Saturday, February 21, 2015


What does St. Benedict say about Lent? Not what you might expect:

Although the life of a monk
ought to have about it at all times
the character of a Lenten observance,
yet since few have the virtue for that,
we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent
the brethren keep their lives most pure
and at the same time wash away during these holy days
all the negligences of other times.
And this will be worthily done
if we restrain ourselves from all vices
and give ourselves up to prayer with tears,
to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore,
let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service,
as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink.
Thus everyone of his own will may offer God
"with joy of the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:6)
something above the measure required of him.
From his body, that is
he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting;
and with the joy of spiritual desire
he may look forward to holy Easter.

Let each one, however, suggest to his Abbot
what it is that he wants to offer,
and let it be done with his blessing and approval.
For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father
will be imputed to presumption and vainglory
and will merit no reward.
Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot's approval.

Let's look at the points, keeping in mind the things I've been told by better people than me over the years:

1. We ought to be living as thought it is always Lent, not, obviously, in fasting, but as an attitude of expectation, the attitude of a Christian expecting the Bridegroom at any moment.

2. But for this special time of preparation, we can use this as an opportunity to make up for the times in our lives when we were lax.

3. This is "most worthily done" first, and most importantly, by giving up our remaining vices and praying "with tears" that is, most fervently and earnestly; to spiritual reading; to "compunction of heart" - which I take to mean a kind of spiritual watchfulness of our own actions and words; and lastly, of "abstinence" in food and drink. That's important. The "giving up" part of Lent is all anyone ever hears about, but it's the least important part, and is meant only as as useful support for the more important things.

4. He says to "increase somewhat" our usual observances, just a little above the "measure required of him," that is, to just go a little bit extra. And again the priority is to private prayer with "refraining" moderately from food and drink as a support for the first, more important thing.

5. This is, again, to be done gently. As St. Philip Neri said many times, people who begin in the spiritual life are very eager to do a lot, but it's a good idea to keep it small and simple and most of all regular. If you take on a whole huge bunch of things, you're going to be "a saint for three days" and then get fed up and quit, and end up worse off than you were. Steady as she goes. Think of it being like weight lifting. If you're just starting, you're not going to bench press 300 lbs. Or at least, you're going to do it once, and then spend a day in the emergency ward, and not come to the gym again.

6. The point is to offer a bit more than your regular thing, and offer it freely and more than willingly, "with the joy of the Holy Spirit". Out of love.

7. Along with "food and drink" he suggests cutting back on "talking and jesting". This might be interpreted as "goofing off". And maybe for modern people, and for lay people in the world, this might seem difficult. You can't just suddenly start going around not talking to your family and coworkers. People in monasteries understand, but people in the world, not so much. But what about refraining from commenting on and "liking" every little thing on Facebook? What about restricting internet time to a certain time of day and only for an hour? Or not surfing at all? Or maybe not watching a lot of TV or playing video games (actually if you're an adult playing video games, you should maybe think hard about that)? Maybe just generally orient one's free time to thinking about and reading about God and holy things, instead of all the chatter of the world? Remember that "spiritual reading" (as a rule, by authors whose names begin with an "S") is pretty good substitute. Monks regard Lent as we do an extended retreat, where we pray, read and think about God n' religion, and go for a lot of walks by yourself. If you think of Lent as a kind of interior vacation from all that noise and worthless worldly rubbish, it will be a lot easier to offer it "with joy".

8. Now here's a difficult one for us laypeople. We don't have an abbot to give us permission or approval. If you have a spiritual director, this is the time for getting a concrete plan for the season. But most of us don't. With ascetical practices in general, the saints always say that when you take it on without the cover of obedience, you are not gaining any merit, but only working for your own "presumption and vainglory". There isn't much for most of us to do about this, but it might be an opportunity to get to know your parish priest a little better. Why not make an appointment with him to chat about Lent observance? Or just bring it up in the confession box? Couldn't hurt. (If you've got a halfway decent priest, of course. If not, maybe this is a time to go find one.)

If not, then a book can help. A lot of the saints wrote things down, and maybe you can take their advice as a kind of obedience to a saint to whom you have a special devotion. St. Francis de Sales is especially good for this sort of thing. But, as Philip was always saying, the big key is keep it steady and simple. Don't over do it, and don't change your plan half way. It helps to write it down, and maybe put it on the fridge.

The other thing I was always being told by my Oratorian overseers was to keep it secret. "Don't lose the merit," was a saying one was always hearing from them, which meant don't tell anyone about your good works, and it's good advice. Of course, as we see from the Rule above, Philip didn't invent it. We don't talk about our ascetical practices for the same reason we don't boast about what wonderful people we are, because in doing so, as Someone once said, we have had our reward already. It will be "imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward," so no posting to Facebook about what you're "giving up".

Especially annoying: all those notes and blog messages that you're "giving up Facebook" for Lent. As Kat said the other day, it all seems mostly calculated to make the rest of us schlumps feel bad. If you're giving up FB for Lent, it does kind of defeat the purpose a little to make a big deal out of it and trumpet your inspiration to everyone on FB. Why not just quietly bow out?

So, there you go. St. Benedict's advice, peppered with Philip: make prayer and intimacy with God the goal and priority, with fasting and abstinence a little bit as a support for the first thing. Don't over do it, but just aim a bit higher than the "usual measure". Keep it steady and simple and don't talk about it.



Chloe said...

Thank you Hilary. That's clarified something I've been worrying about.

Gerald said...

Amen. When I visited Norcia last autumn, I knew I wanted to make a Lenten retreat there, to rekindle habits of prayer which have atrophied. I've been praying at least Vespers along with the monks via their podcasts (found on their website). Now I'll be going down there in a couple weeks on retreat, and I am so blessed for the opportunity.

Folks, if you need a little spiritual boot camp, get thee to a nearby monastery or nunnery for a few days.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Well how lovely. Drop me a note before you come and I'll buy you a coffee and bun.