Reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict
Chapter 49 – “On the Keeping of Lent”
I am a member and a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). But I am also a Benedictine. Specifically, I belong to Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Pecos, New Mexico, just around the mountain to the west of Santa Fe. I have taken the vow of an Oblate of that community. My brothers and sisters in Pecos are as much a part of my spiritual family and my spiritual identity as are my brothers and sisters at Northway Christian Church in Dallas where I also “belong.”
One reliable Benedictine source explains what an Oblate is like this –
Oblates of St. Benedict are Christian individuals or families who have associated themselves with a particular Benedictine community in order to enrich their Christian way of life. Oblates shape their lives by living the wisdom of Christ as interpreted by St. Benedict. Oblates seek God by striving to become holy in their chosen way of life. By integrating their prayer and work, they manifest Christ’s presence in society. (www.osb.org)
As a Benedictine Oblate, I pay attention to the Rule of St. Benedict; I try to order my life by its wise counsel. And it is in the 49th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict that Lent gets discussed –
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 Thessalonians 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. (www.osb.org)
Approaching Lent with the Rule of St. Benedict in mind, certain thoughts occur to me. I will be blogging about these thoughts throughout the next forty days, and I will start here, where St. Benedict began – “…The life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance…”
The root of “monk” is “monos” which means “one.” Jesus said that “purity of heart” is to characterize all of His disciples (Matthew 5:8), and as Soren Kierkegaard explained it, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” I think of Curly’s secret to life in the Billy Crystal movie “City Slickers” – the “one thing.” To be a monk is to have a single focus in life. Now, the difficulty of actually doing this was voiced by James, Jesus’ own brother, who in his New Testament letter, when writing about praying in faith, explained: “…ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind… let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8). In his contest with the priests of Baal in I Kings 18, the Prophet Elijah confronted God’s people with the question: “How long will you hesitate between two opinions” (18:21)? Other translations render it, “How long will you go limping in two different opinions?” or, “How long will you dance between two choices?” This is the near perfect description of what it means to be “double-minded.” To be a “monk” is to have made a choice. It’s the choice that our “Good Confession” as a church explicitly names when it asks us if we have “accepted Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as our Lord?” When we say that Jesus Christ is our Lord, we have decided on the “one thing.” We have turned over the ownership and management of our lives to Jesus Christ. The driving question of our lives is no longer, “What do I want?” or even, “What do you want of me?” It is, “What does Christ want?” To be a Christian is to be a monk; it is to have a “monos” – a “one thing.” And St. Benedict in chapter 49 of his Rule observes that “the life of a monk (a “monos”) ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance.” So, what would that be like? What would a life that at all times had about it “the character of a Lenten observance” look like?
Well, I think St. Benedict thought that it would look like what’s called “the conversion of life.” That’s one of the three specific vows that a Benedictine monk or nun makes. They promise “stability” – that they will always remain with the community that they are joining. And they promise “obedience” – that they will always do what the abbot says; and finally they promise “conversatio morum,” which in the translation of the Rule that I was given when I became an oblate gets rendered “fidelity to the monastic life,” and which in other translations of the Rule reads the “conversion of life,” or the willingness to be “continuously converted,” “constantly changed.” What I really like about this language of being continuously converted, constantly changed, is that it puts the emphasis on the process and not on the end product. You see, with Paul in Philippians (3:7-16), when I look at my life and the progress toward spiritual maturity that I have attained, I must conclude that I have not “already attained it.” I am far from perfect (3:12a)! But rather than this being discouraging, it actually drives my resolve to “press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (3:12b). It bends my life to follow “the arc of repentance.”
That phrase, “the arc of repentance,” is one that the poet Helen Mallon coined in an article that she wrote a while back for the “Mars Hill Review.” In it she described an emotional affair that she had entered into with another writer on the internet after they had met at a conference. She used the occasion of this infatuation, this infidelity of her heart to go back over all of the “false starts,” all of the “grand compulsions” and all of the “moral lapses” of her life. Finding a place of quiet after the painful review of her life, “in naked humiliation” she prayed the words of another poet, George Herbert: “Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace,” and then she remembered something that she had seen at the beach on vacation with her husband and children –
Two days ago, we watched seagulls scavenging at the water’s edge. They cut arcs in the wind. One hovered lower than the others, its head cocked toward a piece of bread that floated on the shallow waves. It pivoted as if its unmoving wingtip had punctured the sky, then dropped down, ungainly and raucous, to snatch the crust. My earthbound repentance is the stillness around which I turn; this arc is my true shape. I will move forward, my need for grace orienting me toward the true Center. Though I’d like to rewrite the last twelve months of my life, I am comforted to know I’m not the final author of my own story. Can I find a better name than this: to be called “One Who Returns”? (www.marshillreview)
It is only as “one who returns” that my life as a Christian has about it “at all times the character of a Lenten observance.” DBS+