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.
"Once upon a time," an ancient story tells, "the master had a visitor who came to inquire about Zen. But instead of listening, the visitor kept talking about his own concerns and giving his own thoughts.
"After a while, the master served tea. He poured tea into his visitor's cup until it was full and then he kept on pouring.
"Finally the visitor could not bear it any longer. 'Don't you see that my cup is full?' he said. 'It's not possible to get anymore in.'
"'Just so,' the master said, stopping at last. 'And like this cup, you are filled with your own ideas. How can you expect me to give you Zen unless you first empty your cup?'"
A monastic Lent is the process of emptying our cups. Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod. Lent is about taking stock of time, even religious time. Lent is about exercising the control that enables us to say no to ourselves so that when life turns hard of its own accord we have the spiritual stamina to say yes to its twists and turns with faith and with hope. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the fact that Benedict wants us to do something beyond the normal requirement of our lives "of our own will." Not forced, not prescribed for us by someone else. Not required by the system, but taken upon ourselves because we want to be open to the God of darkness as well as to the God of light.
Benedict tells us that Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be. We applaud the concept in most things. We know, for instance, that even people who were married years ago have to keep working at that marriage, consciously, and intently every year thereafter or the marriage will fail no matter how established it seems. We know that people who own businesses take inventories and evaluations every year or the business fails. We too often fail to realize, however, that people who say that they want to find God in life have to work everyday, too, to bring that Presence into focus or the Presence will elude them no matter how present it is in theory.
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.
An ancient people tell us that when the moment of a great teacher's death was near, the disciples said, "What is it we will see when you are gone?" And the Master said, "All I did was sit on the river bank handing out river water. After I'm gone I trust you will notice the water." Spiritual mentoring is a staple of the Benedictine tradition. The role of the abbot or prioress is to evaluate the directions the seeker intends to take. Like anything else, the spiritual life can become an elixir of novelties, a series of fads, an excursion into the whimsical. Benedict counsels the zealous to submit themselves to the scrutiny of wisdom so that the spiritual remedies they fancy have the merit of the tried and the true, the sensible and the measured. It is so easy to ply extremes and miss the river of tradition. This chapter reminds us that the purpose of personal restraint is to develop us, not to ravage our energies or confuse our perspective on life.