Chapter 49: The Observance of Lent

1 The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. 2 Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure 3 and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. 4 This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. 5 During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, 6 so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 1:6). 7 In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing. 8 Everyone should, however, make known to the abbot what he intends to do, since it ought to be done with his prayer and approval. 9 Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward. 10 Therefore, everything must be done with the abbot’s approval.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

What wisdom we find in Saint Benedict when he says that few have the strength to live a continuous Lent, even if it is an ideal. This type of thinking and writing is important because it reflects clearly how Saint Benedict is able to accept lots of different types of monks and not get totally discouraged when they are not all perfect. Just as few have the strength to live a continuous Lent, neither should we expect in any way that we will find perfect monks in any community.

This mode of thinking never takes away the responsibility of the monk to keep striving to lead a better monastic life. What it does is encourage each monk to strive to accept his brothers as they are and to work personally for a better monastic life and to work to strengthen the monastic community and its observances.

So, for Saint Benedict, even though he recognizes that the monk cannot live a continuous Lent, he still recommends various ascetic practices during Lent. It is clear that the monk should add “something” to his normal style of living monastic life during Lent. Saint Benedict is not shy about suggesting that the monk can deny himself some food, some drink, some sleep, some needless talking and idle jesting… We can understand about giving up a little food and drink, but it sounds like Saint Benedict accepts a certain measure of needless talking and idle jesting in those times which are not Lent! Probably it is simply the realism of Saint Benedict shining through in his Rule once again.

But whatever the monk does, he must receive blessing from the abbot. Monastic life is not a private life! We need to open our hearts and our souls to the abbot, always with prudence, of course, but nevertheless a true openness. This is one of the most difficult aspects of monastic life today, when we are all used to lots of privacy and also used to making our own decisions.

For Saint Benedict, being a monk means never taking a decision by oneself–ever! Always a true monk must include his monastic superior in any decisions that he takes about his life or way of living the monastic life.

May we all grow in the aspects of monastic life mentioned in this Chapter. May we strive to be strong and to offer something to the Lord. May we learn to ask our abbot’s blessing on our lives and on our decisions.