Lenten Observance in July
Three times yearly we read Chapter 49 of the Holy Rule: Of the Observance of Lent. It may, at first, seem rather out of season to be reading this particular passage of the Rule of Saint Benedict on the last day of July. A closer reading suggests that Chapter 49 is, in effect, suitable for every day of the year.
I often like to point out the grand over-arching principles of Benedictine life that Saint Benedict manages to slip into nearly every chapter of the Rule. Chapter 49 contains two of these. Interestingly enough, we find them in the opening and final sentences of the chapter. They frame all the rest, and suggest that this particular chapter is one for all seasons. Our Father Saint Benedict begins with a rather sobering affirmation: “The life of a monk ought at all times to be Lenten in its character.” He closes the chapter with a prudent safeguard: “Everything, therefore, is to be done with the approval of the abbot.”
Lent Year-Round Semper Quadragesima! Always Lent! The Order of Minims, founded by Saint Francesco di Paola (1416-1507), and approved by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, has as this very phrase as its motto, even today. With Franciscan roots, the Rule of the Minims (least of all) also draws upon the Rule of Saint Augustine and the Rule of Saint Benedict. For Saint Francesco di Paola, perpetual Lent implied a year-round observance of the fasting and abstinence characteristic of the forty days before Easter. This rigorous discipline must have admitted of a certain mildness in practice, given that none other than the gentle Doctor of the Church, Saint Francis de Sales, was a Tertiary of the Order of Minims.
What Does It Mean?
What exactly does Saint Benedict himself mean when he declares that “the life of a monk ought at all times to be Lenten in character”? He describes the Lenten character of monastic life in the following terms:
Purity: When Saint Benedict speaks of purity of life, he is not referring exclusively to the virtue of chastity. He represents an all-encompassing notion of purity of heart, drawing, principally, upon the writings of Saint John Cassian. Purity of heart includes perfect chastity (according to one’s state in life) and cannot be attained without it, but it has to do also with the singlehearted direction of a monk’s life, with his all-consuming passion for God alone. Purity of heart is the treasure hidden in the field for which the monk is ready to sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price, and chief ornament of monastic holiness. “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 6:8).
No one comes to the monastery with a clean heart; in every heart there are mixed motives, deeply rooted attachments, and compromises. But as a man perseveres in the monastic life his heart is purified and, if he consents to the purging fire of Divine Love, he will come, at length, to that degree of purity of heart by which the soul begins to contemplate God in the darkness of faith, and to cling to Him alone in love.
Reparation: Saint Benedict presents Lent as a time during which the monk “expiates the negligences of other times.” One who has experienced the love of the Heart of Jesus wants to make up for the coldness, ingratitude, want of generosity, and failure to trust that have cast a shadow over his past.
Avoiding sin: This, of course, is binding on all who profess to love Christ. What specifically does Saint Benedict mean in this instance? It seems to me that this particular Lenten injunction has to do with being sober and watchful lest the enemy who “prowls about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 P 5:8) pounce on one who has let down his guard.
Praying with tears: Virtues flourish where the labour of one’s prayer and good deeds is irrigated by tears. The Church so values the gift of tears that the Roman Missal contains a set of orations to beg for this grace.
Reading: The monk immerses himself in the Word of God, not only in Lent, but day after day, week after week, and year after year. One who neglects holy reading begins to dry up; one is tempted to cut short one’s times of secret, silent prayer. The neglect of holy reading is the first step in the slow descent into lukewarmness and spiritual sloth.
Compunction of heart: Etymologically, compunction means the state of being wounded or pierced through. It is the condition of one who is wounded. Compunction, Blessed Abbot Marmion tells us, is a distinctively Benedictine virtue. The monk lives with an open wound in the heart; it is the wound opened there by the two-edged sword of the Word of God and by the piercing arrow of Divine Love. One so wounded cannot help but shed tears of sorrow for past and actual sins, tears of thanksgiving for the mercy shown him, and tears of joy in the face of Love.
Abstinence: Saint Benedict is, undoubtedly, referring to abstinence from food and drink, but there are other forms of abstinence as well. Abstinence is a readiness to curb one’s appetites and to hold them in check, lest one become heavy and weighed down by any sort of excess.
Over and Above the Measure Prescribed
A legalistic minimalism extinguishes love, and where love no longer burns brightly, there is an absence of joy. The Benedictine never asks, “How little must I do in order to be on the right side of the law?” He rather asks, “How much can I do to respond to Love with love?”
Saint Benedict puts it this way: “In these days, therefore, let us add something beyond the wonted measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence in food and drink. Let each one, over and above the measure prescribed for him, offer God something of his own free will in the joy of the Holy Ghost.” It is not enough merely to be correct. One can be quite correct and, in spite of that, joyless, censorious, and bitter.
Private Prayers and Devotions
As for the increase of “private prayers,” I am reminded of the lovely medieval practice of visiting the various altars of the monastery church before Matins and after Compline. Even today, in certain monasteries, it is not uncommon to see monks making the rounds, as it were, in the darkness before Matins or after Compline, to have a personal word with Our Lady, with Saint Joseph, Saint Benedict, or another of the saints. Similarly, the gratuitous visit to the Blessed Sacrament is a singularly effective way of responding to the gift of the Divine Friendship.
Blessed Abbot Marmion made the Way of the Cross every day of the year, except for Easter Day. He was faithful all his life to the humble prayer of the Rosary. One who looks down upon the customary Catholic devotions, deeming them unnecessary, or useful only for those who have no liturgical culture, have forgotten the words of Our Lord: “I confess to Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones. Yea, Father; for so hath it seemed good in Thy sight” (Mt 11:25-26).
In the Joy of the Holy Ghost
Nowhere in the Holy Rule does Saint Benedict speak of joy as much as he does in this chapter on the observance of Lent. If the life of a monk is to be Lent-like all year round, it is to be joyful. Joy, being one of the fruits of the Holy Ghost, flourishes on the branches of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost. The Seven Gifts themselves grow out of the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Benedictine life is characteristically joyful. How could it be otherwise when one is called to the praise of God seven times daily? How could it be otherwise when one approaches daily the sacred banquet of the Lamb?
With the Joy of Spiritual Longing for Pascha Pascha (or Easter), the grand yearly festival of our Redemption, is the Eucharistic solemnity par excellence. The soaringly ecstatic Alleluia verse of Easter morning has us sing: “Christ our Pasch is immolated.” And Saint Paul adds, “Therefore let us keep festival” (1 Cor 5:8). The joy of spiritual longing for the Paschal Solemnity becomes, on a daily basis, the joy of spiritual longing for Holy Communion, the joy of spiritual longing for union with Christ in His Sacrifice. Benedictine joy is a Eucharistic joy. It springs afresh in anticipation of each day’s participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; it continues to flow quietly and sweetly through the hours of Eucharistic adoration that, in our little monastery, prolong the Mass and draw us into it more deeply.
With the Approval of the Abbot
After having presented his magnificent program for a Lent-like life, Saint Benedict concludes: “Everything, therefore, is to be done with the approval of the abbot.” A monk (or an Oblate) will have the humility and good sense to “tell his abbot what he is offering, that it may be done with his consent and blessing; because what is done without the permission of the spiritual father shall be ascribed to presumption and vainglory and not reckoned meritorious.” Openness and transparency with the father of the monastery preserves one from the pitfalls of spiritual arrogance. Recourse to one’s spiritual father is a safeguard against the deceitful ploys of the enemy who, often, seeks to lead souls into ascetical or pious excesses before filling them with a loathing for all things spiritual, and pushing them into despair. Undertake nothing, then, before having submitted it to the father of the monastery and obtained his blessing.