Reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict
Chapter 49 – “On the Keeping of Lent “
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.
There are two references to the word “joy” in St. Benedict’s description of the disciplines of Lent. It’s my guess that the word “joy” never comes to mind when we think about Lent, and that’s because we are so much more accustomed to thinking of repentance as a sad and painful duty. It’s “sorrow for sin, a feeling of guilt, a sense of grief and horror at the wounds we have inflicted on others and ourselves” (Ware 45). Repentance is certainly not something that we would want to sing about, and any song about repentance that we can imagine singing is probably not one that we would ever want to dance to!
But, as the Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware likes to say, “the beginning of repentance is a vision of beauty and not of ugliness; an awareness of God’s glory, and not of our own squalor” (47). After quoting from the book that every Orthodox Christian monk, nun and priest reads during Lent – St. John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent that “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair”- Bishop Ware explained that “To repent is to look, not downward at our own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become” (45). And I don’t know about you, but talk like that makes me want to dance, and so we danced our way into Lent this year at the church I serve. In our Ash Wednesday service we learned the traditional Shaker Hymn “Tis’ the Gift to be Simple” (#568 in the Chalice Hymnal), and then we danced it according to some instructions that I found online –
Lent is not usually thought of as a season for dancing. Christmas is. Easter is. Lent is not. We think of Lent as a sad time, a season for bewailing and confessing our sins. But St. Benedict puts us on an entirely different Lenten trajectory with his counsel that we should each, of our own will, offer God “with joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6) something above the measure” of what is usually required of us so that “with the joy of spiritual desire he may look forward to holy Easter.” How do we miss this? Why are our Lents so devoid of joy?
In 1983 Calvin Miller wrote a book he called The Taste of Joy (IVP). He admitted that he was probably the least likely candidate he knew to write a book on joy. He even suggested that those who knew him best were probably laughing out loud at the thought of him expounding on the topic of joy. He explained that he began his own walk with Christ “surrounded by the easy and ‘churchy’ slogans of joy” (10), but admitted that they, and therefore he, routinely confused joy with happiness and so he quickly became “a peaceless and ulcerated disciple” (10). He said that he would go to church looking for happiness. But “the pursuit of loud singing and forced smiling can be shattered easily” he observed. “It is a kind of pep-rally-and-bonfire answer to emptiness” (13).
“I have sat in worship services singing that my heart was full of joy,” Calvin confessed, “when I was not sure that I was ever going to be able to handle life as it had been given to me. Even as I sang, I looked about to wonder if we were not all trying to smile and sing ourselves into a condition we said we had” (12). And, “if we were prone to sing too softly of this elusive joy, a boisterous Christian urged us to ‘really smile and turn around and shake hands’ with the happy people behind us.” Calvin concluded, “Such odd combinations of positive-thinking group dynamics only widened the chasm in our lives. We dared not stop singing or we would have wept” (13).
Calvin Miller’s great discovery was that happiness and joy are two very different things. “Happiness is a buoyant emotion that results from the momentary plateaus of well-bring that characterize our lives,” Calvin explained. “But joy is bedrock stuff… a confidence that operates irrespective of our moods. Joy is the certainty that all is well, however we feel” (10). He gradually began to see that “Christ was always there,” but “happiness was not” Happiness, “like a fickle friend, flitted in and out of my moody and unpredictable spasms of religiosity” Calvin explained (10). When his circumstances were “warm and comfortable,” his life “secure,” Calvin said that he was happy (12). “But joy was not a momentary occurrence subject to change,” Calvin observed, “It rises above mood and circumstances and transcends our fickle moments of elation” (12).
It was this discovery that led Calvin to the more important one, namely that joy cannot be pursued. It cannot be a goal that you select and then pursue like the desire to bowl a 300 game. That’s to go about it all wrong. Instead, Calvin wrote – “To discover God is merely to open the heart and to admit that He, for whom we have searched, is overwhelmingly about us – indeed, invading our very being with joy. He engulfs us as pure love because we have quit pushing and have become willing to wait for His coming” (13).
And so, and this is where Calvin Miller starts to sound a lot like St. Benedict to me – “We do not become joyous and say, ‘Let’s pray,’ but rather after prayer we may find ourselves in touch with a deeper joy. Rarely does joy result in reading God’s Word, but reading the Bible can nourish our joy, which is the result of spiritual discipline” (16). Calvin called this the “discipline principle,” and he said that it’s as true in the arts or sports as it is in our spiritual lives. “The concert artist finds delight in her talent only if she has been thoroughly disciplined in practice. Then following her third curtain call, a great glow fills her life. In the excitement of victory the quarterback is scooped up to ride on the shoulders of his team-mates. Yet his spontaneous enthusiasm comes only from the discipline which preceded it. The football team did not go to the game trying to be happy and rehearsing how they would tear down the goalposts” (16).
“As ridiculous as this sounds for the football team,” Calvin concluded, “this is precisely how a great many Christians are living. We are in search of an emotional high… we go to church seeking feeling,” unaware that joy comes as the consequence of spiritual discipline, of “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), not in the sense of saving ourselves by our own efforts, but rather, in the sense of gradually coming to terms with the gift that we have been given in Jesus Christ through the cultivation of the holy habits of prayer, Bible reading, service, giving and church attendance. In other words, the Lenten disciplines!
In addition to dancing, in our Ash Wednesday service a few weeks ago we also prayed Psalm 51 together. And as we did, the eighth verse jumped out at me with particular force – “Make me to hear joy and gladness, let the bones which Thou hast broken rejoice.” The rejoicing of bones broken by God is the joy of the Lenten disciplines. If you aren’t willing to let them be broken, then you won’t ever know the rejoicing that Lent entails. DBS+