CHAPTER XLIX. Of the Observance of Lent
Friday 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. 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 sets forth our Lenten observance in five points. The first of these is that we refrain from vice, ab omnibus vitiis temperamus. The meaning of vitium goes from something as mild as a fault, defect, blemish, or imperfection to the more technical use of the word to denote a sin become habitual. Saint Thomas says that a bad act is worse than a bad habit. One may puzzle over this. If if a bad habit (vice) may cause a bad act (actual sin); the bad habit (vice) proceeds from an original bad act (actual sin).
Saint Benedict would not have been thinking in these technical scholastic terms, but it is helpful for us to understand them and thus to deepen for ourselves what Saint Benedict is saying. Vice (vitium) is always a defect; it is an unwholeness; it is a lack. Sin adds nothing to a man’s character; it in no way enhances his life. Sin, rather, detracts from a man’s character; it takes away something good, and true, and beautiful from his life. Vice refers to a man’s habitual lack of something good, and true, and beautiful.
What does ab omnibus vitiis temperamus mean? If a man would eliminate a particular vice from his life, he must begin by eliminating one particular act from his life. Consider, for example, the classic case of the terminally untidy room. The untidiness was born from a sequence of acts: not putting away this particular book (omission); throwing this piece of paper of the floor (commission); not placing this particular letter in the corresponding file. The omission or commission of any one of these single acts, if it is repeated enough times, leads to a state of chaos. How does one emerge from such a state? One puts away this particular book; one refrains from throwing this piece of paper on the floor; one places this particular letter in the corresponding file. The formula is simple: do once, and repeat, until the desired transformation is attained.
Holy Lent is an opportunity to work, one step at a time, towards the desired transformation of one’s life, a real conversatio morum. The brother who looks at himself and sees an accumulation of defects acquired over many years will become discouraged. The brother who looks at the one little thing that he can do here and now, in the present moment, and who, moved by grace and relying on grace, does that one little thing, will discover that even the smallest good act contains its own reward. He will want to do the next good thing, and the next good thing after that. In the end, he will rejoice that, moved by grace and relying on grace, vice has given way to virtue. Similarly, the brother who sees the one little thing that he can refrain from doing here and now, in the present moment, and who, moved by grace and relying on grace, refrains from doing it, will discover that even the smallest renunciation contains its own reward. There is a certain joy in every good act, even in the smallest. The brother who, moved by grace and relying on grace, perseveres in carrying out a sequence of good acts will, in the end, rejoice that vice has given way to virtue.
Do not misconstrue this as a kind of popular self-help program. This is not my version of “Improve Your Life in 40 Days.” No, this is about the mystery of grace by which the life of Christ begins to fill a man until, like the Apostle, he can say:
I am alive; or rather, not I; it is Christ that lives in me. True, I am living, here and now, this mortal life; but my real life is the faith I have in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not spurn the grace of God. (Galatians 2:20-21)