To be read: March 31, July 31, November 30
The life of a monk ought always to be a Lenten observance. 2However, since such virtue is that of few, we advise that during these days of Lent he guard his life with all purity 3and to wash away during these holy days all the shortcomings of other times. 4This will be done fittingly, if we restrain ourselves from all vices, and devote ourselves to prayers with tears, to reading, heartfelt penitence, and to abstinence. 5During these days, therefore, we will add something to the usual amount of our service, private prayers, abstinence from food and drink, 6so that each one offer to God “with the joy of the Holy Spirit”(1 Thes 1:6), of his own desire, something above his prescribed measure. 7In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless speech, and jesting, and with the gladness of spiritual desire anticipate holy Easter. 8Each one, however, should make known to his Abbot what he intends to do, and let it be done with his approval and blessing. 9Whatever is done without permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, and not to merit. 10Therefore, let all be done with the approval of the Abbot.
“The life of a monk ought always to be a Lenten observance.” According to the Book of Common Prayer, Lent is the liturgical season “of penitence and fasting” (BCP p. 264f). You may ask why would anyone would want to live in a perpetual state of penitence and abstinence? Obviously, Benedict recognizes that we cannot realistically live a continuous Lent. He acknowledges that to be able to maintain the discipline of penitence is a “virtue…of few”. But Lent is also the season of preparation for Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection (Lenten preface #2, BCP p. 379); so in that sense our lives truly are a Lenten observance. We are constantly in a state of preparation for our resurrection in Jesus, looking toward that final consummation when we will be united with Him in His kingdom. I believe it is safe to say that it is the desire of all faithful Christians to live in that resurrection joy, and it is a promise of God that we shall dwell there (1 Cor. 15:51-52). But there are no shortcuts into the Kingdom; there is only The Way. Too many want to live in Easter without experiencing Good Friday. We want the resurrection without the crucifixion. That is not The Way. The Way is in Jesus Christ Who was crucified, Who died, Who descended into hell, THEN was raised by the Father, and Who sits at God’s right hand. You cannot have Easter without Lent, without walking The Way.
But what Benedict is teaching in this chapter is that our Lenten discipline is a foundational practice for the rest of the year. We can learn the disciplines in Lent that will help us live our lives in accordance with the Gospel throughout the other seasons of the Church year. The disciplines that we practice in Lent will help us to walk more closely in The Way. Note how, before Benedict lists the disciplines of self-denial and abstinence, he says, “During these days, therefore, we will add something to the usual amount of our service…so that each one offer to God ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit’, of his own desire, something above his prescribed measure.” A Lenten discipline—a Lenten life—is not primarily about giving up things, it is about learning to add what will help us on The Way, shedding the things that hinder our ability to follow Christ. Lent is the time to learn the disciplines of the faith “with the joy of the Holy Spirit”.
But we must also recognize that everything we do in Christ affects the entire Body. It is important that we not rely on our own reason and instincts, but trust those who have been placed in authority over us in Christ. That is why Benedict instructs that as we prepare for our Lenten discipline “…all be done with the approval of the Abbot”. We don’t have an Abbot, but we do have people to whom we may look for advice and Godly counsel. It is always wise to get an objective perspective on our spiritual walk, someone whom we trust to speak the truth into our lives. Look to your parish priest, your accountability or prayer partner, or your confessor for advice when preparing to make a change in your spiritual discipline. When we try to do these things on our own, we may find that what we have chosen to do “will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, and not to merit”. Seeking the approval and blessing of the clergy or others in authority before making a life change is a healthy practice.