In the 49th chapter of his Rule, St. Benedict explains to his monks the meaning of Lent and proposes some ways to live it. These are also valuable indications for us.
He starts with the admonition: “The life of a monk ought to resemble at all times the character of a Lenten observance. Since few possess such virtue, instead we urge that at least during Lent the brethren keep their lives most pure and purify during these holy days our negligence that prevails at other times.”
The insistence on the necessity of its sternness (“all times the character of a Lenten observance”) might provoke our resistance. St. Benedict reminds us that the Christian way implies a bold decision. It echoes the radicalism that Jesus demands from his disciples: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27).
But St. Benedict also shows his awareness of men’s weakness, realistically observing that “few possess such a virtue” as Lenten austerity. He knows very well that not all of his monks are already saints nor does he claim them to be, but they at least need to desire to become one.
Among the requirements of radicalism and the need for mercy runs a certain dialectic. The ideal proposed is high, while the actual strength of men is poor. So what can be done? St. Benedict himself points out the path toward renewal: “We urge the Lenten character at least during Lent.” If the ideal is high and we are weak, we must set out on the journey towards the ideal so that we can grow, taking at least a small step with God’s help.
Asceticism and freedom
The radical nature of the Christian proposal of holiness is a challenge to us. We are called to grow at least in the desire for the ideal and for purification, in a process in which freedom plays an important role. In Why the Church?, Giussani exemplifies this dynamic commenting on an illuminating episode in Acts (Acts 5:1-11). The early Christians were very united and everything they possessed they held in common. They sold their properties or shared them with those who were in need. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, however, failed to adhere fully to this ideal. They sold a piece of their property, but they gave the community only part of the money they received. However, they told the apostles that the money they gave was the money they received for their property. At that moment, they died.
Where did they err? Keeping part of the proceeds for themselves was not the problem. The farm was their property and no one forced them to sell it nor to give the money to the community. The proposal of the community is not a law to which all are expected to adhere to the same extent. The problem of Ananias and Sapphira was their lie. They affirmed that they had delivered everything, knowing full well that they had been holding on to something. Giussani observes: “The sacrifice they were forced to make caused them to lie to the community and to the Spirit, and Peter severely condemned this” (p. 100). The lie, however, was only a symptom of a deeper evil, which is that the couple “forced” themselves to making the sacrifice. Giussani states: “The absence of obligation, joy, and cheerful heart … are not just exterior traits or a superficial mask of contentment” (ibid.). The joy and cheerfulness with which we walk are important because they are signs of our freedom.
This observation is essential for beginning Lent. A sacrifice made against our desire is counter-productive; it does not build morality, but rather destroys it. Therefore, before embarking on the journey of Lent, we must first ask ourselves if we really want to follow Jesus. We must ask ourselves if by following him we really expect the fulfillment of our humanity. St. Benedict’s reflections implicitly ask these questions. If we respond “yes,” no sacrifice can frighten us. Alternatively, even the smallest sacrifices will be perceived as inhumane impositions.
Without a concrete commitment you cannot verify the initial intuition. The desire to recover the radical and pure love of the early days of our encounter with Christ is not enough. It is essential, but not sufficient. We need to address the concrete steps we have to take.
Reflecting on the Gospel episode of the the miraculous catch of fish, and in particular on Jesus’ invitation to the apostles to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, Father Lepori wonders why Jesus gave such a precise order. He could have performed the miracle in any way, from any side of the boat the apostles had thrown the net. According Lepori, the real reason for the precise order is illuminated by a need not of Jesus, but of the apostles: “What the disciples need, and what we need, is a clear, defined, secure path to begin to obey the One who realizes the total destiny of our lives. We need to be sure not to deceive ourselves in our actions so that we can truly rely on the presence of the Lord. ”
In his Rule, St. Benedict himself responds to the fact that his monks need a clear path to live the days of Lent, and thus to rediscover the ”austerity of Lent.” I would like to highlight some of the steps he suggests.
We all know how to summarize the basic rule of St. Benedict for the monastic life with the formula ora et labora, pray and work. But this expression is an abbreviation. Life in Benedict’s monastery keeps the rhythm not only of prayer and work, but also of reading. He specifies in the beginning of Chapter 48, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Thus the brothers ought to be occupied by manual labor at certain times, and at others, by devout reading.” Meditation on Scripture is therefore a work seen to go hand in hand with manual work. Benedict states that two hours every day, and almost the entirety of Sunday, should be dedicated to devout reading. The period of Lent is a time especially for reading. St. Benedict says, “During Lent let all receive books from the library, to be read through in order.”
With the word “library” Benedict refers to Sacred Scripture. He therefore prescribes that at the beginning of Lent every person receive a book from the Bible and read it in a meditative way. The monk has to repeat single words and phrases, whispering softly and slowly, in order to assimilate and enjoy them. The ideal is to learn to memorize the text so that words can penetrate deeply into the heart and change the monk from within.
Giussani also insisted on the importance of devout reading for the faith formation of young people. In his first years of priesthood, when he was a professor at Venegono and already yearned to enter the world of high school where young people were bombarded with secular teachings, he invented his own unique method of evangelization. Savorana writes in his biography, “Since he did not have the opportunity [to teach directly in high schools], Giussani used the only tool at his disposal–the confessional—to help the young in some way. Quickly it turned it into a kind of ‘pharmacy’ … After the students’ confessions Giussani drew a book from his bag and handed it to every penitent.” After a few weeks, at the subsequent confession, “Father Giussani verified whether the young person had done his ‘task’ and handed him another book. [The criteria always] depended on the difficulties and problems that the student informed him had been emerging from the relationship with the professors in class who were propagating against the Church and religion in their public school” (A. Savorana, Vita di Don Giussani, 129).
As a second Lenten work, St. Benedict speaks of “prayers accompanied by tears.” For the Fathers of the Church, prayer and reading go together. St. Cyprian had written: “Be diligent in prayer and reading; in one you speak to God, in the other God speaks to you” (Cyprian, Letters, 1:15). St. Cyprian expresses very clearly the idea that silence and prayer are a dialogue. They are part of the dialogue with God that shapes our lives.
Unfortunately our prayer is often reduced to a monologue that mechanically repeats formulas. To combat the formalism that invests our prayer and thus to render it more real, Don Giussani often repeated a simple and effective word of advice. He invited us to take care to be attentive to what we say. If we pay attention to the words that the liturgy places on our lips, even if we lose the thread, in the moment that we recover, our monologue becomes a prayer as dialogue.
Giussani knew that this dialogue with God is not a simply sentimental matter and that in praying for simple obedience, we can open our hearts to God. His attitude towards the obligation of reciting the hours in the breviary reflects this. He says, “I have never blessed holy mother Church like these times when […] I get home every day to recite the breviary. Maybe it’s midnight when I arrive and I still have to say it and I’m really tired, but I understand what it is to be blessed because maybe in half an hour, in those few minutes, my awareness is enhanced, the thread is resumed, and authenticity is restored” (A. Savorana, Vita di Giussani, 2013, 271).
Joy and sacrifice
When Benedict introduces his monks to the idea of Lenten sacrifices, he recommends that they first and foremost make these sacrifices with joy. He writes, “May each one of his own accord offer to God with the joy of the Holy Spirit something beyond his prescribed measure. Specifically, may each one to some degree abstain from food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and await holy Easter with the gladness of spiritual desire.”
This insistence that joy and freedom precede the invitation to make sacrifices is quite surprising. The only true root of every sacrifice is gratitude, or the recognition of having received a great gift. He who is grateful does not measure what he does and is not limited to what is prescribed, but rather desires to do greater things. For St. Benedict, Lent implies sacrifice but is moreover the time we are called to recover our joy and gratitude for the presence of Christ, which is the reason of our action. It is therefore a time that favors memory.
Giussani strongly emphasizes the link between love and sacrifice: “‘Ideal tension’ means commitment to sacrifice. There is no ideal tension that does not imply a sacrifice. Both our decisiveness and clarity in the sacrifice we make are essential to live that relationship in an ideal way, with ideal tension. Our charism emphasizes the ‘resurrectional’ aspect of Christian life. That is, the Christian life ushers in a truer, more glad, more joyful, and more full life. But we must underscore the sacrifice, because without sacrifice there is no resurrection” (L. Giussani, Dal temperament un metodo, 224).
In his Rule, St. Benedict proposes fasting as an expression of joy. It is a gesture that educates poverty, which helps, as Giussani would say, to “become certain of a few great things.” He writes: “We could translate the invitation to sacrifice, the invitation to mortification and fasting, as faithfulness to the ‘most important’ in something. In the thing we have to temper, in the thing for which we have to mortify and sacrifice, the norm is faithfulness to what is meaningful, to the meaning of the thing … What is most meaningful in eating and drinking is that they are tools for our journey, not that one can stuff oneself with food or taste the sweetness in one’s palate as it vibrantly reacts to contact with the wine molecules. Therefore, I call all of us to this mortification as the concrete expression of the search for what is most important, even in eating and drinking “(L. Giussani, La familiarità con Cristo, 62-63).
We must acknowledge the dangers involved in the practice of fasting. If you fast without having a clear meaning, you run the risk of formalism and pride. Jesus warned against these dangers, saying “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have their reward” (Mt 6:16). Aware of the risk of formalism, Jesus does not conclude that it is better not to fast, but rather that we must do so in the right way. He adds, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden” (Mt 6:17).
In addition to prayer and fasting, the Church traditionally recommends a third penitential act of almsgiving. Though in his Rule St. Benedict does not refer to it, in the Church Fathers we find wonderful counsels on almsgiving.
I will only cite a passage from one of St. Leo the Great’s homilies: “It is certain that each one of us does something good for his soul every time he mercifully runs to the needs of others. Our charity, therefore, beloved, must be ready and easy, if we believe that each of us gives to himself what he gives to the needy. He hides his treasure in heaven he who nourishes the poor with Christ. Recognize the kindness and the economy of divine mercy: he wanted you to be in abundance so that through you the other will not be in need. Through the service of your good work you free the poor from necessities and you free yourself from the multitude of your sins” (Leo the Great, Sermons, 6).
The unity between prayer, fasting, and almsgiving
With acts of asceticism and so-called Lenten resolutions, we always risk tending toward formalism. We risk performing certain gestures without understanding their meaning, looking only at a particular without contextualizing it in the grand scheme of thing. Giussani called this risk “moralism.”
I was always struck by one of the readings the Divine Office proposes during the Lenten season which responds to this risk. It is a passage from St. Peter Chrysologus who invites us to understand the close bond between prayer, fasting and almsgiving. They lose their strength if considered to be isolated acts. He writes:
“There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, and mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to one another. Fasting is the soul of prayer, while mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one or are lacking one, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, listen to the petitions of others. If you do not ignore others’ petitions, God lends his ear to your own.” (Peter Chrysologus, Sermons, 43).
Prayer renders our relationship with God more true, fasting purifies our relationship with the world, and almsgiving opens our hearts to our neighbor. A gesture that does not involve all three dimensions does not makes us grow.
Thus in advising us to pray, fast, and give alms, the Church invites us to a total conversion of our lives. It invites us to walk with all of ourselves towards an encounter with Christ who died and rose for us.
The path of obedience
At the end of the chapter, St. Benedict offers obedience as a very simple test to see if one is really willing to undertake a journey of conversion. He writes: “Let each one make known to the Abbot what he intends to offer up and let it be done with the Abbot’s approval and blessing. What is done without permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory, and not to merit. Therefore, let all be done with the Abbot’s approval.”
As we seek to establish the steps toward our conversion, we make discover that they instead correspond only to what we had already decided in advance, even though they may seem to be radical steps. Maybe we want to be converted more to the image of perfection we have in mind than to Christ.
The Fathers of the Church were very aware that many perform ascetic works simply to be commended. When it is lived in this way, asceticism has no value and is harmful. The following story attributed to the Desert Fathers shows that little sacrifices made in obedience are more precious than great sacrifices which are easy to do out of vainglory:
“In a village there was said to be a man who fasted to such a degree that he was called ‘the Faster.’ Abba Zeno had heard of him and sent for the man, who came gladly. They prayed and sat down. The old man began to work in silence. Since the Faster could not succeed in talking to Abba Zeno, the Faster began to get bored. So he said to the old man, ‘Pray for me, Abba, for I want to go.’ The old man said to him, ‘Why?’ The Faster replied, ‘Because my heart is as if it were on fire and I do not know what is the matter with it. For truly, when I was in the village and I fasted until the evening, nothing like this happened to me.’ The old man said, ‘In the village you fed yourself through your ears. But go away and from now on eat at the ninth hour and whatever you do, do it secretly.’ As soon as he had begun to act on this advice, the Faster found it difficult to wait until the ninth hour. And those who knew him said, ‘The Faster is possessed by the devil.’ So he went to tell this to the old man who said to him, ‘This is the way God intended.’”
Only in obedience do small gestures such as those proposed by the Church for Lent find their true meaning. Small sacrifices do not change the world. However, have the power to transform us. In taking small steps, we can gradually renew the way we approach our whole life and really become new men. This is the promise we are given in this time we have before us.
In the picture: Pontile Campionese, Duomo di Modena, opera di Anselmo da Campione (1160-1175) – foto di Jacqueline Poggi.