24 February 2010

More on St Benedict & Lent

In yesterday’s post on St Scholastica (here), I linked to a letter (here) that I had reposted from the blog of the RC priest, Mark Kirby, supposedly written by the Saint herself to another nun. The bulk of that letter’s content is taken up with an exposition of the teaching on the observance of Lent in the famous Rule of her brother, St Benedict of Nursia.

It is a helpful reminder to those of us with a particular devotion to St Benedict that his Rule does indeed contain such teaching, and we can profit immensely from paying close attention to it. Quoting RB 49:1—Licet omni tempore vita monachi Quadragesimae debet observationem habere, ‘The life of a monk ought at all times to be lenten in its character’ [1]—Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, notes how seriously ‘St Benedict takes the Lenten observance . . . that he bids his monks to see it as a program and model for all of their monastic life.’ [2] I have commented on this before (here), pointing out that according to St John Cassian, Lent was originally instituted for Christians in the world and only became necessary for monks when their primitive strictness began to wane. I have also commented on St Benedict’s apparent ‘negligence’ of almsgiving in the Lenten regime when compared with St Leo the Great’s homilies on Lent (here), and, here, on the strict reading schedule prescribed during Lent in RB 48. In this post I would like to delve a bit more into RB 49.

D’Avila-Latourrette refers to five ‘principles’ that St Benedict emphasises as part of Lenten observance in RB 49:4:

2 . . . [I]n these days of Lent the brethren should lead lives of great purity, 3 and should also in this sacred season expiate the negligences of other times. 4 This will be worthily done if we refrain from all sin and apply ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart, and to abstinence. [3]

D’Avila-Latourrette notes that the first principle, ‘refrain from all sin’, ‘should be an obvious one’, [4] but points out that the increased interiority of the Lenten journey can allow us to pay special attention to the seemingly ‘smaller’ sins that we rarely think of in confession.

The second principle, applying ourselves ‘to prayer with tears’, is obviously a major component of patristic spiritual teaching. St John Climacus goes so far as to say, in Ladder 7:6, ‘Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears.’ [5] D’Avila-Latourrette mentions the prayer of the Publican as exemplifying what St Benedict means here. [6] The infallible Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, calls such prayer a ‘concomitant’ of the fourth principle—‘compunction of heart’, which d’Avila-Latourrette equates with ‘repentance’. De Vogüé writes:

Tears are not an unimportant accessory of prayer, but rather a substantial enrichment, which endow it with an incomparable quality. Anyone who has experienced this transformation wonders whether they are not the normal sign of all true prayer: can a heart which speaks to God do so without the deep stirring that leads to tears? Thus it is hardly surprising that Benedict prescirbes or suggests praying with tears, as though this was something to which every worshipper can and should aspire. Tears are no doubt a gift and a grace, but asking for them and working towards them is also a signal way of beginning to pray. [7]

I shall skip the third principle, holy reading, since I have written about it at length here. But, as d’Avila-Latourrette notes, ‘The last principle mentioned by St Benedict, abstinence from food, [is] long associated with Lent . . . .’ [8] He reminds us that fasting is primarily a spiritual activity, and not merely a physical one, and that it is ‘never disconnected from prayer and concentration on God’. [9] While not neglecting this ‘vertical’ dimension to Lenten fasting, however, de Vogüé also broadens the horizontal dimension:

As for abstinence, it does not consist merely in cutting down on food and drink . . . . It also has to do with sleep, talkativeness, and joking. . . . There is something all-embracing about the benedictine notion of abstinence, as there is to continence in the writings of Basil (Reg. 9): all disorderly behavior is subject to cutbacks. [10]

But there is another item which should be included under this rubric for those of us who are not celibate monastics: fasting ‘from the flesh’, that is, abstaining from marital relations. St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain writes, ‘We must also note the following, that just as there must be a fast from food on Wednesday, Friday, and Great Lent, there must also be a fast from pleasures of the flesh.’ [11] Passing on to us a common tradition of the Church, St Nicodemus and—in a similar passage—Elder Cleopa of Sihâstria [12]—quote the opinion of Patriarch Theodore Balsamon of Antioch (12th c.):

If we are taught not to eat fish, nor to relax the fast during all of holy Lent, how much more are spouses obliged to abstain from carnal affection. Therefore, spouses who transgress in this regard, turning to satanic incontinence from fasting and deliverance from fleshly desires through saving repentance (as if the course of the whole year was enough to satisfy their carnal desires), are to be found unworthy of the divine and holy communion during the feast of the holy and great Pascha, but also let them be corrected through penances. [13]

In this way during Lent the Church exhorts us to follow St Paul’s advice in giving ourselves more fully to fasting and prayer (I Cor. 7:5).

But in St Benedict’s view, the result of all this is joy. In RB 49:7, we are to ‘look forward with the joy of spiritual longing to the holy feast of Easter.’ [14] De Vogüé writes:

This spiritual longing which brings overwhelming joy has already been mentioned by Benedict among the tools for good works (4:46). There the focus was on its ultimate object, everlasting life. Now it is the Easter resurrection, which heralds and inaugurates an eternity of bliss. The chief fruits of the Spirit, who is the source of that longing, are love and joy (Gal. 5:17-22).

Joy of the Holy Spirit, joy of spiritual longing: whatever it is called, in Benedict’s Rule joy penetrates to the very heart of Lent. It is like the ‘unspeakable delight’ he promised the postulant at the end of the Prologue (Prol 49). In both cases, spiritual exultation bursts into a period dedicated to painful effort. [15]

Of course, d’Avila-Latourrette comments sadly on the state of Lent among heterodox Christians in the West in modern times, where it can scarcely be called ‘a period dedicated to painful effort’:

St Benedict would not understand what Lent has become for many Christians today, trivialized to a time when we give up candy, cut down on television, or make a yearly confession. I find it sad to see that Lent has become reduced to such a poor shadow of the great significance it had during the first Christian centuries. [16]

[1] St Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict in Latin & English, tr. Abbot Justin McCann, OSB (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.), pp.114, 115.

[2] Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), p. 70.

[3] St Benedict, p. 115.

[4] D’Avila-Latourrette, p. 70.

[5] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore) (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 71.

[6] D’Avila-Latourrette, p. 71.

[7] Adalbert de Vogüé, Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, tr. Colette Friedlander, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994), p. 244.

[8] D’Avila-Latourrette, p. 72.

[9] Ibid., p. 73.

[10] De Vogüé, pp. 244-5.

[11] St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, Exomologetarion: A Manual of Confession, tr. Fr George Dokos (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2006), p. 272.

[12] Elder Cleopa of Sihâstria, The Truth of Our Faith, Vol. 2: On the Christian Mysteries, tr. Fr Peter Alban Heers & Francie Wilson (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2006), p. 118.

[13] My translation from PG 138:997B-997C.

[14] St Benedict, p. 115.

[15] De Vogüé, p. 245.

[16] D’Avila-Latourrette, p. 70.


Brigit said...

Enjoyed your posts on St Scholastica, have you seen the translation by Mary Forman osb of Three Songs about St Scholastica by Aldhelm and Paul the Deacon? They are online here:


I particularly enjoyed the metrical Life.

aaronandbrighid said...

No, I hadn't seen that, Brigit. Thank you so much for sharing the link!

aaronandbrighid said...

I had some trouble figuring out the poems. They seem to be split up and actually to overlap a bit. I've copied and pasted them into a Word doc and I'm trying to match up the parts!

Matthew the Curmudgeon said...

Forgot to ask on your previous post: where did you find the icon of St. Scholastica?
I have seen lots of icons & image of her but none with this head covering. Looks semi-Russian/Byzantine I once saw in a movie the Roman Bishops wore something like this; I remember because it was so different from what is usually depicted. Just curious.

aaronandbrighid said...

Both the icon of St Benedict & the St Scholastica icon are from the website of St Benedict WR Orthodox Church in Wichita Falls, TX (here).

jmgregory said...

Aaron, thanks for sharing this. I am slowly becoming more familiar with Orthodoxy, and I must say, the marital relations thing really caught me off guard. I think most Protestants assume that "for a time" in I Corinthians means something like "three days". The argument of the Fathers is convincing, but if I read this correctly, it would seem to imply, roughly speaking, that there are no Orthodox children born in the month of December. Is that so?

aaronandbrighid said...

More like there should be no Orthodox children born in December! Obviously, just as with fasting from food, going to confession, etc., there are many Orthodox who make little to no effort to observe this tradition (an Athonite hieromonk I once confessed to was actually surprised when I responded to a question about this that my wife & I had managed to abstain during Lent!). Here in America there are also those who try to argue that it's not necessary. I'm simply passing on the tradition as it was taught to me and as I've seen it in the Fathers. As always, one should consult one's confessor or spiritual father before plunging over-zealously into a difficult podvig on the one hand, or throwing up one's hands in despair on the other.