Of the Observance of Lent (1)

CHAPTER XLIX. Of the Observance of Lent
31 Mar. 31 July. 30 Nov.

Although the life of a monk ought at all times to have about it a Lenten character, yet since few have strength enough for this, we exhort all, at least during the days of Lent, to keep themselves in all purity of life, and to wash away, during that holy season, the negligences of other times. This we shall worthily do, if we refrain from all sin, and give ourselves to prayer with tears, to holy reading, compunction of heart and abstinence.

1 Licet omni tempore vita monachi quadragesimae debet observationem habere, 2 tamen, quia paucorum est ista virtus, ideo suademus istis diebus quadragesimae omni puritate vitam suam custodire omnes pariter, 3 et neglegentias aliorum temporum his diebus sanctis diluere.

I shall, over the next few days, reflect on Chapter XLIX. Given that Saint Benedict says that our life ought at all times to have about it a quadragesimal observance or, as it is usually translated, a Lenten character, we need to understand what our Patriarch means by “a Lenten character”. Saint Benedict, with his characteristically humble realism, adds that few “have the strength for this”. This is always the Benedictine premise: a lack of virtus, of strength.

We find this premise throughout the Holy Rule expressed in different ways. Saint Benedict often speaks of infirmitas of mind and body; this refers to a lack of firmitas, that is firmness, steadfastness, stability, endurance, constancy, power. Infirmitas is want of strength; weakness, feebleness; it is also want of spirit, want of courage, fickleness, and inconstancy. Saint Benedict also speaks of imbecillitas, imbecility. The word has acquired a pejorative connotation in colloquial English, but it means weakness or feebleness of mind or body, especially in reference to small children or the very old. Some argue that the word derives from the Latin for “without a walking stick or support”, that is a baculus. In Chapter XXVII, Saint Benedict also speaks to us of wobbly or wavering brethren: fratres fluctuantes.

One would think that the want of virtus, and the assortment of infirmities, frailties, and inconstancies that characterise any community—and that certainly characterise our own—constitute a deficit that cannot be remedied. Not so for Saint Benedict, not so. The lack of virtus, of strength, is the ground of the whole Benedictine edifice, according to the word of the Apostle:

For fear that these surpassing revelations should make me proud, I was given a sting to distress my outward nature, an angel of Satan sent to rebuff me. Three times it made me entreat the Lord to rid me of it; but he told me, My grace is enough for thee; my strength finds its full scope in thy weakness. More than ever, then, I delight to boast of the weaknesses that humiliate me, so that the strength of Christ may enshrine itself in me. I am well content with these humiliations of mine, with the insults, the hardships, the persecutions, the times of difficulty I undergo for Christ; when I am weakest, then I am strongest of all. (2 Corinthians 12:7–10)

Mother Mectilde de Bar, writing to a religious of Toul on 5 July 1677, has this to say:

We must have patience with the depth of vice that is in us, and make it the subject of our humiliation, but we must, in no way, follow the disordered movements that it produces. It is this that would be sin, and not the awareness of the depth of wickedness that is in us. One must bear with this without being perturbed [by it] because it serves as a throne for Jesus Christ, and He delights in a soul that accepts and feels its own corruption in this way.

Our want of virtus is a deficit, yes, but a deficit waiting to be filled by the deployment in it of the all–sufficient grace of Christ. Our want of virtus can, Mother Mectilde says, “serve as a throne for Jesus Christ”. The Lenten character of Benedictine life consists, first of all, in this: the humble and fearless acknowledgement of one’s own weakness, fickleness, and inconstancy. Having accepted one’s own misery, one can, calmly and confident, leave it before Our Lord, trusting that He will do in the humble man all that, of himself and by himself, a man cannot do. This principle is as true at the level of building up the monastic community as it is in the life of the individual monk. I take comfort in what Mother Mectilde wrote in 1665 in her last letter to her friend, Jean de Bernières, a holy layman:

At bottom, I still have a distance [from everything] and I find only God alone as my one support. In Him I find the only thing I need. It seems to me also that I have absolutely no ambition to build a showcase monastery; on the contrary, I would want a very little place, a place in which one is not seen nor known by anyone. There are enough brilliant houses in Paris in which God is honoured in magnificence; I desire that this house should honour Him in silence and in nothingness, without, however, diminishing anything of what might contribute to the worship and honour of the Blessed Sacrament, that is, for the church and the altar of the Lord.