When I was growing up, my best friend and I often gave up Carmex (the medicated lip balm) for Lent. I’m not sure why we felt that was the best way to prepare for the resurrection of Jesus. I guess we believed that we had a Carmex addiction and were relinquishing something very dear to us.
During this season, I like to see what the ancients of the Church say about Lenten practices. Their views are much richer than what I knew of Lent as a child. Last week, we explored St. John Chrysostom’s full-orbed view of fasting. This week, let’s see what St. Benedict (ca. 480-547), founder of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, has to say.
In his Rule for Monasteries, written in the sixth century, St. Benedict includes a chapter entitled, “On the Observance of Lent.” He writes:
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.
For his monks, St. Benedict advises the moderate withholding of food, drink, sleep, and talking. But, like St. John Chrysostom, Benedict also has a fuller view of Lent. He suggests that ideally, Lent is a way of life. A difficult way, to be sure. Yet we are called to prepare our hearts for resurrection during all seasons.
Also note that St. Benedict has suggestions on what to add to our Lenten diet, not just what to give up. We might forego certain foods, but we can add prayer with tears, reading, and compunction of heart—that is, repentance; a holy desire to sin no more.
Speaking of tears, I love the depiction of the weeping Mary of Clopas in Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross (ca. 1435). I think about this painting every year during Lent and Holy Week. In the painting, Mary and her companions express overwhelming sorrow as the body of Jesus is taken down from the cross. Mary of Clopas is the figure on the far left. Her tears, which escape from the cloth she has pressed to her eyes, are sacred outpourings of grief that we might emulate on our own journey to the cross.
Yet Benedict ultimately moves us from tears to joy. At the end of the passage, he says that during Lent, Christians are to look forward to Easter with the “joy of spiritual desire.” We know that Easter brings joy, but so should the darker season of Lent bring a somber kind of joy — that of yearning for Christ, whose resurrection we await.
May this unique joy be yours as you prepare for resurrection and renewal in your own life.