Preparing for Lent 5

With this fifth post on preparing for Lent we return to my starting-point, RB 49, St Benedict’s chapter on the observance of Lent, and RB 48, with its reference to Lenten reading. (If you wish to follow through Benedict’s teaching in a more systematic way, please see the four posts from 2012 entitled Through Lent with St Benedict.)

At the beginning of Lent every member of the community is assigned a book of scripture, known as ‘the Lent Book’, to be read straight through in its entirety. It is meant to be read as lectio divina, that slow, prayerful reading of a text that leads naturally to prayer. Therefore, we don’t, in the first instance, get out our commentaries or multiple translations of the text as though we were about to take an examination in scriptural studies. Instead we get down on our knees and read slowly, patiently, closely. Ideally, we take from our reading a word or phrase that we can chew over at other times in the day so that it becomes part of our very selves.

In previous years I have invited readers to send in a request for a Lent Book to be assigned them. The numbers have grown too great for me to continue to do that but at the end of this post you will find an alternative. The point to be emphasized is that we do not choose for ourselves. We accept what we are given, and if that means we struggle with the text, so much the better. We shall learn something we might never otherwise have done — and that is the point of all our Lenten discipline, to learn something that will bring us closer to God. If we haven’t time for a Lent Book as such, reading through the daily Mass readings is an excellent way of following the course of salvation history in union with the rest of the Church. Others may wish to add something more: a Lenten-themed book of some kind. There is no substitute for scripture, however, and the fact that Benedict includes the Lent Book in his chapter on daily manual labour should alert us to the fact that he expects us to put some effort into it.

Lent Books 2018
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 Book of Genesis. There are several passages that make us stop short. What sort of God is this? He is as far removed from the conventional picture of an Old Testament tyrant as it is possible to be. Are our ideas of God in need of a shaek-up?

e — the Gospel of John. There is almost too much in this gospel to take in, but its great parables and narrative of the Passion are essential parts of our preparation for Easter. Are we blind or lifeless, too?

i — The Book of Exodus. The liberation of the people of Israel is our liberation, too. The transcendent holiness of God should stop us being casual in the way we treat him. How do we measure up to that?

o — The Book of Ezekiel. Not for the faint-hearted, but another insight into the compassion of God and his burning zeal for his people. Where do we stand in relation to God?

u — 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?

May God bless all who take this on themselves this Lent.


Of Work, Idleness and the ‘Benedict Option’

Today we begin re-reading RB 48, St Benedict’s great chapter on work, which is as much about lectio divina as it is about manual labour, and which begins with that wonderful sentence, Otiositas inimica est animae, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul.’ As a novice I remember it being cheerfully quoted to me as yet another load of greasy washing-up was dumped in the scullery sink; and I quote it equally cheerfully myself when I hand a visitor or guest a tea towel or duster. The equation of idleness with spiritual vacuity or worse is as old as the hills, and it tempts me to ask what Benedict would have made of today’s leisure industry or our enthusiasm for labour-saving gadgets — which, of course, we have to work hard to afford.

It is, as you will realise, an inadmissable question because we cannot possibly know what Benedict would think, only what he did think; and his thinking about work is certainly worth pondering. We never retire or have days off in the monastery. All are called to contribute to the common good, and Benedict sees a real value in manual work. It keeps us grounded, so to say; but he makes allowances for individual weaknesses and does not want anyone so overburdened that they seek means of escape or run away from the monastery. Work is not to be seen in purely economic or productive terms but also as a spiritual good. Throughout the whole chapter, with its interplay of assigned tasks and reading, there is a tacit acknowlegement of the emptiness within. Either we are to be filled with God, or the devil will rattle through the hollow spaces of our lives. Work and its counterpart lectio divina are given to us precisely so that the interior emptiness can be filled in the right way.

Over the centuries, monasticism has tended to favour certain types of work as being well suited to the demands of the horarium and the dynamics of community life, but for most monasteries today diversity has become the norm. We still have our scholars and our agriculturalists, but increasing numbers of us work alone at tasks our forebears might have found incomprehensible. That places on all of us the responsibility to ensure that our work is carried out in a genuinely monastic way. For those of us involved in various forms of online activity, there is the need for clarity about our objectives and the methods we use to attain them. The computer as scriptorium is a neat idea, but the disciplines of the scriptorium must also be observed: prayer, carefulness, concern for truth, a seriousness of purpose which does not obviate humour or lightness of touch, a sense of the worth of the task on which we are engaged.

What is true of monastics is, or should be, true of every Christian. It is what one might call the real ‘Benedict option’ — not a flight from the world as it is but a commitment to change the world into what it should really be, a deeper engagement rather than a withdrawal. But about that I may have more to say later.


Two Types of Monopoly

Yesterday, while George Osborne was demonstrating how to play real-life ‘Monopoly’ by taking on the editorship of the London Evening Standard in addition to five other jobs (including being M.P. for Tatton and a highly-lucrative advisory post at BlackRock Investment Institute) a quiet revolution was taking place in the board-game of the same name. The boot, thimble and wheelbarrow tokens were dropped, to be replaced by a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a penguin and a ‘rubber ducky’.

Time was when work was serious and board-games reflected that. When ‘Monopoly’ was launched in the 1930s, boots, thimbles and wheelbarrows were familiar items, eloquent of hard labour, thrift and a more rural way of life than is now general. The underlying principle on which the game was based, financial and property deals caried out with imitation money, reflected very accurately some of the preoccupations of the time, following the Depression and all the ills that flowed from it. The new tokens speak more of fantasy and fun, just as Mr Osborne’s plethora of jobs suggests, to me at least, more greed than graft (most people would find doing any one of them properly quite enough). Is there a lesson here, beyond the obvious nostalgic lament for a lost world? I like to think so.

St Benedict saw a direct link between work and prayer. Work is good for us, but it must be honest work, carried out in an honest way. There is no room for greed or trickery, because the person we are when we work is also the same person we are when we go to prayer. His chapters on Daily Manual Labour (RB 48) or the Artisans of the Monastery (RB 57) are full of wise spiritual reflection on the value of what we do. However, he never makes the mistake of equating work with prayer in the simplistic way that many try to do. Prayer is work, yes; but not all work is prayer, nor can we substitute work for prayer. Above all, I think we can safely say that Benedict saw work as a common enterprise in which all engaged and from which all benefited. His care for the weak, for the less able, made him sensitive to the way in which the strong can use their strength to claim a position not available to the less fortunate. I’m not sure he would have liked ‘Monopoly’ as a game; and I am pretty certain he would have taken a dim view of amassing more jobs than one has time for, no matter how good or useful one might think them. Prudence, as he said, is the mother of all virtues, and taking on too much is as silly as refusing to take on anything at all.


Working at Friendship

Detail of the Raising of Lazarus: Hunterian Psalter, English c. 1170
Detail of the Raising of Lazarus: Hunterian Psalter, English c. 1170

Today in our monastic calendar is the feast of SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus, about whom I seem to have written a great deal in the past. Typically, I have written about this feast as a feast of friendship and hospitality, noting also that we have our Martha days, when life seems all work, our Mary days, when life seems all bliss and our Lazarus days, when we have to go into the tomb with Jesus and experience resurrection in a new and painful way. Today, however, I would like to think about this feast in relation to the second section of RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, verses 10 to 21.

The first thing that strikes one about this passage of the Rule is that it is almost wholly concerned with lectio divina, that slow, prayerful reading characteristic of the Benedictine. Why? I think it is a reminder that we have to work at cultivating our friendship with God, just as Martha had to work at serving the Lord when he visited her household in Bethany. Dinner didn’t just happen: it had to be prepared, cooked and served before it could be shared. So, too, with us. We have to prepare ourselves for prayer, concentrate, abandon ourselves to an activity which seems to matter so much to God. It requires effort, even sacrifice, but most of all, it demands fixity of desire and purpose: I want to be friends with God; I will do everything I can to become friends with God.

We don’t become friends with God just by wishing. We have to give him time, not just any old time, but ‘quality time’. We have to lavish time upon him, in fact, lavish love and attention on him, as Mary lavished ointment on the Lord’s feet and sat to listen to his teaching. Others, even those we are closest to or who we think understand us best, are likely to be puzzled by this. We shall be challenged to do something constructive, as Mary was challenged by Martha, but we must hold to our purpose because, in truth, there is no other way of becoming friends of God.

Finally, we must go through the Lazarus experience: feeling that we have been abandoned by God, plunging into a dark place where all we seem to know is death and destruction and hope turns to ashes. This too has to be worked at. There are many surrenders into the hands of God that must be made before we make the final surrender of death; and just as Lazarus had to rely upon his sisters to bring the Lord to his tomb, so there are times when we have to rely upon the prayers and good deeds of others to help us. That is what the Communion of Saints means. It is the great circle of friendship embracing both the living and the dead which draws us into the life of the Trinity.

Deus amicitia est, ‘God is friendship,’ said St Aelred, the great Cistercian writer on Christian friendship. ‘I have called you friends,’ says Jesus in St John’s Gospel. And as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remarked, quoting Sallust, to like and dislike the same thing is a mark of friendship. Our friendship with God isn’t, first and foremost, about feelings: it is about willing and doing the same things. Both St Benedict’s chapter on work and today’s celebration of SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus may suggest ways in which we can deepen our friendship with God and, incidentally, become better friends with one another.


Our Daily Work

Today we begin re-reading RB 48, Concerning Daily Manual Labour. It is one of those chapters some like to skip over on the grounds that manual work is something other people do, or at any rate, the provisions of the Rule are rather quaint and outmoded for people living twenty-first century lives. I wonder. One does not have to be monastic, nor particularly ‘alternative’, to recognize that the way in which Benedict divides up the day, allotting time to both manual work and lectio divina (slow, prayerful reading), has some human wisdom in it; but I think one does have to be monastic to some degree to recognize both the spiritual value of work in Benedict’s scheme of things, and the work that needs to go into the cultivation of a genuinely spiritual life.

First, there is that insistence on the value not merely of work but of work with our hands. Even in the sixth century there was obviously some discussion about whether harvesting was to be included in the tasks normally assigned to monks, but Benedict tackles the subject head on and reminds us that our fathers and the apostles lived by the work of their hands, and so should we.(RB 48.7–8) Clearly, the monk must be ready for anything. Getting our hands dirty, doing jobs many think menial or unimportant, has value — so much so that it should be part of our daily experience, not something we do occasionally with self-conscious effort or even a smattering of self-congratulatory ‘humility’.

Then there is that importance attached to lectio divina, which we are to work at seriously and perseveringly. It is not something we do just when we feel like it. Indeed, it is so important that Benedict allows monks to read when otherwise they would be resting. Our habit of speed-reading, flitting from page to page, skimming and failing to digest what we read, is one Benedict would have found alien. St Ambrose surprised St Augustine by reading silently, but for most people in Late Antiquity, reading was a very physical business. The words were shaped by lips and tongue, chewed over, thought about, prayed about. The true monk does not get up from his reading without carrying away with him a word or sentence that will remain with him for the rest of the day. Benedict expected the monastic mind to be well-stocked, but not in a random fashion. To read in this way, day after day, requires effort, application, belief in the value of what one is doing. It is a work of faith no less than the prayer of the Divine Office or life lived in common.

I think there are things here that everyone can take away and apply to their own lives. To recognize the holiness of the ordinary, the blessedness of the everyday and routine, is to recognize that grace comes to us in myriad ways. Cleaning the loo or battling away at that unpromising passage of scripture may not be quite how you thought you would become a saint, but it may be how God makes you one.


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.