02 March 2009

Lent in St Benedict's Rule, Almsgiving, & Us

I have already discussed Chapter 49 of St Benedict’s Rule in an earlier post on this blog, but as today is the first day of Lent, I thought it worth revisiting. Also, in my previous post, I only quoted the opening sentence of the chapter in question, but here I shall reproduce the entire chapter, and in another installment, a portion of Chap. 48 that also pertains to Lent. Also, we shall perhaps see what a certain infallible commentator has to say about these teachings of the great abbot. But first, RB 49 (with one minor lexical change, from The Rule of St Benedict in English and Latin, trans. and ed. Abbot Justin McCann, OSB [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.], p. 115; I have also added the traditional ‘verse’ numberings for ease of reference):

1 The life of a monk ought at all times to be lenten in its character; 2 but since few have the strength for that, we therefore urge that in 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. 5 In these days, therefore, let us add something beyond the wonted measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence in food and drink. 6 Let each one, over and above the measure prescribed for him, offer God something of his own free will in the joy of the Holy Spirit. 7 That is to say, let him stint himself of food, drink, sleep, talk, and jesting, and look forward with the joy of spiritual longing to the holy feast of Pascha. 8 Let each one, however, tell his abbot what he is offering, and let it be done with his consent and blessing; 9 because what is done without the permission of the spiritual father shall be ascribed to presumption and vainglory and not reckoned meritorious. 10 Everything, therefore, is to be done with the approval of the abbot.

Now, I have already pointed out some of the observations of the infallible Adlabert de Vogüé concerning this passage. To summarise, while he takes as a given the priority of the Rule of the Master to that of St Benedict, and is apt to discuss the latter in terms of its additions to and subtractions from the former, in this chapter he also considers St Benedict quite indebted to St Leo the Great (whose feast we’ll celebrate tomorrow). But it is where St Benedict follows the Master rather than St Leo that our infallible commentator’s observations become most pertinent to my present purposes (sorry for the triple alliteration!). De Vogüé notes that when St Benedict speaks of the spiritual activities appropriate to Lent (in 4, 5, and 7), he emphasises prayer and abstinence, as does the Master, but omits almsgiving, which is among the more important of the ‘good works’ mentioned by St Leo in his homilies to the faithful of Rome. That St Benedict does this is not the least bit surprising, however, since ‘this latter is not possible for monks as individuals’ (Adlabert de Vogüé, Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, trans. Colette Friedlander, OCSO [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994], p. 244).

The point of this is that if we are trying to apply St Benedict’s Rule to our lives, going back to his sources can be an excellent supplement to what we get in St Benedict himself. At least for me, as a layman, and probably the majority of my readers, we have here a useful reminder that the account of Lenten observances St Benedict gives is tailored specifically to monks, and we must remember that for us laymen Lent mustn’t be only about reading, prayer, and worship, but about active love for our neighbour. As St Leo tells us in his 39th Sermon, ‘On Lent, I’ (XXXIX.vi), ‘Let us not pass over the groans of the poor with deaf ear, but with prompt kindness bestow our mercy on the needy, that we may deserve to find mercy in the judgment.’

Obviously, St Benedict too acknowledges the importance of our Lord’s command to love one’s neighbour, since it is the second of the ‘tools of good works’ that he lists in RB 4.2 (McCann, p. 27). There is certainly a sense in which monks are not exempt from St Leo’s exhortations. But they are more limited materially than we in what they are able to do. How does one give alms when one has no money? I was recently reminded that monasteries as a community are extremely generous in their willingness to assist the needy, but this can hardly be applied to the individual monk as personal spiritual advice. Rather, we must here turn to the area where the monk's abilities actually exceed our own. As Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili has written (The Monastic Life: A Most Beneficial Dialogue Between an Orthodox Monk and a Contemporary Theologian, trans. Bishop Chrysostomos and Hieromonk Auxentios [Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1988], p. 26):

The monk’s demonstration of love toward his neighbor is the prayer that he offers for his neighbor. If you wish me to be more explicit, pure and unadulterated love is encountered at the time of prayer, when the believer, hidden in the treasury of his heart—far away from all display and vainglory—, prays secretly and fervently for his fellow-man, weeping and lamenting. This is real love, the love which a monk is required to seek throughout his life.

This said, I did want to speak briefly too about the other activity mentioned in RB 49.4 in addition to prayer and abstinence: reading. This may have to wait a day or two however. Let us ponder on St Leo’s call to Lenten almsgiving, made through St Benedict by his silence in the subject!

By the way, for those interested in St Benedict's prescriptions for Lent, I recommend the letter attributed to St Scholastica, which I found and posted here.

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