Friday, February 17, 2006

Weekend Wonderings -- Penitential Ponderings

The Rule of Benedict
Chapter 49 ~ The Observance of Lent

The life of a monastic ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, 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. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of our own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thes 1:6). In other words, let each one deny themselves some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

All should, however, make known to the prioress or abbot what they intend to do, since it ought to be done with their prayer and approval. Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the prioress or abbot will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward. Therefore, everything must be done with their approval.
Once again, Benedict acknowledges the weaknesses of human nature. All throughout the Rule, he includes himself in the the slackers of humanity — "We read, after all, that our holy Fathers, energetic as they were, did all this in a single day. Let us hope that we, lukewam as we are, can achieve it in a whole week" [RB 18:25]; at the end of the Rule he discusses all the books that can guide us — "For observant and obedient monks, all these are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues; but as for us, they make us blush for shame at being so slothful, so unobservant, so negligent" [RB 73:7]. That's why he calls this a "little rule for beginners." It's so reassuring that Benedict doesn't talk down to us, like he's the one with all the answers and we're all just pathetic pond scum. And I think that recognition of our humanness plays a significant part in the enduring appeal of Benedict's Rule, not just for monastics, but with applications to all levels and styles of life.

But, I digress. I mainly, with that rambling, wanted to point out his line of how we should always be living the "good" life of Lent, but since a huge majority of us aren't that strong-willed, we should at least make the most of these forty days before us. And the fact that, in Benedict's eyes, the lack of a "continual Lent" is perfectly OK, understandable, and acceptable. Like my quote from Kathleen Norris last week, it's the me-bashing because I'm not perfect that's the real issue to be addressed.

And if I may digress a tiny bit further to clear up any potential misconceptions ... the element of getting the abbot's approval is not so they can check up on us, or to pass judgmenton what we feel to be an appropriate Lenten practice. It's more for the element of support and blessing. And, as I mentioned before in the context of Benedict's Steps of Humility, there's something to be said for sharing your heart with someone or, in this case, sharing your intention. For me, it's partially the external accountability -- not that the prioress will come to me on Easter morning and ask if I maintained my Lenten practice, but having told her that "This is what I intend to do" makes me feel more responsible to follow-through with it.

A couple year ago, I was reading one of Thomas Keating's books (I'm pretty sure it was him, anyway --- apologies if I'm remembering wrong), and he told of the Lenten practices in his Trappist monastery "back in the day." At that time, it was almost a competition among the monks about who could make it through the Lenten fast; thus the "sacrifice" turned into more of a battle for pride. Anyway, Keating (or whoever) had some health issues that caused him to have to give up the fast partway through Lent. Nonetheless, the one year he felt his health was up to it, and he requested permission from the abbot to fast as his Lenten practice -- he wasn't gonna faint this year. Much to his dismay, not only did the abbot not grant him permission to fast, but actually assigned him the practice of going to the refectory every afternoon at 3:00 to eat a Hershey bar and drink a full glass of milk. Needless to say, Father Keating was horrified. At this time, he was the Novice Master. How could he sit there and eat chocolate while he was trying to instruct these new members in the way of monastic life? He initially tried to hide this practice, but then realized that this "penance" was in fact a far greater sacrifice for him than fasting. To submit to the wisdom of the abbot, who knew that what was truly needed here was gaining the weight, strength, and health ... to go against what all the cool monks were doing ... to do something that ran so contrary to his desires and inclinations ... that was what made the Lenten sacrifice for him. And he then used it as a teachable moment for his novices.

As Keating (or whoever) learned .... it's not about doing the "right" thing. It's about doing the right thing for you. And sometimes it might look like the "wrong" thing to someone else, but it's not about "what others will think," either. I think it was my postulant year, where one of my three things was that I would do something for me every day. Sounds selfish and horrendously non-sacrificial, but the truth of the matter was that I was so focused on my classes and jobs and all the things that I "should" be doing that I was completely ignoring and neglecting myself. So whether it was reading a fun book, or doing photography stuff, or playing piano, or wandering the grounds ... each and every one of those forty days I had to do something fun and non-necessary. While it may appear to be totally lazy and slackerish, the reality was that it forced me to consider myself worthy of my own time rather than dismiss my own value, desires, and interests. Me spending intentional time for me doesn't happen because there's all that "more important" stuff out there ... so me needing to actively indulge my interests was in fact the bigger sacrifice than doing extra work would have been.

The "traditional" Lenten observances of the Church revolve around the concepts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (our prioress presents it this year as a balance between "giving up" and "giving to", of shaping both our relationships with God and others). I've tended to broaden my understanding of these ideas, though. After all, fasting isn't limited to food -- is giving up candy so I can lose a few pounds more sacrificial than fasting from complaining about people and gossiping? (My favorite attempts growing up always included giving up homework and lima beans ... not quite the spirit of the thing, though!) And almsgiving is more than just throwing a few extra pennies in the pot on Sundays ... what about taking the time to go up and visit the folks in the monastery infirmary, or to intentionally sit at the same dinner table as the sister who annoys me?

It's tough, because I've always struggled with the idea of choosing something I should be doing anyway as a Lenten practice. It's like at school -- sometimes, if a kid asks me for something and I'm feeling feisty, I'll ask "What's in it for me?" When they say they'll behave in class or do their homework or their love and respect or anything like that, I point out that they should be doing that anyway. Same thing here. If I give up candy because I want to lose weight, or decide to eat more fruit because I don't get enough of them in my system ... then, in my mind, I'm thinking about a diet, not Lent. Which makes it hard, then, because there's so much that I "should" already be doing, and don't. I guess that's why I tend to think broader than the obvious automatics. That, and the fact that I've gotta be odd, freakish, and different.

And that's not to say that giving up foods are bad. The year before I entered community, I gave up ice cream, and it was not a fun Lent -- especially since I had spent the winter perfecting my milkshake making skills. Plus, I didn't manage to finish my ice cream before Ash Wednesday, so I got to see it looking at me every time I opened my freezer to get out some ice cubes. Sigh. But I was giving it up because I love ice cream ... and, believe me, I went back to the ice cream after Easter. I guess for me it's more the idea of "Am I doing this to better myself and strengthen myself, or is this just convenient timing?"

But the time has come once again to fill out my Bona Opera (that's Latin for "Good Work," not a bunch of singing rawhide chewies in Viking hats), the sheet on which we share our Lenten practice with the prioress, and request her permission. It's kinda cool — the prioress receives them all, signs each one with a blessing; they all get blessed during the Ash Wednesday Mass, and then they get returned to us. Our current prioress has added to the Bona Opera an element out of Chapter 48 of the Rule (which, incidentally enough, is titled "The Daily Manual Labor" ... and yet it talks mostly about reading!): "During this time of Lent each one is to receive a book from the library, and is to read the whole of it straight through. These books are to be distributed at the beginning of Lent."

And so ... I'm thinkin' of getting a little outside inspiration. Of course, that assumes that I've got anyone still reading after all this rambling ....

And so may I present ..... the Wonderings of the Weekend:
What are your thoughts Lenten practices?
What about reading a book for Lent?
Any suggestions for me on either one? :-)

Thanks, and Happy Lenting!


Blogger Nate said...

How does the "Bona Opera" work? I mean, is there a specific way to do it -- a specific number of things to do or give up, or something? Or is it just a list of things you're going to do or give up? I'm intrigued.

As for books, I recommend God is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life by Pope Benedict XVI (but it was written while he was still just Joseph Ratzinger). His thoughts really added to my way of looking at Eucharist and I thought they might help you prepare to receive the Risen Lord at Easter.

2/17/2006 9:58 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

I need to figure out what to do for Lent myself. I've made a reservation for my annual retreat, but that's only for a few days. Besides, hanging with the monks is wonderful so it counts as prayer time but isn't exactly penitential.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what to do. Maybe focus on one book of the Bible? But which one? Or maybe be extra committed to my prayer practices (which have gotten a little sloppy lately)? But that falls into the category of what I should be doing anyway.

I'm going to be interested in other comments here and what ideas people have.

2/18/2006 11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose neither of the titles that jumped to mind have much of anything to do with "Lent," but...

Elizabeth Johnson's "Truly Our Sister," and Diarmand(?) O'Murchu "Quantum Theology." Those'll make ya think! I know I still haven't gotten through either of them. Perhaps I'll pick one of them back up for my own Lenten reading.

2/18/2006 12:52 PM  
Blogger LutheranChik said...

I'm giving up a tooth for Lent.:-o (See my blog.)

Seriously...I experience a real tension between following a Lenten practice and talking to other people about my Lenten practice. On one hand, I think it's helpful if we share ideas and walk the path together, and there's also a kind of mutual accountability, at least with good friends on the same spiritual wavelength, involved in sharing Lenten practices. On the other hand, it can lead to comparisons that in turn can cause occasion to sin in various ways; and as Natalie Goldberg says of writing in, I think, Writing Down the Bones, if you talk too much about a creative project at its inception, you can fall victim to "giving away your fire" can dissipate your energy and enthusiasm somehow.

I'm facilitating a Lenten discussion group this year, and I think I'm going to try to get around this problem by talking about my own practice in a general, not specific way, and by encouraging people to observe Lent in ways that speak especially to them. And focus on that giving to dimension.

A book that I think I'll be reading as a Lenten discipline is Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society by theologian Marva Dawn. The book is a critique of the ways in which modern society tends to create despair, and offers ideas for living a countercultural Christian alternative.

2/18/2006 6:28 PM  
Blogger Nate said...

Elizabeth Johnson's "Truly Our Sister,"

I was thinking about picking this up from the library but wasn't sure about it. I think I will after all.

2/18/2006 11:54 PM  
Blogger Lorem ipsum said...

Do you know the history of Lent? Me neither. I'd find it interesting to study the history of Lent throughout the centuries and consider why the practices have or have not changed throughout time and culture.

Besides doing good works, I mean...

2/20/2006 10:23 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Truly Our Sister is a wonderful book. It gave me a whole new appreciation for Mary.

I've read that Lent started as a time of intense preparation for the catechumens being baptized at Easter. As the church moved toward infant baptism, Lent broadened to a time for everyone to enter a more deeply spiritual state.

2/20/2006 11:37 AM  
Anonymous jeana said...

In doing a little reading for work I found that "lent" originally came from the German word for spring, as that's when it generally occurs in the northern hemisphere (where Christianity they celebrate seasons in the southern hemisphere must be interesting- a whole different set of nature symbols to go with the religion). Andrea's right- it started as a penitential time for catechumens preparing to enter the Church at Easter, but soon enough the whole Christian community decided to dive into the practices with them. A new Lenten SpiritQuest section with prayers and activities will be up at shortly... presently we're bouncing between Ordinary Time and Lent!

2/20/2006 4:22 PM  
Anonymous "omis" said...

Since St. Therese of Lisieux is my patron saint of the year, I plan on reading her autobiography, "The Story of a Soul."

2/21/2006 3:38 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I found your blog because you responded to a posting on Hazelnut reflections and I am so glad I found your blog. Your posting on Lent has offered me new food for thought on the topic, which I so badly needed, since I have thought about giving up Lent for Lent. Thanks for sharing.

2/21/2006 8:29 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

Hi Steph,

Thanks for pointing me to this post. The more I get to know Benedict, the more deeply I am drawn to the type of monasticism he espoused. It is, as you point out, so refreshingly human.

My Lenten reading discipline is going to be reading some of those books I have bought over the years and stuck on the shelves.

2/22/2006 10:35 AM  
Blogger Hope said...

Two years I gave up reading books for Lent - sounds strange I know but I read 4 or more books a week often. Giving them up gave me more time for other things and a new appreciation for the printed word.

This year I am saving a book by Joyce Rupp called The Cup of Our Life for Lent.

I really struggle too with knowing what to give up when much of it is what I need to be doing anyway. Giving things up can really be self serving in the end.

2/23/2006 10:44 AM  
Blogger see-through faith said...

Lutheran chik's point is a valid one. Its good to encourage each other, not good to compete or shame others into something.

God's convicting me about this season but I'm not sure what it means in practice yet.

loved the idea of reading for lent (and bless Hope for having denied herself reading in the past) The important thing - I think - is that we allow God to guide us in this. That's the scary bit actually.

and don't give up food if you just want to lose weight!!! (grin! been there done that !)

bless you all

2/24/2006 6:19 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Hello Steph. I found your comments on Lent very inspiring and am going to use these tomorrow as my talk to the Church's Men's Breakfast Group.

Kevin in Bedfordshire UK

3/17/2006 5:53 AM  

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