The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 49: On the Observance of Lent


February 15, 2021
By: Father Benet Phillips, O.S.B.

Today we begin the season of Lent with the commemoration of Ash Wednesday. Lent in the monastery has a distinct character of sobriety and restraint. However, if lived well, the season of Lent has the potential to lead the monk ever more deeply into the Paschal Mystery. The observance of Lent has great importance for Saint Benedict so much so that he devotes an entire chapter of the Rule to its observance.

Benedict begins his chapter on Lent with the following admonition: “The life of the monk ought to be a continuous Lent.” Doesn’t that sound promising? Benedict was known for his discretion and moderation so he quickly adds, “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 and to wash away in this holy season the negligence of other times.” A bit better, but still an admonition to change, to reflect, to listen once again to the voice of Lord calling us to new life.

Saint Benedict’s Lenten program includes: prayer, holy reading and self-denial. In our monastery, we begin the season of Lent with the Abbot reading Chapter 49 of the Holy Rule to the community. We also have certain Lenten practices that help us focus our attention and intention. First, each monk must meet with the Abbot to discuss what his Lenten program of renewal will look like—what he plans to give up or what he plans to do to help the individual monk enter into spirit if the season. We also present to the Abbot a list of all our possessions we have for our use. Long before Maire Kondo, Saint Benedict knew how easy it is to accumulate all kinds of stuff. At least once a year, we have the opportunity to take an actual inventory of our possessions – keeping what we truly need and giving up the rest.

Our meals are a bit simpler. We only eat meat once a day usually at our evening meal and not at all on Wednesdays or Fridays. Thank God for peanut butter! Snacking and eating in between meals is discouraged. Silence and recollection are to be fortified. In the words of Saint Benedict, “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, 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). 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.”

As part of our Lenten observance, each monk is to engage in holy reading (Lectio Divina) with a renewed sense of purpose. During our Lenten conference, the Abbot will ask us specifically what we will be reading during this season. The daily Gospel is always a good choice, as are spiritual writers of every age. In our contemporary world, there are good number of on -line meditations that make for good lectio. In all our observances, we do well to remember that we don’t go to God alone. Benedict makes it clear that everything is to be done with the Abbot’s approval. Although lived differently for each monk and each Christian-- ours is a common life, a common journey, a common purpose. Here, a strong sense of solidarity is renewed and strengthened.

Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. writes in a Growing Season, “Lent is not an event. It is not something that happens to us. It is at most a microcosm of what turns out to be a lifelong journey to the center of the self. The purpose of Lent is to confront us with ourselves in a way that’s conscious and purposeful, that enables us to deal with the rest of life well. It is not a “penitential season.” It is a growing season. It requires us to determine what is worth dying for in our own lives and what it may be necessary for us to become if we really want to live.”

Happily, we have some great feast during this season to keep us going --Saint Patrick on March 17, Saint Joseph on March 19, Saint Benedict on March 21 and the Annunciation on March 25. I like to say on these days, Lent takes a holiday and we can indeed anticipate the Holy Feast of Easter “with joy and spiritual longing.”

Questions for Reflection
Do you experience Lent as a penitential season or in the words of Sister Joan, a “growing” season? How and in what ways?
Do you have certain Lenten practices that allow you to enter deeply into this season of conversion and renewal? How do these practices help you?
Have you thought about cleaning out a closet, a drawer, the pantry and donating what you no longer need to a local food panty or homeless shelter?
How can you make time (even 5 minutes) for prayer, silence and holy reading?