Lent with St. Benedict

Reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict
Chapter 49 – “On the Keeping of Lent”

goldThis Lent I am working my way through what St. Benedict wrote about Lent in his Rule.  As an Oblate of the Pecos Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico, this is part of my own personal spiritual discipline; something that I am committed to do by vow.  But in a larger sense, I believe that the balanced wisdom and counsel of St. Benedict is something that could benefit any Christian who is serious about their own commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The way of St. Benedict is not a way for the spiritually privileged and elite, but it is a way for any ordinary believer who wants what they believe to have a direct effect on how they are actually living their lives in the real world with all of its demands and diversions.                   

This is the third reflection in this series, and the sentence that I am working with this week is –

…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…

I first read about “compunction” – “prayer with tears” in Alan Jones’ 1989 book Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (HarperCollins).   He devotes an entire chapter to “The Gift of Tears.”  It begins, “The desert tradition claims a great deal for the power of tears.  Tears are the agents of resurrection and transformation” (82).  In the course of this chapter, Alan Jones concisely summarized the history of this spiritual phenomenon –

What the desert tradition of the (Christian) East calls “penthos,” the church in the West calls “compunction.” It has to do with a kind of puncturing the heart.  “Penthos” (compunction) is the word for that which pierces us to the heart, cuts to the quick…  It is also known as the gift of tears.  In the East, the sacrament of confession is sometimes called “the Mystery of the Second Baptism.”  The truly penitent is “baptized” again in his or her own tears, which represent the tears of truth and insight breaking in and flooding the soul with new life. (84-85)

When I first read these words, I had one of those “aha” moments.  You see, long before I knew what it was, or even what it meant, I had had this experience.  I am a typical big “D” Disciple – I’m talking about the denomination here.  We are a people who characteristically love God with all of our minds.  We are Christians whose faith is always seeking understanding.  When I started seminary, during a special spiritual life emphasis week at Fuller, one of my professors told us that his own most intimate moments with God came late at night when he was sitting at his desk in his study reading a dusty old book of systematic theology. He said that this was when he felt closest to Christ and most energized by the Holy Spirit.  And while most of my fellow students scratched their heads in bewilderment, or shook their heads in disagreement, I nodded my head in agreement.   Later in my journey, working through the materials on temperament and prayer, I came to understand why this was the case for me, and for them.  But back then it was just reassuring to hear somebody I respected say it out loud.  I knew in my spirit that I was not alone.  Well, being a cerebral Christian, I have always struggled with bringing my heart along with my head.  They say that the longest journey for some of us is those 12 inches from our heads to our hearts, and that’s certainly been true for me.   It’s easier for me to think about things than to actually feel them.  I don’t apologize for this.  It’s who I am; it’s how I was “wired.”  But I also know that my becoming a whole person – what the healing of my salvation in Jesus Christ is about – means the integration of my emotions with my intellect.  But it’s hard work for me to do this.  And then one day, it just happened.

I was leading a retreat out in East Texas for a group of women I had known for years.  It was a familiar and comfortable community – accepting and safe.  I was doing my thing – teaching the Bible and guiding their application of it to their lives through the use of spiritual exercises and small group conversations.  It was during one of our quiet times that I began to weep.  There was nothing that triggered it.  Nobody had said something that hurt my feelings and made me want to cry.  Nothing was going on that was overly emotional and that left me undone.  I just began to weep.  It was like something inside me just broke, and a whole bunch of stuff – disappointments, frustrations, failures, wounds, woundings, losses and longings – all of that stuff that I had been holding onto inside me so tightly for so long got released.  It was like a balloon being pierced and all of that pent up air and energy inside it getting released.  At first the experience surprised me.  Then it confused me.  For a while it embarrassed me.  And then finally it healed me.

It was years later that I finally had a name for what I had experienced – “penthos,” “compunction,” “the gift of tears.”  Biblically it’s what happened on the day of Pentecost after Peter preached the Gospel for the very first time in the power of the Holy Spirit, and as Luke put it, those who had heard the Word “were pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:37).  I understand this to be the fulfillment of what Jesus said about how it is part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit to convict human hearts (John 16:7-11), to take the objective truth of the Gospel and to apply it subjectively to each one of us.  When we do our part – sharing the Gospel, God does His part – working on the hearts of those who hear it, drawing them to Himself (John 5:26-27).  This is how the Word of God becomes the “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

This is what had happened on that retreat.  The Word had gotten through by the work of the Holy Spirit and touched my heart, and my immediate response was to weep.  Again, what Alan Jones wrote in that chapter on “The Gift of Tears” helped me to make sense of the whole experience –

Weeping as a triple function.  Tears soften, clarify and open.  It softens the hardened and dried out soul, making it receptive and alive.  It clears the mind.  It opens the heart.  We weep all the more when we see what and who we arte in the light of what we are called to be.  We are not mourning, according to St. John Chrysostom, “for a wife or a child but for a soul, and not for another’s soul but our own.”  Why do weep?  To catch a glimpse of the divine loveliness, and in that light to catch a sight of our own.  Who would not weep, writes St. Erphrem, that “such a lovely image of His goodness should be lost? …God is distressed because of the image which has been lost to Him. A soul is far dearer to Him than the rest of His creation.  Through sin it becomes dead, and you, sinner, think nothing of this!  You should grieve for the sake of the God who grieves for you. Your soul is dead through vice; shed tears and raise it up again!” (96-97)

And this is what St. Benedict meant when he called his community to observe Lent by “giving ourselves up to prayer with tears… to compunction of heart.”  It’s what we asked for on Ash Wednesday when together we prayed Psalm 51 with its observation – “You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”  Tears are the outward and visible sign of a heart that is inwardly and invisibly broken and contrite.  Take a moment and look up all of the references to crying, weeping and tears in the book of Psalms to get a sense of just how common this manifestation is in the spiritual experience of God’s people. As Richard Foster observed, “Almost every page of the Psalter is wet with the tears of the singers.”  But it is not just any crying that comprises this “gift of tears.”  

We cry when we are happy, sad, excited, startled, mad, hurt and scared.  Tears are a natural human response to any number of human experiences.  They are a good gift that we should welcome and cherish, in fact, in Psalm 56:8 the Psalmist prayed, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”   At the National Museum in Jerusalem you can actually see the little ceramic cups that the ancient Israelites used to literally gather their tears. They were regarded as being just that precious, veritable “sacraments of love” (F. Forrester Church).  And I would do nothing to denigrate or discourage them. One of the great aspects of our faith as Christians is knowing that we have a God who “gets” it, a God who became flesh and dwelt among us, a God who has experienced everything that we go through as human beings (Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16) and who was “a man of sorrows” who was well “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).  Jesus wept.  He wept at the grave of His good friend Lazarus (John 11:35).  And He wept over the city of Jerusalem because they were blind to the day of their visitation (Luke 19:41).  This crying was natural, human, healthy and good.  But it is not “penthos,” compunction, “the gift of tears.”

“Penthos,” compunction, “the gift of tears” is a direct work of the Holy Spirit.  It is supernatural, divine, redemptive and healing.  It is not something we manufacture, it is something that we are given.  And Lent with its intentional and intensive engagement with God through prayer and Scripture reading creates the conditions in which this gift can best be bestowed.  As Thomas Merton put it, “I didn’t go to the monastery to find God, but rather to be found by God.”  We don’t make “the gift of tears” happen, but we can be open to it, we can break up the fallow ground of our hearts through the spiritual disciplines of Lent so that they will be ready for it, and finally, we can ask for it, just as Keith Green did in one of his worship songs –

My eyes are dry, my faith is old.
My heart is hard, my prayers are cold.
And I know how I ought to be,
Alive to You, and dead to me.
Well what can be done, for an old heart like mine?
Soften it up, with oil and wine.
The oil is You, Your Spirit of Love.                                                                                         
Please wash me anew, in the wine of Your blood.

I know that for big “D” Disciples this can all sound so very strange.  But as a big “D” Disciple who has been given this gift, I can testify to its power and grace.  And, as a big “D” Disciple who has actually received this gift, it helps me understand and even appreciate what was going on in Cane Ridge in 1801 in the Revival that was led by our big “D” Disciple founder Barton W. Stone.  You see, “the gift of tears” is not as alien to our spiritual tradition as you might think!  DBS+

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