Monastic: March 2011 Archives

For My Oblates . . . and Others

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Saint Benedict the Practical

When it comes to the observance of Lent, Saint Benedict is very practical, very concrete. He doesn't spend a lot of time telling us what we ought to think. He doesn't tell us what to say. Thoughts about penitence are not penitence. Talking about penitence is not doing it. The patterns of our life are changed, in the end, by what we do. Thoughts are necessary, it is true; but a thought of penitence never translated into action is perfectly useless. Words are helpful -- sometimes -- but words that come out of our mouths to float in the air and disappear do nothing to advance our conversion. Deeds change our lives; deeds re-orient our hearts. They need not be big deeds. Very little ones are surprisingly effective, especially when one little deed follows another and another and another, creating a pattern of conversion.

The Moses of Monks

Saint Benedict, our law-giver, the "Moses of monks" as the tradition calls him, shows us how to carry out the choice for life that Moses, the law-giver of Israel, presents in Deuteronomy. "Choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice,and cleaving to him" (Dt 30:19-20). Holy Father Benedict's presentation of Lenten observance can be summed up in two little words: more and less.

More

More: "At this season let us increase in some way the normal standard of our service, as for example, by special prayers, or by a diminution in food and drink." He insists on our doing something. More prayer. Thinking about doing more prayer is not more prayer. Get up five minutes early to make more time for prayer and you are doing something. Give up five minutes of looking at the newspaper and give it to God in prayer. That is doing something.

Lectio Divina

In Chapter 48 Saint Benedict is explicit about more lectio divina. He even rearranges the daily schedule in order to provide more time for reading during Lent. Do you see how very concrete he is? It is not enough to think about doing more lectio, not enough to talk about doing more lectio. He goes about it very concretely by changing the order of the day. He commissions one or two seniors to go about the monastery to see that the brethren are not wasting the time aside for more lectio by engaging in more of what they should be doing less: talking, wasting time, and distracting others.

Less

Less: less food, less drink, less sleep, less talkativeness, less looseness in speech (cf. RB 49:7). Many folks are put off by Saint Benedict's proposals, but that may be because they read them without taking them in reflectively. He says "less"; he doesn't say how much less. This is where Holy Father Benedict meets Saint Thérèse, the Doctor of the "Little Way." The "less" of Saint Benedict is the very little thing of Thérèse: the word saved for recreation, the second or third cup of coffee, the unkind judgment nipped in the bud.

Do Something

The choice for life remains, all too easily, something that floats in the mist of pious aspirations without taking shape in deeds. Moses teaches that the choice for life comes down to three things: "love the Lord your God, heed his voice, and cling to him" (Dt 30:20). Even these three things risk being formless and vague. Translate, "love the Lord your God," into one concrete act of love -- today. Don't think about loving God, do something to make it real. Translate, "heed his voice," into one concrete act of obedience, of silence -- today. Translate, "cling to him," into a choice for prayer that will cut into your routine and affect your management of time -- today. It need not be long. Pure prayer is often brief.

A Eucharistic Oblation

For Saint Benedict all of these little deeds have immense Eucharistic potential. In speaking of our Lenten deeds of "more" and "less," he uses terms that evoke the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: " . . . cum gaudio Sancti Spiritus offerat Deo" (RB 49:6)" -- "let each one make offering to God in the joy of the Holy Spirit." The "shapes and forms" of Lenten deeds are joined to the "shapes and forms" of the bread and wine placed on the altar.

An Offertory Procession

Lest there be in our offering any impurity of pride, presumption, or vainglory, Saint Benedict would have both our "more" and our "less" submitted to the Abbot for blessing and approval. The line of monks going to the office of the Abbot, each one asking for blessing and approval of his Lenten "more" and "less," is the offertory procession of Lent, making each deed worthy of oblation in the joy of the Holy Spirit. Lent is just this: a procession to the altar, a movement into the mystery of the Cross. How could it be anything but joy?

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How many greater gifts will come to you
in the truly blessed life that lies before us,
is, I must admit, beyond my capacity to discuss,
nor is it within my power to lay them out before you.
It will suffice only to refer in summary
to the indescribable outcome of this exchange,
for this is what awaits those who have perfectly left the world:
"Things beyond our seeing,
things beyond our hearing,
things beyond our imagining,
all prepared by God for those who love Him."

Therefore, hide this treasure, namely Christ, our God and Lord,
who became both redeemer and ransom for us;
he who both promises and is the reward held out to us;
who is the life of men and endless existence of the angels.

With great care hide this treasure, I say,
in the receptacle of your heart.
With it in your possession cast away all concern
for any thing else in this world.
Take delight in speaking with him in unremitting prayer,
and in this way constantly nourish yourself
at the feast of holy thoughts.

Let him be your food and also your raiment.
But if it should happen that you are also in need
of some tangible convenience,
do not hold back,
but place your trust in the firm promise He made to you
when He said:
"Set your mind on God's kingdom before everything else,
and all the rest will come to you as well."
For if He could satisfy the thirsty throng of Israelites
by commanding water to gush from that dry, metallic rock;
if for long periods of time
He could serve heavenly manna to the hungry;
if He could order vast flocks of quail
to light in the camp of those people who complained of their lot,
would He be unable to provide for the necessities of one little man
who is constantly requesting His assistance?

And for Him who for almost forty years
kept the clothes of that great multitude intact,
would it be difficult to replace your tattered old garments with new ones?
Truly, we of little faith, must urge ourselves to hold fast to Christ,
for fainthearted diffidence makes Christ a pauper,
while full confidence causes Him to be rich and generous
in dispensing His gifts.

Take care to be concerned only with those things that He commands,
and let there be no doubt at all about those that He promises.
Let the tax collector feel safe when the debtor is prompt to pay.
There is no reason to be apprehensive
when He who never lies has given His word.
The creditor can breathe easily
when Truth itself is bound to His promise.

Saint Peter Damian, Letter 165

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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