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.
It is significant that Saint Benedict uses the word offero in Chapter XLIX. Ut unusquisque super mensuram sibi indictam aliquid propria voluntate cum gaudio Sancti Spiritus offerat Deo. “So that every one of his own will may offer to God, with joy of the Holy Spirit, something beyond the measure appointed him.” The same word is sometimes given as obfero. The prefix ob means toward; fero means to carry. The word has the meaning of carrying something forward to place it on the altar where it will be dedicated to God, made over to God, given in sacrifice. Saint Benedict evokes here a procession to the altar in the joy of the Holy Spirit. Saint Benedict’s choice of words brings to mind the Offertory Antiphon for the Mass of the Dedication of a Church:
I know my God that thou provest hearts, and lovest simplicity, wherefore I also in the simplicity of my heart, have joyfully offered all these things: and I have seen with great joy thy people, which are here present, offer thee their offerings. (1 Paralipomenon 29:17)
The altar is implicit in Chapter LXIX, but the verb offero points to it. The altar appears explicitly in Chapters LVIII and LIX as the place of the monk’s oblation of himself to God. For Saint Benedict, a monk is a man who “at all times” is in movement towards the altar, and this cum gaudio Sancti Spiritus, “with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” Mother Mectilde’s use of the word “victim” is understood rightly in the light of Chapter LIX and Chapter LVIII. The inner disposition of self-offering, that finds expression in the chant of the Suscipe me, Domine, in the rite of monastic profession, characterises the Benedictine Lent and, therefore, according to Saint Benedict’s own words shapes at all times the life of a monk.
Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam,
et non confundas me ab exspectatione mea.
Take Thou me unto Thyself, O Lord, according to Thy word, and I shall live,
and let me not be confounded in my expectation. (Psalm 118:116)
In the last two sentences of Chapter XLIX, Saint Benedict sets forth the terms of a monk’s self-oblation. It is a sacrificial immolation, an offering blessed by obedience, ratified by the abbot and, in a certain sense, placed in his hands. The monk who wants to determine for himself the terms of his self-offering sullies it with presumption and vain-glory, and so renders it unacceptable in the sight of God. This is where the vow of obedience cuts closest to the bone. In Chapter XXXIII, Saint Benedict says,
Let none presume to give or receive anything without leave of the Abbot, nor to keep anything as their own, either book or writing-tablet or pen, or anything whatsoever; since they are permitted to have neither body nor will in their own power.
To give something is to presume proprietorship over it. The monk owns nothing; he has “neither body nor will in his own power.” In consequence of this, he may give nothing. The leave of the abbot is needed even for those things that a monk would offer to God, lest in exercising proprietorship over his own affairs, he present God with an offering tainted by presumption and spiritual pride.