CHAPTER XLIX. Of the Observance of Lent
First Sunday of Lent
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 and 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 makes holy reading one of the principal Lenten observances, but he links it to compunction of heart. Whereas, some versions give lectioni, et compunctioni cordis, with a comma separating the two things; other versions leave out the comma, and so link lectioni et compunctioni cordis. It is this reading that, I think, offers the more compelling reading of the text.
Lectio divina is, properly understood, not so much a reading of the text as it is a hearing of the text. The text must be heard before it can be digested by the mind and descend into the heart. A simple ocular reading of the text is not enough. The words must be articulated, bringing into play not only the eyes, but the mouth, tongue, teeth, and breath. The ears also are engaged, for the words, being articulated, must be heard if they are to be received. This way of reading audibly, though it was quite natural for the ancients, has become foreign to modern generations. The sheer quantity of printed material available, not only in libraries, but also electronically, has confirmed man in a kind of speed-reading, by which one reads diagonally from the upper left corner of a page to the lower right corner. To scan a page is not to read it. Even when one reads inaudibly, following Saint Benedict’s injunction in Chapter XLVIII, it is necessary to engage, in some way, the mouth, tongue, teeth, breath, and ears. “If any one perchance desire to read,” says Saint Benedict, “let him do so in such a way as not to disturb any one else.”
Lectio divina, the reading of divine things, is related to the sancta prædicatio. The monk who gives himself over to the practice of lectio divina is, in a real sense, pronouncing and announcing the Word. He is, at once, the one who proclaims the Word and the one who hears it. What is the effect of hearing the Word of God? It is a piercing of the heart. You know the conclusion of Saint Peter’s discourse (prædicatio) on the morning of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts:
His autem auditis, compuncti sunt corde, et dixerunt ad Petrum et ad reliquos Apostolos: Quid faciemus, viri fratres?
Now when they had heard these things, they had compunction in their heart, and said to Peter, and to the rest of the apostles: What shall we do, men and brethren? (Acts 2:37)
Compunction of heart comes from hearing. The Word of God pierces the heart. The Word of God leaves a man wounded. The open wound in the heart is an indication that one has begun to practice lectio divina.
For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
Compunction of heart leads to a complete and unreserved readiness to do whatever God is asking: Quid faciemus, viri fratres? “What shall we do, men and brethren?” You will have noted that the hearers ask the Apostles to tell them how they are to put into practice what they have heard: Quid faciemus, viri fratres? “What shall we do, men and brethren?” The heart wounded by the Word of God seeks only to be obedient. I am deeply marked by the teaching of Pope John Paul II in Orientale Lumen. He says:
The starting point for the monk is the Word of God, a Word who calls, who invites, who personally summons, as happened to the Apostles. When a person is touched by the Word obedience is born, that is, the listening which changes life. Every day the monk is nourished by the bread of the Word. Deprived of it, he is as though dead and has nothing left to communicate to his brothers and sisters because the Word is Christ, to whom the monk is called to be conformed. Even while he chants with his brothers the prayer that sanctifies time, he continues his assimilation of the Word. (Orientale Lumen, 10).
We monks read and chant the Word of God in order to make it heard and to give it resonance. The Opus Dei is the primary lectio divina of the monastic life. The lectio divina undertaken in the scriptorium, or in the cell, or before the Most Blessed Sacrament, is but the continuation in solitude of the lectio divina carried out corporately in the choir.
Once heard, the Word is digested by the mind. Once digested by the mind, the Word descends into the heart. Once the word has descended into the heart; there it enkindles the fire of prayer. Once the fire of prayer has been enkindled, the will is moved. And once the will is moved, there is a need to change one’s life. Once one desires to change one’s life, one seeks the word of an elder, of a spiritual father, who has himself long been a hearer of the word.
What is the role of the spiritual father? It is to say, “Like you, son, I have heard this Word. I have digested it as far as my intelligence allows me to do so. The Word has descended into my heart. There, it enkindled in me a fire of prayer—desire, repentance, adoration, supplication, and thanksgiving—and from this I knew that God was asking something of me. I can only tell you this: that insofar as I have placed my own life under the Word of God, it seems to me that the word you have heard may mean this . . . .” The spiritual father is a man who has been wounded and healed by the Word of God. In answering the question of the brother who comes to him, he can speak only out of the wound that the Word of God has opened in his heart. He may, in certain situations, have to send the enquiring brother back to the Word of God, saying, “Son, you need to be pierced again. Repeat the Word of God until it has opened in your heart a wound through which grace enters and prayer flows out. Then, you will find your answer.”