Reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict
Chapter 49 – “On the Keeping of Lent”
In the chapter on Lent in his Rule (#49), St. Benedict told his brothers that the entire life of a monk ought to have the “character of a Lenten observance” about it. In my first blog on “Lent with St. Benedict” I explored the idea that we are all monks. In 2011 John Michael Talbot, the contemporary Christian musician who converted to Catholicism and then founded a monastic community in Arkansas according to the Rule of St. Francis, wrote a book he called “The Universal Monk” (Liturgical Press). It begins – “There is a new monasticism on the rise. It is monasticism for everyone, for all states of life, and for people of all faiths. It is for those who live in monasteries and for those who do not. It speaks to the monk within us all, the universal monk” (vii). That was my first point in my first blog on “Lent with St. Benedict.” St. Benedict doesn’t just write his Rule for communities of strange, silent, serious and spiritual robed and hooded men. His Rule has relevance for any follower of Jesus Christ. The second point I made in that first blog was a suggestion about what I think a life of perpetual Lent might look like – a life of “continuous conversion” (“conversatio morum”). With the announcement this week that he would resign his office as Pope at the end of the month, I spent some time leafing through the pages of the books written by Pope Benedict XVI that I own in order to remind myself of the spirit of this man – what makes him tick – and to refresh the reasons why I have had such a keen appreciation for him and how he has carried himself as the leader of worldwide Catholicism over these past eight years. It was in the book of his interview with the journalist Peter Seewald (Salt of the Earth – 1997) when he was still just Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that the man who would become Pope and take the name of St. Benedict explained that –
…the basic decision of my life is continuous… I believe in God, in Christ, in the Church, and I try to orient my life accordingly. This decision unfolds in the process of life… the ages of life change a man; he shouldn’t try to be a seventeen-year-old when he is seventy, and vice versa. I want to be true to what I have recognized as essential and also to remain open to seeing what should change… there is development and change within a fundamental identity… in changing, I have tried to remain faithful to what I have always had at heart. (116)
If you ask me, that’s a nearly perfect explanation of what the Benedictine vow of “conversatio morum” – “continuously being converted” – means, and it is a wonderful glimpse into the spiritual logic of this Pope named after St. Benedict who is resigning at the end of the month. A life that “at all times” has about it “the character of a Lenten observance” is a life of this kind constant change within the framework of a fundamental identity.
Now, in this second blog on “Lent with St. Benedict” I want to take a look at the very next thing that St. Benedict said in his chapter on Lent in his Rule: “…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.”
Thomas Hopko, a priest and theologian of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, has described the 40 days of Lent as “the tithe of the year,” roughly 10% of the days that we are given each year that are especially consecrated to God. Maybe an even better way to think about Lent is as the “first fruits” of the year, a related concept to the tithe.
Leviticus 23:9-14 institutes the first fruits offering. Deuteronomy 26:1-10 gives even more detail on the procedure of first fruits. First fruits refers to the first portion of the harvest that is given to God. Most notably the first fruits are: the first to come in time; a pledge or hope of the greater harvest to follow; a part of the whole especially dedicated to God. By giving God the first fruits, Israel acknowledged that all good things come from God and that everything belongs to God. Giving the first fruits was also a way of expressing trust in God’s provision; just as He provided the first fruits, so He would provide the rest of the crops that were needed.
I think that Lent as the “first fruits” of the year – as that first portion of time especially devoted to creating in us an awareness of God that in turn produces in us an expectation, a hope, of an even greater awareness of God’s presence and purpose in the rest of our lives through the rest of the year – fits well with St. Benedict’s description of Lent as an intensive season of spiritual purification that “washes away… the negligences of other times.” Stated positively, we might say that the spiritual intensity of Lent creates in us a greater capacity for an awareness of God’s presence in our lives when the season is over. The analogy that comes to my mind is that of a training camp for an athletic team before the start of their season. The excessive demands of training camp are designed to prepare the members of the team for the ordinary demands of the season. One could not physically survive an entire year of training camp. The body is just not built for it. Working that hard, uninterruptedly, would break a body down and eventually wear a body out. But without a training camp with its exaggerated demands and disciplines, one would not be ready to compete on opening day or be in good enough shape to last the whole season. And as this is true for literal athletes, so it is true for spiritual athletes as well. Don’t forget how often the New Testament authors used athletic comparisons for the spiritual life (I Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:12-14; Hebrews 12:1-2; I Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7-8).
It’s about finding and maintaining balance, and that’s a really big idea in St. Benedict’s teaching about the spiritual life. The increased spiritual demands of the Lenten season create a spiritual capacity in us that then carries over into the ordinary days of the rest of the year. The spiritual growths that we experience in the long ordinary days of May, August and October have their roots in the intense days of the spiritual discipline of Lent. The hard work now is preparation for the rich harvest then. DBS+