Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Getting ready for Lent Pt 2 - Suggestions for reading and prayer

Yesterday I posted the relevant sections of the Rule of St Benedict on Lent.

Today I thought I'd post a few concrete suggestions for implementing St Benedict's regime for those who haven't already settled on a Lenten regime.

1.  Reading a book right through.

As I noted yesterday, in a monastery each monk or nun is traditionally assigned a book to read from beginning to end during Lent.  Some have argued that St Benedict probably meant a book of the Bible in chapter 48, but I don't see any reason to take that view - monastic libraries then as now contained a lot more than just Scripture!  The ideal is to have your spiritual director assign a book to you.  But failing that, you could ask for help from your guardian angel by way of making a choice.

Personally I tend to alternate my Lent's between rereading one of the great spiritual classics, and reading something new.

So if you have a personal library you can draw on including both books you've kept to reread, and maybe some you've been meaning to get around to, now is a good time to take a look at it again!  If not though, there are many fantastic options available on the net, and an excellent starting place in my view is New Advent Fathers, where you can find a dizzying array of suitable classics, such as St Augustine's Confessions, St Athanasius' Life of St Antony or Sulpicius Severus' Life of St Martin.

My own (highly selective and eclectic) list of classics to revisit each year:

  • in the Eastern Church, monks traditionally reread one of St Benedict's near contemporaries, St John Climacus' (579-606) Ladder of Divine Ascent, and its a great work for all of us;   
  • Walter Hilton (d c1395), The Scale of Perfection, a classic of the English mystical tradition that includes other works well worth rereading such as the Ancrene Riwle, Cloud of Unknowing and the works of Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle
  • the Devotions of Dame Gertrude More (descendant of St Thomas, 1604-1633), an extremely hard to obtain gem, meditations of a nun who helped re-establish the English Benedictines on the continent;
  • Dom Columba Marmion, Christ the Ideal of the Monk; and
  • St John Cassian's Conferences and Institutes.
This year however I personally plan to read Volume 1 of St Gregory the Great's commentary on Job (Moralia in Job), since a kind reader gifted the set to me, and I'm currently extremely interested in the debate on St Gregory the Great's contribution of the Benedictine charism, and the saints' own spirituality.

2.  Applying ourselves to prayer

St Benedict also suggests, in chapter 49, that we offer something more by way of private prayer.

Good options for this, in my view, include:
 3.  Fasting and abstinence

I've previously written on the Rule's provisions here.  What you can do in this area will obviously depend on your own circumstances, however, I thought that you might find a few comments by one of St Benedict's contemporaries, St Fulgentius of Ruspe useful, as they seem to me to be entirely in line with St Benedict's own approach.  In a letter to a Roman consecrated virgin named Proba (probably the sister-in-law of St Boethius) he said:
....moderation must be used in the matter of fasts in such a way that neither satiety stirs up our body nor immoderate lack of food weakens it.  Let a meal of such a kind follow a virgin's fast that it neither entices the body with its pleasantness nor inflames it with satiety.  Alms for the poor are diminished by pleasantness; the body is made bellicose by satiety.  Then what is owed to brothers is devoured; here assistance is furnished to the enemy.  For us who wish to seduce the lust of glutony with a variety of flavors, pleasure consumes what the poor man ought to receive.  Accordingly let neither weakness usurp nor satiety do away with fasting.  Each one is at the service of our adversaries because one removes the usefulness of the fast that precedes, the other obstructs the possibility of the subsequent fast.  Satiety brings it about that we fast to no purpose; weakness brings it about that we are unable to fast. (Trans Robert B Eno, in Fulgentius Selected Works, The Fathers of the Church vol 95)


Benjamin Ekman said...

I was just about to order the first volume of Moralia in Job, so am curious about your remark regarding "the debate on St Gregory the Great's contribution of the Benedictine charism". Can you point me in the right direction for this debate?

Kate Edwards said...

I'm not sure that there is one good place to go to read it off the top of my head, but essentially in the mid-twentieth century there was a serious questioning of whether St Gregory could truly be said to be a Benedictine - key critics of what had been the standard view were Kassius Hallinger and Guy Ferrari.

That was then followed up by the (failed) attempt to provide that St Gregory's dialogues were a Carolingian fake, by Francis Clark. Clark's views were primarily demolished by Paul Meyvaert (J Ecc Hist 2011), with help from others. I've written on this some time back here: http://australiaincognita.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/feast-of-pope-st-gregory-great.html

In addition the views of Hallinger, Ferrari and others conclusions have been challenged to greater or lesser degrees in work by Conrad Leysner, Michaela Puzicha (see ABR 2014 for a relatively recent survey of the state of play), and Constant Mews Constant J. Mews (2011) Gregory the Great, the Rule of Benedict and Roman liturgy: the evolution of a legend, Journal of Medieval History, 37:2, 125-144), amongst others.

The 'anti-Benedictine' push hasn't given up though - Jesse Billett's The Divine Office in Anglo-Saxon England is an (in my view unsuccessful) attempt to salvage Clark's arguments to the effect that the Benedictine charism was largely a Carolingian invention.

Apart from the importance of Book II of the Dialogues, St Gregory's works, most especially the commenaty on job, (along with Bede and others some argue were not Benedictines) were extensively quoted in the earliest commentaries on the Rule...

Benjamin Ekman said...

Thank you so much for this!