CHAPTER XLIX. Of the Observance of Lent
Thursday after Ash Wednesday
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.
What is the Lenten character that the life of a monk ought to have at all times? Why does Saint Benedict say that few have the strength for this? Why does he say that, at least during these days of Lent, we ought to make a change in the way we live? The compassionate realism of the Desert Fathers reaches us through our father Saint Benedict who enjoins the abbot “so to temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm” (Chapter LXIV). The Desert Fathers knew well how take the measure of a man in his strength and in his weakness, and so deemed it necessary to temper the exertions of the ascetical struggle with seasons of respite. You know the story of Saint Anthony of Egypt:
A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.
The brother who is always stretching himself will break. The brother who never stretches himself will become rigid and fixed in his mediocrity. For this reason, we adjust our monastic observance to the seasons of the liturgical year, following the Church’s wise alternation of feasting and fasting, and submitting to a rhythm that is objective. During these days of Lent, we place the accent on doing more than we would ordinarily do at other times. Saint Benedict says that “each one, over and above the measure prescribed for him, offers God something of his own free will in the joy of the Holy Spirit” (Chapter XLIX). There is a certain spontaneity in this. There is a joyful generosity that springs from the heart. At the same time, everything is to be done with the permission of the spiritual father and the consent and blessing of the abbot, lest a brother become inflated with spiritual pride and think himself better than another.
What are the traditional ascetical practices of Lent? They are three in number: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Who in the Gospels is noteworthy for these three Lenten practices? I think you know the man.
Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner. I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other: because every one that exalteth himself, shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14)
The model of Benedictine holiness in every season, in times of feasting and in times of fasting, is the publican who “would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” This is the man whom Saint Benedict presents to us in Chapter VII at the twelfth degree of humility. This is the man who, by humbling himself, finds himself most closely identified with Jesus in the mysteries of His childhood and passion.
Were you surprised this morning at Matins to hear Saint Bernard (Sermon In Caput Jejunii II) speak to us of the Child Jesus? The Lord, says Saint Bernard, speaks to us through the Prophet Joel. What does the Lord say? He says, “Turn ye to me with all your heart?” Saint Bernard, in an almost playful manner, asks whither a man is to turn, given that God is everywhere? Up, down, to the right, to the left? He answers his own question:
I know quite well, then, whither He wants us to turn: we must turn to the little Child Jesus, that we may learn from Him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, for all He is so great and so high.
On this second day of the Lenten fast, we are invited to turn to the puer Jesus, the child Jesus of whom we sang at Christmas, Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis, “A child is born to us, and a son is given to us” (Isaias 9:6). Each of us must become a little child with Him.
Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
It is interesting that there is in today’s Gospel another puer, another child. What did we sing at the Benedictus Antiphon?
Domine, puer meus jacet paralyticus in domo.,et male torquetur: Amen, dico tibi, ego veniam, et curabo eum.
Lord, my boy lieth at home sick of the palsy, and is grievously tormented. Amen, I say to thee, I will come and heal him. (Matthew 8:6-7)
There are then two pueri, two children with whom we are to identify today. The first is the Child Jesus, meek and lowly of heart. The second is the boy of the centurion, lying paralysed, and grievously tormented. If you cannot see yourself in the first, discover yourself in the second.
You will have noticed that the structure of the Benedictus Antiphon is that of a dialogue. Not only the text, but the very melodic structure of the Antiphon show that this is the case. The second part of the Antiphon is adapted from the words of the Gospel, but the liturgical variant adds two things not found in the biblical text. The Antiphon has Jesus say, “Amen, I say to thee.” The words of Jesus take on a personal and altogether penetrating quality. What Our Lord says to the centurion in the Benedictus Antiphon, He says to each of us today concerning the child, the puer, for whom we pray: “Amen, I say to thee, I will come and heal him.” Receive, then, the promise of Our Lord. He will come to heal all of us of whatever grievous torments that, until today, have left us prostrate and unable to move.