March 31, July 31, November 30
Chapter 49: On the Observance of Lent
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.
This is an apt Reading to have as we enter the season of Advent, which many Anglicans regard as a mini-Lent and observe a time of penitence and abstinence through the weeks until Christmas.
‘Compunction of heart’ asks us to recall our sins and asking forgiveness and making amends of some kind.
With regard to Confession, Anglicans believe that none must, all may and some should. This, of course, refers to formal Confession one-to-one with a priest, a most healing and enriching experience. But seasons such as Advent and Lent serve as reminders to look seriously at what God has given us out of his love – the birth and death of his only Son.
However good we intend to be, we fall short of Jesus’s sinless incarnation. St Benedict recognises that ‘few have the virtue’ to live a permanently holy life. Nonetheless, we can try in certain seasons to be more ready than usual to examine our consciences, search our hearts and pray in repentance for forgiveness and the strength to stay on the narrow path.
This is something we can all do individually, but the spiritual power that comes from *communal* repentance is life-changing. In the late 80s and early 90s in South Africa, when the rule of apartheid was drawing to an end, there were synods and other gatherings at which confession by an individual led spontaneously to confession by the whole community. It was a tremendous work of the Holy Spirit and gave great hope that the abolition of apartheid could yet be achieved with justice and in peace. The sin of apartheid – which affected everyone, victim and violator alike, and even those who worked for justice and equity – had to be
acknowledged, confessed and forgiven before any kind of restoration could take place – hence the Justice and Reconciliation process. There has to be a clearing of the ground before a new house can be built. Here St Benedict calls it ‘washing away the negligences’.
And all is to be done with the sanction of the monastic superior. How sensible that is. It prevents a member of the community from going overboard with self-flagellation and abstinence; it keeps all members accountable in the form of devotion they have chosen for the holy seasons. It stops privation becoming an end in itself, when the true purpose is always to honour God, to raise Jesus to the highest place, to encounter and recognise our own shortcomings and pray for the means to overcome them. Otherwise the practice of severe abstinence can become a sort of ‘idol’ to which we donate all our will and energy, instead of loving the Lord God with every fiber of our being.
What is Advent going to mean to me this year?
I need to give serious consideration to several important things, getting back to writing icons, finish The Book of Joy. A book I read every Advent is one edited by Richard Foster called ‘Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith’, which explores the different streams/traditions within the Church – e.g. Contemplative, Charismatic, Evangelical, Social Justice. I need to be more regular in my Reflections on a Saying of a Desert Christian. There’s that sweater for mom I am knitting.
‘Something above the measure required’ is a challenging concept. For the Benedictine monks and nuns ‘the measure required’ was set out very clearly in the Rule.
But for non-Benedictines? For people who are only just becoming acquainted with the Rule without living in the community under the wings of the monastic superior? How can *I* interpret it and put it into effect? I think of those beautiful words from Micah chapter 6: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
So I shall try during Advent to learn to be aware of my everyday actions and attitudes to see whether or not they reflect justice, kindness and humility……. even when I’m tired, stressed, fretting, feeling poorly or just plain cranky.
What is Advent going to mean to you this year?