Our bounden service (XLIX)

CHAPTER XLIX. Of the Observance of Lent
Tuesday of the First Week 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.

Ergo his diebus augeamus nobis aliquid solito pensu servitutis nostrae. “In these days, then, let us add some thing to our bounden service” (Chapter XLIX). Saint Benedict uses the same word for our Lenten offerings that he will use in Chapter L where he speaks of the Opus Dei: servitutis pensum (Chapter L). The word pensum comes from pendo, pendere, to weigh out. It was used to refer to the wool weighed out to a slave for a day’s spinning. Pensum came to mean a day’s labour. Servitutis pensum refers to the daily round of the Opus Dei (Divine Office), the servitus divinus. A monk takes on the burden of a daily pensum. The daily quotient of psalmody rests not only upon the community as a whole, but also on each monk. We know this from the last sentence of Chapter L: Et servitutis pensum non neglegant reddere. “And let them not neglect to fulfil their obligation of divine service.”

It is necessary to explain Saint Benedict’s use of these words if we are to understand what he means when he says, “In these days, then, let us add something to our wonted service.” We are to understand by this: “In these days [of Lent], let us add something to the daily round of the Opus Dei.” What does Saint Benedict have in mind? He tells us explicitly: “private prayers, and abstinence from food and drink.” He does not speak of the increased time devoted to holy reading because he has already treated of this in Chapter XLVIII.

All the Benedictine Lenten observances are built on the foundation of the Opus DeiLectio divina, for example, is ordered to the Opus Dei. A monk gives himself over to holy reading in order to be better prepared for the Opus Dei. If he is not studying in advance the texts that will be sung at the Divine Office and at Holy Mass, he is pondering over them after having sung and hear them in choir. A monk may read other works as well, but even these are, in some way, related to the Opus Dei and flow from it. The Opus Dei is the single great unifying element of Benedictine life. It is the means by which our adoration becomes perpetual. The stream of the praise of God irrigates all of our life with joy. Fluminis impetus lætificat civitatem Dei: sanctificavit tabernaculum suum Altissimus. “The stream of the river maketh the city of God joyful: the most High hath sanctified his own tabernacle” (Psalm 45:5).

In telling us what things may be added to the Opus Dei, Saint Benedict speaks first of private prayers, orationes peculiares. What are these orationes peculiares? Tomorrow, I hope to speak of how the tradition has understood this expression.