AT ALL TIMES THE LIFE OF THE MONK SHOULD HAVE THE OBSERVANCE OF LENT. These words from Chapter 49 of the Rule of St. Benedict express the Patriarch's ideal of monastic practice. As he understood it, the monk is called to live a life of serious self-denial that includes a rather rigorous bodily fasting as well as more intent application to silence, reading and prayer. As he makes clear in the same sentence, he knows very well the weakness of the majority of men, even those with good will, so that he does not require the same measure of austerity throughout the rest of the year as he expects during the season of Lent. So he goes on to add: Because few have the strength for this, we are convinced that in these days of Lent they should watch over their life with all purity and wash away all the neglect of other times in these holy days.
He provides not only for a more restrained use of food, but stresses as well the observance of greater silence, more attention to sacred reading and greater devotion to prayer. He urges each one individually to make voluntary sacrifices in the way of deprivation of food, drink sleep and talking. These practices are calculated to prepare one for the joy of Easter and Benedict recom mends his monks to focus their desire on the risen Lord.
And so during these days let us add something to our usual weight of service, to our pri vate prayers, our abstinence from food and drink, so that each one of us, of his own free will and in the joy of the Holy Spirit, offers to God something beyond the customary measure imposed on him... and with the joy of spiritual desire look forward to the holy Paschal Feast.
The observance of Lent, then, involves a greater interior focus and concentration on deepening our life in Christ. If it is a time of self-denial yet its motive force is a very positive desire to become more acceptable to God and more responsive to His will and His presence. Thus it aims to further the great task of purification of the soul so that the senses of the spirit might be cleans ed and exercised in view of becoming more capable of perceiving divine realities. This work is to be undertaken in a deliberate effort to share in the labor and suffering of our Lord. The Pas sion and Death of Jesus are the culmination of Jesus life on earth and our hope of redemption is based on the mysteries of Holy Week. However, we are best advised to view these somber reali ties in the light of the resurrection. This light which will shine on the face of Christ at Easter casts its glow upon the whole of this season and transposes the significance of Christ's obedi ence unto death and all that was associated with it in his life and Passion. The seeming defeat is a victory in disguise; every step of the way to Calvary has a dimension of significance that ap pears only to faith in the risen Lord Jesus. It is this hidden coefficient that determines the true sense of the events we commemorate at this season; they move through death to glory, through humiliation to exaltation. The mortification of carnal and worldly desires is a choice for true and eternal life. Lent is a time of preparation by a more rigorous training for sustaining the weight of glory which we firmly expect to receive through faith in the risen Christ.
The very word for glory in Hebrew kabod has as its root meaning heaviness; abundance; vehemence. Intensity of force, plenitude of life, density of being, dignity, splendor of aspect- these are the associations that Jesus would have had to the word we translate as glory. We tend to associate this word with the idea of fame, renown, stardom. Certainly all that applies to the Greek word for glory, doxa . This fame is a response to the intrinsic abundance of being and life, the dignity of the person honored, and that interior reality is what the Hebrew term conveys. This then was the frame of reference for our Lord himself and his Blessed Mother and his apos tles when they spoke of glory.
This focus on the glory of the risen Lord is the perspective that St. Benedict recommends to his monks as he urges them to be generous in their observance during this Season. He terminates his exhortation to the monks for a fervent observance with an emphasis on the joy of anticipated triumph: in the joy of spiritual desire look forward to Easter. (Chapter 49).
This spirit of generosity, of willingly giving oneself with a joyful spirit and especially this focus on the risen Lord Jesus is the most fruitful attitude for us to maintain throughout these coming days and weeks of Lent. Any fruit that we derive from a more rigorous observance and a greater interiority will prove wholesome to the extent it strengthens our faith and trust in the mercy and merits of our Savior. We do not look forward to Easter so that we might find relaxation and return our former less exacting way of life; rather, what we seek after and what gives us spiritual joy is the desire that we might have a greater share in the new life Christ brings. We aspire to an increment of inner dignity; our strivings are ordered to this goal- that we might possess a more intense spiritual force that unites us more forcibly to the Lord. The heightened awareness of what is given us by our faith in the risen Christ will sustain us during the difficult days of this season of fasting; it will also prepare us to welcome the light of the resurrection made visible when the Lord comes in glory. In this light we shall be able to recognize him as the one whom we sought in our life on earth; then we shall have the ears of our heart open and able to hear him call his faithful servants to himself and take them to the Father's presence, before the throne of the glory.
Lent is a time for training the ears of the heart to perceive God's words spoken to us from within as we listen to and read the inspired texts of Scripture. The liturgy during this season is the rich est of the year, having a specially worded mass formula and proper readings provided for each day in function of directing our attention and channeling our desire to the work of redemption effected by our Savior through the mysteries of his passion, death and resurrection. To this same end St. Benedict prescribes that each monk be given a book to be read with a particular care and devotion throughout this period. He prescribes a longer time for such lectio divina than is al lowed for at other seasons of the calender.
Interestingly, he speaks of this book and prescribes the time for such reading not in his chapter 49 On Lent but in the preceding chapter 48 On Daily Manual Labor. The reason for this is obvi ous when we read this passage in context for it is here that he arranges the daily horarium. In doing so, clearly for practical reasons, he defines the time assigned to reading as well as that provided for manual labor. He states as much himself as he opens this chapter 48.
Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Accordingly, the brothers should be occupied at cer tain hours with manual labor, and at other hours with lectio divina. And so we believe that both these activities should be arranged for by the following disposition.
As history reveals very strikingly, in fact, the time given to lectio divina and that spent in choir chanting the psalms and listening to the lessons is taken from that assigned to manual labor. At Cluny, to speak of the best known instance, when the divine office was prolonged and various psalms and litanies and processions were added to it, the time necessary was taken from that which had been provided for manual labor. As a result work done by the monks to gain their living aside and for all practical purposes was neglected. The early Cistercians considered their reform in good measure to be the restoration of balance between these two practices of lectio and prayer on the one hand, and manual labor on the other. By simplifying the liturgy they pro vided the time needed for manual labor. By admitting lay brothers, they assured that choir monks could participate seriously in such work without having to reduce excessively the time to be spent in reading and liturgy.
As regards the kind of reading to be done St. Benedict's text does not go into explicit detail, and as a result there are different views as to just what his words intend. Here is how he states his arrangements.
But during Lent from morning till the end of the third hour let the monks be free for read ings, and until the end of the tenth hour they should do the work assigned them. In these days of Lent all are to received individual books of the Scriptures. They should read them entirely. These books are to be given at the beginning of Lent. (Ch. 48)
Most of the modern translations translate the Latin differently than I have done here. I follow a couple of Benedictine scholars whose arguments seem more persuasive for their interpretation. First of all, the expression "be free for readings" (vacent lectionibus) loses something of its con notation when it is rendered as "attend to readings" as a number of modern versions render it. Since St. Benedict uses the verb vacare six times in this chapter, it clearly has a special signifi cance for him. Thus its literal sense of dropping all business, being free should be preserved in the translation. The idea here is that leisure is arranged for so that the monks are not under pres sure to get through a task of study, or to hasten along so they can get back to work; rather, they are to have plenty of time so that they might read thoughtfully, meditate and pray as they ponder the text. That such is St. Benedict's intent appears from the fact that he arranges for the best time of the day for such lectio, in contrast to the Master, who in his Rule has the monks read at a time when it is too hot to work, at mid-day. He emphasizes work over reading.
Another point of variance of interpretation in this brief passage, no less significant, is the way the word bibliotheca is understood. A majority of contemporary translators interpret the word bibliotheca to mean the library, the place where books are kept. They then take the word singulos to refer to the subject, omnes (monachi), although in form it is an accusative that more regularly modifies the object, codices (books). In Benedict's time such irregular usage does occur; it is found in ch. 35 of the Rule, in fact. Thus the more common translation reads: Each monk is to receive a book from the library. In this reading by implication Benedict does not determine what kind of book it should be. Any book from the library will serve as for the Lenten reading. However, the Benedictine scholar, Anscar Mundó, has pointed out in a thorough study of this term ("Bibliotheca" Rev. Ben. 60 (1950), p. 74) that such a broad permissiveness as to what monks should read at such a holy season is hardly in keeping with other passages of the Rule. Moreover, the same scholar painstakingly shows that the word had been used for centuries to mean the books of the Bible. Tertulian had so used it around the year 200 and a long series of other Latin authors followed suite until as late as the end of the 15th century. The list is a distin guished one, including such figures as Saints Jerome, Isidore and Alcuin among many others.(cf. Mundó, op. cit. 74 ff.) It was only around the year 1500 A.D. that the term Biblia established itself as the definitively accepted word to designate the Sacred Writings recognized by the Church as inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Experience reveals that the way of understanding bibliotheca is not a mere quibble over words. We know from history that in monasteries where bibliotheca was taken to mean library secular works that many would consider quite unsuited for lectio divina at this season were given out as Lenten books. Examples are known from records where monks were given for their Lenten read ing Roman history by Livy, Jewish history by Josephus, even geography. (cf. Mundo, 67) Even saintly abbots, such as St. Odilo of Cluny, could not manage to change this custom even though it is clearly against the spirit of St. Benedict.
A number of ancient books ofh usages contain the rites associated with this distribution of Lent en books. In some monasteries it was the custom that on the day that the new Lenten books were given out and the ones from last year returned, the librarian would question the monks on the books being returned to ascertain whether they had properly understood them. There is also pre served a very interesting list of Lenten books given out to each of the monks of Farfa, an ancient monastery in Italy. All the books in this long list seemed to me to be appropriate for sacred reading and are well suited for Lent. Most are commentaries on a book of the Bible by some Father of the Church, such as St. Augustine, St. Bede and others. St. Augustine's De Trinitate, his commentary on the Psalms and other titles of his appear. One finds as well other commen taries on the Psalter, Cassian's Conferences and Ambrose's Hexaemeron. Obviously there was a good library in that ancient cloister and the brothers did serious lectio divina. This tells us a great deal about the spirituality of the community at the period this list was drawn up. Only men of a certain culture would find it profitable and stimulating to ponder over such works as are listed here and which, we should remember, are more exacting to read in manuscripts where there are many abbreviations and little consistency of spelling and punctuation. Dedication to lectio divina is a reliable index of the level of culture as well as a reliable indication of a serious life of prayer in the Benedictine tradition. Dom Francis of Mepkin Abbey has stated his opinion that the daily practice of serious and attentive lectio divina is the Benedictine way of attaining to contemplative prayer.
There is nothing specifically Benedictine, to be sure, about lectio divina. Christians from earli est times have made the study and meditation of Scripture an important element in their reli gious life. That tradition had been seriously weakened in the Catholic Church when, due to the fear of heresy, lay persons were not allowed to read the Scriptures lest they give false meanings to the text. Vernacular translations were discouraged for a time by the Church in order to assure that the uneducated would not be in a position to expose themselves to the dangers of distorted. Protestants, on the contrary, made Scripture study and reading a major feature of their piety and still do today. In our own century there has been a Catholic revival and many have returned to the practice of reading the inspired books of the Bible, although it has not as yet developed as fully as would be helpful and wholesome for the spiritual and moral life.
This practice did not begin only after the New Testament was written. It was inherited from Jewish practice and is firmly rooted in Jewish piety and devotion. It was practiced from the very origins of the Church. Jesus had learned the Scriptures in the Synagogue as a child; so did his mother before him, and John the Baptist, the Apostles and the whole early generation of Jewish Christian converts. Many, especially the numerous converted Pharisees, were experts in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the unwritten traditions associated with its exegesis and teaching. Jewish teaching still views the study of Scripture as itself an avodah, a service that is, like the service of the altar, an act of worship of God. It was read by many not for the sake of scholar ship but as an act of piety by those who went about their reading in the presence of God: It is as if this day I received it from Sinai. (Cf.Tanhuma, Yitro 7 (cf. G.F. Moore, Judaism, II, 242)
We know how fervently the early monks read, memorized and meditated on Scripture. They used it in their synaxsis and repeated it in their mental prayer. John Cassian reports on its prom inence in his Conferences, significantly the one entitled On Spiritual Knowledge. He puts the whole discourse in the mouth of the Abbot Nestorios, whom he describes as "a man distin guished in all matters and possessing the highest knowledge." He first points out that the essen tial condition for attaining to the light of spiritual knowledge is an ardent desire for the beatitude "Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God." (XIV.IX.1 PL 49: 965B) Then he goes on to give his views on how to progress in this knowledge.I
f you wish to arrive at true knowledge of the Scriptures you must hasten first of all to obtain immovable humility of heart which leads you to that knowledge which illuminates not to that which inflates....Then you are to strive in every possible manner to give your self to assiduous, rather to continuous, holy reading, banishing every care and earthly thought. Do this until continuous meditation drenches your mind and as it were forms you in its likeness. In this way it makes of your mind a kind of ark of the Covenant con taining in itself the two stone tablets, symbols of the constant firmness of the twofold document.(Collatio XIV. X. PL 49: 970A- 971A)
Bernard of Clairvaux, the great master of language and the dedicated servant of the Divine Word made flesh, followed Cassian's teaching on lectio divina so that his mind was truly an ark of the covenant. His sermons and other writings are replete with apt citations from the Old and New Testaments, making it evident that the Word of God had truly formed him in its likeness. As he neared the end of his life he wrote in the last complete Sermon on the Canticle a concise sum mary of the spiritual life in terms of its relation to the Word.
The soul seeks the Word to whom she may consent for correction, by whom she may be enlightened for understanding, on whom she might lean for virtue, by whom she might be reformed to wisdom, to whom she may be conformed for beauty, to whom she might be married for fertility and whom she might enjoy for her delight. (Sermon 85.1 PL 183: 1187D)
Saint Bernard, by the whole tenor of his life, made it evident that more is required than dedication to holy reading and prayer if we would realize this program that ends in a spiritual union with the Word of God in glory. We must translate the message of Scrip ture into action by daily lives of humble service, charity and fraternal collaboration. In proportion as we take up these challenges of monastic life in community we become more suited for understanding Scripture, as Abba Nestorios told Cassian. It is to the humble, the meek and those who live by faith that the Lord reveals himself. Lent for the Cistercian monk then involves a two-fold approach in its work of preparation for celebrating the Paschal feast of the Lord: holy reading and contemplation, on the one hand, and on the other, daily dedication to the service of others in community. Fidelity to these practices, updating them by living them from the heart, putting all of our own experience into them, is our way of personal holiness. It is also our way of contributing to the Evangelization of society and to the sanctification of the Church. May the Lord sustain us during this holy season as we strive to follow him more closely along this path which he has called us to follow.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
© Abbey of the Genesee
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