A Monk’s life should at all times resemble a continual Lent, but few have such virtue.
– The Rule of Saint Benedict (Saint Benedict Press)
“Is it Lent, again?” whines a rather delinquent monk in the 1985 film Ladyhawk. He is much-relieved to discover that it was not, and that meat was potentially on the menu for the week. We, however, are not so lucky. Lent begins on Wednesday and, as a general rule, some form of self-sacrifice is strongly encouraged. Such self-sacrifice simultaneously reminds us of Christ’s Via Dolorosa, our own earthly pilgrimage, the need for self-sacrificial living and our eternal destination. For us, Lent is a reminder.
On the other hand, for the Monk, Lent is a rule. It is, in fact, THE RULE. The monk is called, challenged and (if truly called) charismated to the task of self-sacrifice. The black cassock of our Benedictine friends is not simply plain garb, but, rather, is a robe of perpetual repentance and the portal of penitential prayer.
But Saint Benedict is a realist. He understands that “few have such virtue.” Recognizing this, in Chapter 49 of the Rule, he “encourages everyone during Lent to live in all purity, and during this holy season to wash away all the negligences of other times” (Emphasis mine). In short, our father Benedict suggests that we, by God’s great grace and mercy, give ourselves a thorough spiritual scrubbing. Purity, especially at this time, is to be rigorously and patiently pursued.
And Saint Benedict, thankfully, was also a pragmatist— in the best sense of the word. Urging abstinence and virtue, he provides the Monk and “everyone” with some very practical tips. He shows us what abstinence and virtue (or abstinence toward virtue) looks like. He shows us what works.
First, cutting to the very heart of the matter, St. Benedict tells us that a true Lent is to “refrain from all defects and apply ourselves to tearful prayer.” According to the author, “Reading” plays an important part in this. As we enter this Season of Lent, with the full intention of living more perfectly before God and other human beings, let us seek God’s voice through reading His word more diligently and praying more consistently. Let us immerse ourselves in what God says, the standards of God as found in the Word, in order to be convicted and cleansed by “the washing of the water of the word.”
As well, St. Benedict tells us that we should add to that which is good and abstain from that which is bad. He refers to “adding something” and “abstaining from” in Chapter 49. It is, now citing ‘a Kempis’ Imitation, a seasonal rooting out of one vice — and, as well, the planting of one virtue. Note that he emphasizes “something.” He does not say “do it all” or do “everything.” He says to do SOMETHING. This is important. Many of us at times feel immobilized by sin. We feel like we have so many problems that we do not know where to begin. We become overwhelmed. Instead of doing SOMETHING, we do nothing. St. Benedict says to uproot “something” and plant “something.” Replace vice with virtue. Begin, of course, with thorough repentance from sin and faith in God through Jesus Christ! Do “something.”
Furthermore, the Rule of Saint Benedict talks about our use of “meat and drink.” We get this. Lent is often a time of “giving up” something. My wife gives up chocolate and desserts. I have given up a variety of things and, in keeping with my “all or nothing” personality, have had to learn not to do it “all.” I have to repeatedly learn the spirituality of “something” and resist the devilish economy of seeking to do “everything.” My Lenten observance at times has been, therefore, not to be so very hard on myself. Whatever we choose to give up is, according to Benedict, by our own “free will” and in “the joy of the Holy Spirit.”
Wow! Joy of the Holy Spirit! I bet we rarely think of Lent as even mildly pleasant, let alone a time of happiness or joy. It is often the horrific cry, echoed by the Ladyhawk monk, “IS IT LENT AGAIN?” Yes it is. And yes, it IS a joy. But it is JOY IN THE HOLY SPIRIT. Sacrifice without the Holy Spirit is little more than self-justifying action. It is Babel. With the Holy Spirit it is Tabernacle and Temple. It is Basilica and Cathedral. We may indeed deny ourselves, according to the Rule, “food, drink, sleep, talk, [or] laughter” as we “await the holy feast of Easter.” But let our abstinence be guided and governed by God. And, if we can think of nothing else, pluck the weed of slander and gossip and plant the seed of mercy, patience, and kindness. Or, if this is too much, exercise consistent mercy. Or, if this too is too much, ask God to plant in us the seed of great sorrow for our sins.
Finally, St. Benedict tells his readers to inform the Abbot of the decision they have made. For those of us outside of the monastery, whether Oblates (like me) or committed Christians, tell someone you trust about your plan for Lent. Let a mature person you know be aware of what your intention for Lent is. What we “intend to offer” should be made circumspectly known. This keeps us honest.
IT IS LENT AGAIN? Indeed it is! Let us, by God’s mercy, see this time as “joy in the Holy Spirit.”
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.