Although the life of a monk ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance,yet since few have the virtue for that, we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent the brethren keep their lives most pure and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the negligences of other times.
And this will be worthily done if we restrain ourselves from all vices and give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.
During these days, therefore, let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service, as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink. Thus everyone of his own will may offer God “with joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6) something above the measure required of him. From his body, that is he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting; and with the joy of spiritual desire he may look forward to holy Easter.
Let each one, however, suggest to his Abbot what it is that he wants to offer, and let it be done with his blessing and approval. For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward. Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot’s approval.
Today we haven’t followed onto the next chapter of the Holy Rule, but rather jumped all the way to Chapter 49, in immitation of the monks at Silverstream (a sensible choice, as today is Ash Wednesday).
It seems to me that this chapter is applicable in a very literal sense to the lay oblate. I think it is fair to paraphrase the first line as “[…] the life of a Christian ought to have about it at all times the character of a Lenten observance […]”. After these nearly nine years of returning to the Church, I have come up with a little maxim to describe the Christian life – “ad Tabor per Calvariae” (To Tabor through Calvary). Though the biblical narrative puts the Tabor account before Calvary, what I intended to highlight is what happened at those two places. On Mount Tabor took place the Transfiguration of Our Lord, where He gave His disciples a glimpse of His glorified body; on Calvary, His Passion and Death.
The Cross is the Gospel. As Marshall McLuhan (a philosopher of communication theory, and convert to the Catholic Church) put it – the medium is the message. The Cross has never been easy to accept, in any age (I recall hearing something about some Apostles fleeing the scene when things got rough in a certain garden one night…) If we try to sweeten the pill, to dress the Gospel in something more palatable, we do a great disservice to our borthers and sisters; we do not present them with a true image of what the Faith is all about. Our Lord emptied Himself; became obedient unto death; was bruised for our sins.
Yet we know that Death was not the victor. Death swallowed up Life and was overcome by it! We know what awaits us if we fight the good fight till the end; we know the prize, the imperishable crown. Yet that prize is only won by walking in the steps of Him who has already emerged victor. If I am to attain that goal, then I must necessarily go to Calvary; I must carry my cross(es), dying daily, holding fast in the hope that having died to Death I will live to Life. Yet, as our Holy Father says, “few have the virtue for” living this reality daily, and so during Great Lent we are invited to apply ourselves to it more vigourously.
Lent is not an end in itself; rather, a means to an end – Pascha.
Mention is made that we are to offer some personal sacrifice of our own volition, but that it must have the spiritual father’s blessing. St. Benedict makes no mention of the fasting/abstitence imposed on us by the Church; also, he seems to imply that these voluntary sacrifices are offered joyfully because they are our own choice. Are we to conclude then that the Holy Father views the Church’s impositions during Lent as insignificant, or as worthless? No; he is a man of the Church. If he makes no mention of what the Church demands it is because he assumes that the disciples are already familiar with it; these voluntary sacrifices are to be additional to what the Church already asks of us. He considers at the same time the communal and individual aspects of our Faith: we take on the Church’s fasting/abstinential prescriptions because we are one body and we share in a common endeavour; the personal sacrifices are(?) prompted by the Holy Spirit for our specific circumstances. (It was quite sad to learn, upon returning to the Church, that a somewhat voluntaristic attitude has taken hold of many of the faithful – clergy and laity alike – where the only acceptable sacrifices are those I chose; that those imposed on me have no merit.)
Before father prior became my spiritual father I would set up these outrageous goals for Lent. Obviously, I always failed miserably. When I began corresponding with my spiritual father, I would list things that I thought would be good for Lent and he would only pick out only a few of them. Pride would rear its head and say within “really, only this? this seems too lax” (obviously Pride suffered from selective amnesia, forgetting what happened in previous years). I would take those recommendations on and, lo and behold, father prior was right – they were not overburdening, they were feasible. As of late I have learnt to simply place the whole matter in his experienced hands, letting him decide and then trying to follow his instructions assiduously, with the joy of knowing that I am acting in communion with my monastic family.