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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A Sense of Entitlement

Occasionally, I catch myself saying or doing something that, on further reflection, strikes me as being presumptuous. Presumption isn’t something we talk about very much. Perhaps if we substituted ‘a sense of entitlement’ it would be easier to understand. We live in a society where demanding or asserting one’s rights is seen in positive terms. We are entitled. One unfortunate result of this is to have made us less honest. An accident can lead to litigation, so fault is not acknowledged; a mistake is always an ‘oversight’ for fear of the consequences of saying one made a mess of things. We don’t have to worry too much about kindness or courtesy because we are entitled. (I exaggerate, of course.) We talk about corporate responsibility and individual responsibility but try to wiggle out of it in various ways. In short, our sense of entitlement can make us childish, demanding that everyone else be responsible but ourselves not at all.

I was thinking about this the other day when I looked through a number of emails that Quietnun was struggling with. (She would do almost anything not to disappoint people.) Each writer assumed that his or her request was perfectly reasonable and should be responded to promptly and positively. As it happens, we can’t meet all the demands but that is not my point. What struck me was the writers’ sense of entitlement. You are there, you are nuns, you should do this or that which I have decided you should do. Apply the same sense of entitlement to personal relationships and one can see how quickly all will end in disaster.

Our expectation in the west that we should never be hungry or thirsty and should always have medical care is increasingly under threat from changing economic conditions. Out right to own property and enjoy a lengthy retirement is also being challenged. But it is easy to see these things in impersonal terms and shy away from any sense of our own involvement. Benedict XVI has been at pains to stress that our reliance on rights has produced a culture of death because we have not balanced it with a sense of responsibility. Perhaps we need to do some reassessment at the personal level. We used to consider presumption a sin. I’d say we should also think about our sense of entitlement in similar terms.

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