Saturday, February 12, 2011

Finding Joy in the Holy Season of Lent

      When examining the various liturgical seasons of the year, the one least likely to evoke any condition with a sense of joy is the Holy Season of Lent.  From the experience of having ashes placed upon our foreheads on the first day of Lent straight through to the re-telling of the Passion and Death of Our Lord during the Holy Triduum, this season does not evoke a sense of joy.  The Season of Advent evokes a sense of joy as we await the birth of the Savior at Christmas, the Christmas season has a great deal of joy attached to it and the Season of Easter is joyful due to the fact that we celebrate Our Savior’s rising from the dead as well as the beauty of the Springtime. 

      The Rule of St. Benedict makes reference to the observance of Lent in the monastery in Chapter 49.  This chapter begins with St. Benedict instructing his monks that our life is to be a constant Lent; however, since most do not have the virtue to be able to live like this daily, he instructs us to make use of the opportunity we have during Lent by keeping our lives most pure and thereby washing away the negligences of other times.  Monks are encouraged to increase their measure of giving during this time through abstinence in food and drink as well as devoting more time to private prayer.  We are also encouraged to curtail our sleeping, drinking, food, idle talk, and jesting during this time as we prepare for the Holy Season of Easter with the joy of spiritual desire.

      It is not a common practice for most people to associate penance and mortification with joy; however, this is exactly what St. Benedict is asking of his monks.  We are instructed do all these things with “the joy of the Holy Spirit”.  St. Benedict’s recommendation of joy in Lent, both as an offering something extra with the joy of the Holy Spirit and waiting Holy Easter with the joy of spiritual desire, is an original contribution to Western monastic literature.  It is not to be found either in the Rule of the Master or in a number of monastic rules which preceded St. Benedict and which served him as sources when he wrote his Rule.1    However, this does not mean that his original contribution is antithetical to monastic tradition. 

       There is a long history of experiencing joy in suffering within the Christian tradition. In First Thessalonians 1:6, St. Paul makes reference to suffering with joy.  He instructs his followers that “You became followers of us and the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word of joy in the Holy Spirit.”  Since joy is one of the gifts offered to us by the Holy Spirit, it is only fitting that He should be mentioned, even though the Holy Spirit receives very little mention throughout the Rule of St. Benedict. 

      The Rule of St. Benedict does not speak of happiness, but joy.  There is a direct connection between joy and happiness; however, joy has a much deeper significance. In the search for happiness the individual focuses upon him or herself, but joy moves a person out of a self-centered pre-occupation and provides an orientation towards others. Joy is an experience which connects us to the creative power that is more than the “I” or ego.  Joy gets us out of ourselves and it touch with this “Other” and with others. Joy can sustain us through the various stages of life.  If we are willing to give up the search for happiness, we may find joy.  Joy exists where happiness and suffering meet and intermingle.2   

      The practice of penance and mortification can lead some to become downcast or even depressed during the Season of Lent.  However, this is not the mindset that St. Benedict wishes to promote among his monks.  In St. Matthew’s Gospel we read that when the Pharisees fasted they “disfigured their faces” (Mt. 6:16) and made it quite obvious to everyone around them that they were fasting.  Our Lord admonishes His followers to wash their faces and do not go about as the Pharisees do so that they will earn their reward from God rather than from humans.  

      St. Benedict is not at all blind to the fact that in Lent there are certain obstacles to joy; physical obstacles, such as a rebellious stomach or a heavy head, as well as, spiritual obstacles such as petty temptations.  When there is physical suffering or moral depression, the enemy is never far behind; however, neither is God or His angels.”3   There is no amount of suffering that we can go through during Lent which Our Lord did not go through as well.

       It is essential to keep in mind that our experience of Lent unites us with the forty days of temptation which Our Lord experienced in the wilderness, as well as, one day representing each year that the Jewish people spent wandering in the desert in search of the Promised Land.   Just as Our Lord’s temptation came to an end and He was ministered to by the angels and God’s chosen people were able to enter into the Promised Land under the direction of Joshua, our Lenten journey will come to an end as well. 

       While forty days may seem like a long time, especially on Ash Wednesday, living the experience with a sense of joy and with the spiritual longing for Holy Easter which St. Benedict instructs us to do will help us to experience the Holy Season of Easter with even greater joy than we might otherwise have had if we did not go through the penances of Lent.   St. Benedict’s summons to joy in Lent asks that one recognize that the monastic life is a dynamic process of maturity in the Spirit rather than a state of maturity.  The life is built upon the salvation that God has wrought in Christ’s paschal mystery and presumes a generous response to grace.  The observances of Lent in the Rule of St. Benedict lead one to joy rather than being an obstacle to it.4   

       The liturgical life of the monastic community aids the monk as he enters into the Season of Lent.  There is a Church teaching which states, “Lex orandi, lex credendi constituit” (the law of praise constitutes the law of belief) which means that what we belief as monks should be discernable to anyone by virtue of how we pray.  While the Rule of St. Benedict makes very few references to the celebration of Mass, the Divine Office is held up as of paramount importance to us.  The Divine Office is referred to the Work of God (Opus Dei) and it is unlike any other form of prayer.  The Work of God is a prayer that transcends every other kind of prayer.  It is distinguished from them all because it’s specific character is the celebration of the mystery of Christ.  It is a memorial like the Eucharist, with which it is intimately connected. 5 The Divine Office and the Eucharist are connected by virtue of the fact that they each draw the monk into the mystery of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in their own way.  In the celebration of the Eucharist the monk enters into a kyrotic moment where Heaven and earth meet and the Lord is made present to him through His Word and sacrament.  In the Divine Office, the monk encounters Jesus through the praying of the Psalter and the readings.   The Office of Readings enables the monk to reflect upon the writings of earlier generations and helps to instill that sense of joy and hope which will allow us to continue with our Lenten observances knowing that they will lead us to Holy Easter.

      The community Eucharist is the center of communal praise.  Herein each member expresses most intensely and clearly his consciousness of being God’s creature called to the glorious destiny of the kingdom.  Renewing in grateful remembrance the Lord’s covenant sacrifice, the community as a whole celebrates the deepest dimension of its existence and purpose.   Communing in the body and blood of Christ, the monastic family confesses and experiences the mystery of faith and hope, while fraternal unity is fostered and strengthened.  

   It is important to keep in mind that no individual monk is doing this on his own.  We have entered on this Lenten journey as a community and are here to support and encourage one another on that journey.   Chapter 49 of The Rule states that whatever a monk wishes to give up during Lent or take on as an additional penance must be done with the permission of the abbot, otherwise it is considered to be vainglory or presumption on the part of the monk and he will receive no spiritual benefit.

       Throughout most of The Rule of St. Benedict, the monk is told that self-will is to be abandoned or even hated, in favor of the will of the community.  However, it is Chapter 49 that self-will actually becomes a means for the monk’s own sanctification.  Not only does the monk offer something extra with the joy of the Holy Spirit, but also of his own will (propria voluntate).  Perhaps a better translation of propria voluntate might be because he wants to.  For Benedict, the how of the offering is very important.  It should be given with the joy of the Holy Spirit and of one’s own free will.   This is all the more striking since nowhere else is The Rule is propria voluntate used in a positive sense.7 

       Father Adalbert de Vogüé, O.S.B. is one of the greatest living scholars of The Rule of St. Benedict.   When Father de Vogüé discusses how the various elements of Lenten observance are to be done, viz., prayer with tears, the offering with the joy of the Holy Spirit, waiting for Holy Easter with the joy of spiritual desire, and mortification with the consent of the abbot, he comments that, in this, St. Benedict manifest his most personal contribution to Chapter 49.  St. Benedict has a particular interest for the interior and subjective qualities of behavior, and Vogüé finds it particularly attractive that tears thus end in joy.  The former are born of prayer, and the latter accompanies the sacrifice.8

        The spiritual life includes not only actions but also attitudes, and one of the characteristics of St. Benedict’s Rule is its care for the subjective element.  In other words the how of observance is very important.   Joy in Chapter 49 is not just one item among many of Lenten observance, rather it is the all-pervading attitude which should accompany the monk’s offering and waiting not only during this period—but also at all times.9    

        Joy (gaudium) is central to the life of any monk.  It is actually central to the life of any Christian.  The directives that St. Benedict provides for his followers are worthy of emulation regardless of whether or not you are a member of a Benedictine monastic community.   The search for happiness may be elusive; however, experiencing joy leads us to putting others first and this is part of what it means to be a member of any religious community or family.  

       Finding Joy in Lent is not merely a great suggestion, but is actually something that each of us can truly experience.  While there is certainly nothing wrong with giving something up for Lent, it is important to keep in mind the spirit with which it is given up. Giving up dessert, for example, such be done because the person wants to, not because he or she feels they are required to because of the season.  It is also worthwhile to consider engaging in some form of behavior, such as showing greater charity to others, which will have a transformative effect on one’s life and benefit them and others long after the Season of Lent has ended. 

                                                     End Notes 

1)     Belsole, Kurt   Joy in Lent: Gaudium in Chapter 49 of the Regula Benedicti
     PA: Saint Vincent Archabbey Press, 1995, p. 50 [Doctoral Dissertation]

       2) Accessed: 1/6/09

3)    Delatte, Paul  The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Commentary
      NY: Benzinger Brothers, 1921, p. 320

4)    Belsole, p. 53

5)    Field, Ann (ed.) The Monastic Hours (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press), 2000,   p. 27

6)    Renew and Create: A Statement of the American Cassinese Benedictine Monastic Life, Thirty-Sixth General Chapter, Second Session, June 1969, #68

7)    Belsole, p. 11

8)    Vogüé, Adalbert R. Ben. Comm. VI (SC 186) 1233-1234.

9)    Belsole, p. 40

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