Wash away the negligences of other times (XLIX:4)

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. In these days, then, let us add some thing to our wonted service; as private prayers, and abstinence from food and drink, so that every one of his own will may offer to God, with joy of the Holy Spirit, something beyond the measure appointed him: withholding from his body somewhat of his food, drink and sleep, refraining from talking and mirth, and awaiting Holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing. Let each one, however, make known to his Abbot what he offereth, and let it be done with his blessing and permission: because what is done without leave of the spiritual father shall be imputed to presumption and vain-glory, and merit no reward. Everything, therefore, is to be done with the approval of the Abbot.

Saint Benedict tells us that during the holy season of Lent we are to wash away the negligences of other times. What are these negligences that leave us soiled? What is the unclean residue of sin? The prophet Isaias says:

And we are all become as one unclean, and all our justices as the rag of a menstruous woman: and we have all fallen as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. (Isaias 64:6).

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, using the imagery of Isaias in her Act of Oblation to Merciful Love says:

In the evening of this life, I shall appear before You with empty hands, for I do not ask You, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is stained in Your eyes.

No man, not even the most virtuous, is free from the stains of negligence. All our justices are spoiled in some way and this until God, in His infinite mercy and condescension, begins to purify us inwardly by the secret operations of His grace.

Saint Benedict, being a practical man of Roman sensibility, would have us do what is necessary to wash away at least the stains of negligence that are within our reach. What we cannot reach, we leave to God, praying with the psalmist:

Wash me clean, cleaner yet, from my guilt, purge me of my sin, the guilt which I freely acknowledge, the sin which is never lost to my sight. . . . Turn thy eyes away from my sins, blot out the record of my guilt; my God, bring a clean heart to birth within me; breathe new life, true life, into my being. (Psalm 50:4–5, 11–12)

Only God can make the heart of a man clean; but man, prompted by grace and helped by grace, can do his little part to remove the uncleannesses that lie on the surface of his life. This is what Saint Benedict means when he enjoins us to wash away during the days of Lent the accumulated negligences of other times.  Et neglegentias aliorum temporum his diebus sanctis diluere. The verb neglego is the opposite of the verb curo. The latter means to care for, to be sollicitous for, to attend to, and to look after. The former means to be heedless, not to take care, to make light of.

Negligence is sometimes a sign of acedia. The brother suffering from acedia will do things in a perfunctory manner. He will go through the motions without engaging the heart. Negligence may also be the effect of deadening routine. Routine is a terrible thing in the cloister.What is more chilling than the thought of going through twenty, thirty, fifty, or sixty years of monastic life like an automaton?

Negligence soils the soul? It leaves an accumulation of dirt, a kind of residue, a coat of dust on the soul. Some stains require a concentrated effort of rubbing. Other stains can be removed with the swipe of a damp cloth. Still other stains call for the use of special detergents and other strong cleaning agents. Our Lenten cleaning may well begin with outward things: our cells, the various parts of the monastery, those little places that, in spite of our best efforts, remain blighted by disorder and neglect. Our Lenten cleaning extends into ourselves as well: it engages us to shake off formalism, to take heed, to attend to the significance of little things, and to be on guard against the numbing effects of routine.

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