Monday, February 23, 2009


The Forgotten Aspects of Lent

(Adapted from the Introduction to Pilgrim Road.)
Originally Lent was a period during which the catechumens (candidates for Christian initiation) prepared for their Baptism, which would take place at the Easter vigil. Before long, however, all Christians began observing Lent as the Church's official season of preparation for Easter. It was a forty-day period characterized by prayer, introspection, almsgiving, self-denial and the exercise of virtue.

Unfortunately, during the middle ages, as popular Christian spirituality began to emphasize the sufferings of Christ, the rich variety of Lenten practices was reduced to the single dimension of penitence: fasting, abstinence from meat, and “giving up” certain things. Even though recent scriptural theology and liturgical reforms have helped restore many of the forgotten aspects of Lent, many Christians still see the season almost entirely in terms of the narrower, single-dimensional view.

Benedict of Nursia on Lent

Saint Benedict's Rule for Monks, written in the Sixth Century, which still provides us Benedictines with wise guidance for living, has a lot to offer to Christian lay people as well. Benedict's perspective on Lent, then, dates from an era when the observance of Lent was still marked by a rich variety of purposes and practices. Chapter 49, "On the Manner of Keeping Lent," is worth quoting in full:

The life of a monk 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 his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit. In other words, 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.
Everyone should, however make known to the abbot what he intends to do, since it ought to be done with his prayer and approval. Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward. Therefore, everything must be done with the abbot's approval.
-- Chapter 49, "On the Manner of Keeping Lent," RB 1980: The Rule of Benedict, edited by Timothy Fry, ( Collegeville MN, Liturgical Press, 1981) p. 172
Benedict's treatment of the holy season reflects the sixth century's notion that Lent is an opportunity to "add to the usual measure of our service," not just by bodily mortification, but by drawing closer to God in prayer, by trying to root out bad habits, and by practicing virtues. In the Chapter "On the Daily Manual Labor," he directs that during Lent each monk be given a book to read, and that more time be allotted for reading. Benedict's attitude and approach toward Lent reach back to the days of the catechumens who would "look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing." It is significant that the only two times the word gaudium, "joy," appears in this sober Latin document are in this chapter on Lent, where it refers to the anticipated joy of our goal, "holy Easter."

Other Lenten Helps from Benedict

Besides reflecting the sixth century theology of Lent, Chapter 49 also reveals some general characteristics of Benedict's Rule which might be helpful for any Christian to keep in mind. First, there is the primacy that he always gives to interior attitude and disposition over mere externals: his Lent is marked more by inner transformation than by outward observances.
Second, we see here an instance of his well-known sense of moderation: the abbot is to make sure that the monks do not go to extremes in their Lenten observance.
Third, the Rule repeatedly challenges the monks to deal honestly and humbly with their own imperfections, and so during Lent they are to “wash away the negligences of other times."
Last, there is Benedict's emphasis on community: Lenten penance in the monastery is a communal exercise, to be celebrated by “the whole community;” no individual may engage in any "private" Lenten practice without the abbot's command.

When Benedict says that “the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent,” he is offering an insight that is useful for any Christian: whatever we do in Lent (including prayer, holy reading, and acts of charity) is really what we ought to be doing during the rest of the year as well. Thus the lessons drawn from our Lenten pilgrimage should be helpful any time of the year.

In this blog, and on my own Lenten Pilgrimage, I will use Benedict's balanced and positive approach to Lent, hoping that it will help me and all of us to arrive at the Paschal feast ready to celebrate with the fullness of Easter joy.
Saint Benedict's Lent "is marked more by inner transformation than by outward observances." Does this approach to Lent make sense to you for your own Lenten pilgrimage? What role do those "outward observances" play in your Lent?

1 comment:

  1. By the way, I have to admit that it took me some time to get comfortable with the idea that there could be more to Lent than simply penance and mortification. I felt as if I were trying to wriggle out from under the hardships of the season. Perhaps Benedict with his calm moderation and his emphasis on interior transformation and community would make a good choice for "patron saint of Lent?"