecting of their lives.

In the messiness and imperfection of our own lives, that is a tremendous encouragement. None of us lives in a perfect family; many of us don’t live in families at all; but each of us can learn and grow through our experience of ordinary, everyday life. The Holy Family of Nazareth prepared the way for the Holy Family gathered around the cross on Calvary. We too have to make a similar journey, perhaps with many false turnings on the way but always with the same end in view. As we draw closer to Christ, we hope that we shall be made holy, not as members of his family but as members of something more wonderful still, his Body, the Church.

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Examination of Conscience

The words ‘examination of conscience’ had always sent a chill to my heart, but today’s section of the Rule, RB7. 19 to 23, proved a liberation. Benedict quotes Psalm 49.21, ‘My every desire is before you.’ How much easier, and searching, it is just to ask, ‘what have I desired today?’ than to try to go over the events of the day and scrutinize all one’s motives, etc, etc. Self-will has a way of disguising itself, but desire stands plain and naked. And sometimes, one can be surprised to find that one has chosen good when one might have chosen evil. Then one can give thanks for grace received and co-operated with rather than spurned or neglected.

Bad Behaviour
We are trying to reduce the number of Russian porn sites linking to the blog by means of a WordPress plug-in that blocks certain IP addresses. If any legitimate user has difficulty accessing the site, please let me know and we’ll adjust the confirguration.

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Asking for Miracles

People tend to divide into two groups when it comes to asking God for favours: those who never do, and those who never do anything else. Prayer is more than just petition, but it does, at times, include petition. Sometimes people will say, ‘I’ll pray for others, but not for myself’ and then wonder why they are making such a bad fist of being Christian. We sometimes forget that conversion has to start with ourselves, and it is a grace we must ask for in prayer.

I have no difficulty asking God for favours. Indeed, right now, I am asking him for nothing less than a miracle. We have done everything we can to prepare the way but we have reached the end of doing. We ask with perfect confidence and trust, prepared for a ‘no’ as well as a ‘yes’, because the point about asking God for anything is that we ask not for our will to be done but for our will to be aligned with his. That alignment of will is the secret of Mary’s obedience, the heart of her prayer for the Church. Genoito moi kata ta rhema sou, Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Let it be to me according to your Word. Amen.

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Poverty and Powerlessness

Today is the feast of St Clare. To some, she is merely an adjunct of St Francis: the rich young woman who fled to him for refuge, became a nun and founded an Order we know today as the Poor Clares. The more scholarly will recall that she is the first woman in history we can be sure wrote a Rule for her community, which during her lifetime was called the Order of Poor Ladies. She had to fight, and fight hard, to maintain her original inspiration against clerical opposition. Her joyful and radical embrace of poverty was simply not understood, and much pressure was put on her to make her Rule more Benedictine in character. Just two days before her death, on 11 August 1253, Innocent IV confirmed her ‘privilege of poverty’ in the bull Solet annuere.

So much for history. It is easy to sentimentalize Clare’s vocation and that of her sisters after her, but I think most Franciscan friars would agree that if you wish to experience Francis’s ideals lived in all their rigour and purity, you must go to the Poor Clares. Clare’s theology of poverty is spelled out in her four letters to Agnes of Prague. They are not an easy read. Benedictines don’t make a vow of poverty and often have difficulty in understanding those who do. We make a radical renunciation of private ownership and are committed to living austerely, without excess; but the Poor Clares go further. They embrace the powerlessness of being dependent on others, of perpetual fast, of being genuinely poor.

There is much talk about poverty at the moment, usually by those who have never experienced it at first-hand. Religious poverty tends to be dismissed as mere play-acting by those who see only the externals. I don’t pretend to understand the Poor Clare vocation but I do know how necessary it is for the Church today. There is more than one way of sharing the poverty of the poor and allowing the grace of God to flood it with joy and gladness. The Poor Clares have something important to teach us all.

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