Fr Timothy Wright, the Abbot of Ampleforth, says Benedictine spirituality conveys a truth and a purpose that we can all use in our everyday lives There is no better time to test the relevance of Benedictine spirituality in everyday life than Lent. St Benedict devotes a whole chapter to it. He is quite specific about how the monk should prepare for Lent. This bears consideration by those living hectic and difficult lives in a secular world.
Let me offer six thoughts: First: why do we make Lenten resolutions at all? St Benedict’s answer: “We urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure, and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.” Lent, we remind ourselves, is a time to face the truth, the unpalatable truth: we are not as good as we might think we are. So as Christians we take Lent seriously, in order to take Easter seriously.
Second: Given the opportunity that Lent provides for exaggerated mortification, some monks would take the opportunity to do the equivalent of a seven week arduous training exercise. St Benedict sees this as the way to pride. The monk is not the best judge of his needs. He has to get permission from his abbot to undertake his Lenten resolutions. I remember one monk in our community who was given permission by the Abbot to take up drinking beer for Lent, in moderation of course. “Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the Abbot, will be reckoned as presumption and vain glory, not deserving a reward.” There is a point in this for all Christians: make sure your spouse, special friend, or confessor approves your Lenten mortifications. That person will be able to warn you away from doing things which will damage a relationship, undermine your health or lead you away from Christ.
Third: St Benedict recommends: “Let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” That list suits monks living in a cloister: we may adapt it for our use. But the key things to note are: Lenten mortifications might cover a range of things, including additional prayer and some element of personal sacrifice. They should also relate to one’s own situation at home or at work. The mortification will cost, in time and in energy, but most important of all it will bring a sense of fallibility, a reminder of weakness, just as occurs when faced with difficult things.
Fourth: The essential role of these mortifications, St Benedict says, is to look forward to Easter. That is crucial, for two reasons: firstly, we need to strike the right balance between excessive zeal, which may give out well before Easter, and comfortable leniency which does not impinge on our lifestyle. In neither case are we really preparing for Easter. We must make sure a proper balance is maintained, which will be a genuine preparation for Easter. So whatever mortifications we undertake, we must be sure we have the strength to sustain them throughout Lent, or more likely, if we fail, to have the incentive to start again. From the other perspective, we must be sure the mortifications are real, so that we are reminded that to prepare for Easter we need to live with the cross.
Fifth: St Benedict is keen that his monks see Lent as an encouragement to produce lasting changes in attitude or behaviour. So our Lenten mortifications should, in some way, continue as part of our life for the rest of the year. This may be a commitment to extending time spent in prayer each day, or it may be a new attitude to something given up; for example, by successfully giving up alcohol during Lent I may realise that life is somewhat better without it. More profoundly, our Lenten mortifications may teach us something about our own weakness and encourage greater humility. In that way, there is a growth in holiness.
Finally, there is one element which underlies St Benedict’s Rule and is not specifically mentioned as part of the Lenten discipline: encouragement that our deepest desire to grow ever closer to Christ may be realised. In that respect, we take on two of what St Benedict calls “The Tools of Good Works”: “The Love of Christ must come before all else” and “We should never lose hope in God’s mercy.” In those two recommendations we summarise the Christian life, and focus our Lenten efforts.
We carry a cross not chosen by us, because we know it is the way to understand the priority of the love of Christ, the only effective way of countering a secular world. At the same time, we recognise that our cross is surely too heavy for us and we will fall under its weight. At that moment, we may be filled with guilt, or tempted to walk away from it. We cling on to the truth that God’s mercy is always available, no matter what we have done or failed to do, and supremely powerful at undermining our guilt, and helping us pick up the cross again. In that way we will really celebrate Easter in the appropriate way.
Next week, the Abbess of Stanbrook