Yesterday we celebrated the life of St. Scholastica, the sister of St. Benedict. We know little of St. Scholastica other than that at a very early age, she consecrated her life to God and established a convent near where her brother lived. They met once a year, and I can imagine Benedict and Scholastica helping each other in prayer while sharing their own personal experiences and trials. We know St. Benedict as the father of western monasticism, but this is not because he was the first monk. Benedict abandoned his studies and dedicated himself to the monastic life around 500 A.D., well after the rise of monasticism which we find arising within the 3rd century and then formalized by St. Anthony around the year 305. Benedict, then, is celebrated because he developed a monastic way of living that became the predominant form of monasticism in Europe.
Benedictine monks follow Benedict’s Rule, a small book which Benedict wrote that outlines how the monks should live, pray, structure their day, and how a monastery should be run. One of the main features of Benedict’s Rule that made it so famous was moderation. While Benedict called monks to a life of asceticism, a disciplined spiritual life, the Rule balances the rigor of prayer and fasting with normal, manual work, and communal support that takes into account the natural ebb and flow of human life. The monks were not expected to maintain the highest intensity of spiritual exercises since this would set them up for failure. Benedict constructed the Rule so that their practices did not obscure or hinder their spiritual growth. This type of moderation drew many men and woman into the Benedictine way of life as these monasteries flourished throughout the Western world, and we too can learn from this spiritual wisdom, specifically in regards to our Lenten pilgrimage.
Let me give you an example for how Benedict encouraged his monks to walk through Lent. The wisdom we find here is too important to pass by as we are about to enter into Lent this Wednesday!
1 The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. 2 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 3 and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. 4 This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. 5 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, 6 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). 7 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. 8 Everyone should, however, make known to the abbot what he intends to do, since it ought to be done with his prayer and approval. 9 Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward. 10 Therefore, everything must be done with the abbot’s approval.
Notice how St. Benedict notices how few people have the stamina and strength to live in high intensity growth. Life flows through different tempos, much like how a good musical composition will not hammer the same continual beat but will alter the tempo as to keep interest and balance. Lent, therefore, is a time set aside for a focused time of asceticism, but notice how Benedict prefaces such practices. The purpose of the spiritual practices like fasting and prayer and charitable acts is to enjoy Easter with greater joy and devotion. Spiritual practices, then, ought to lead us to that joy as we offer to God small things like fasting or prayers. Benedict, though, ends with a warning about how these practices are accomplished for he knows the natural danger that when we take on ascetic disciplines, we immediately are faced with our own pride. So the monk is to ask permission of his abbott in order to set a reasonable way of life within lent and avoid vainglory.
Most important question Christians should ask in regard to any practice or devotion in our life is not “How should I do this” but “Why should I do this?” Let me repeat that! Often we spend so much time thinking of what practices to undertake or how we are going to accomplish them, that we forget the purpose and end! Perhaps we expend so much of our energy on the practices themselves that we never enjoy the end to which they should bring us! It is like plucking blossoms off a tree and then lamenting that no fruit appears at the end of the season!
Well if our guides through Lent are fasting, prayer, and charitable acts, let us remind ourselves of the ends, the purposes! Fasting brings order to our bodies and souls, prayer lifts ourselves to God, and charitable acts are the natural outcome of contemplating God. In all three of these, we are moved beyond ourselves and our focus should be on our love of God Himself, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
It is no surprise then that this Sunday is focused on charity, reminding us that our Lenten walk is nothing without this single purpose.
Our collect talks about charity in this way:
O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee.
Charity is of utmost importance–without it, all of our doings are nothing worth. But it is helpful to see that charity is a divine gift, given to us by the HS. This line is echoed in the baptismal liturgy where it mentions the theological virtues: Grant that whosoever is here dedicated to thee by our office and ministry may also be endued with heavenly virtues and everlastingly rewarded through thy mercy, O blessed Lord God.
Also, the Collect notes that all our doings depend on it because it is the bond of all virtues. Here it is good to pause and remember the Traditional understanding: charity is ordered towards God. Precisely, it is a gift of divine love that we return to God.
This is why St. Paul shows how the whole moral life depends on this virtue. If any of our actions are done without God being the end, then we are missing the point. Even miracles, or prophecies, or all knowledge will fail if not oriented towards their proper end. This is why charity is so important. Charity binds all our life (knowledge, desires, actions) towards the proper end: the love and worship of God. In the terms of Paul, that is perfection, a term we saw last week as well. In this context, perfection means brought to completion, brought to a proper end. Well, Holy Scripture is clear that the proper end of man is union with God. We see this Genesis when God first creates Adam and Even to walk with Him in the Garden as they tend and enjoy the garden around them. We see this in the Temple, the place where God resides on earth and so the place where man can be in contact with, unified with the Creator. And now we see this in Jesus Christ who joins his perfect divinity with the flesh of humanity in order to bring humanity back to God. It is through Jesus that we are now able to enjoy our proper end: the love and worship of God in union with Him. And in todays Gospel, we see this mission of Jesus started as he turns towards his own end, his Passion and crucifixion, which is the divine expression of charity. Christ’s redemption of the world is not easy – he does not wave a wand and just make things right. He truly unifies the suffering and sin of humanity with his divinity and heals it by taking on all suffering and sin. It is painful, tortuous, and overwhelming, but this is the love of God for us. And Jesus knew this as soon as he turned towards Jerusalem: For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on:
33 And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again.
Jesus knew what he must endure in order to truly heal and save humanity. He knew the depth of His Father’s love and took on such obedience and love so that we might be healed. May we now take this Lent to join ourselves to Him and through our practices learn to live that divine love in our lives little by little. May we learn from the blind man and cast ourselves upon the love of Jesus so that we may be healed by Him.
Once more Lent is coming, and Jesus is passing by on his walk to jerusalem–pay attention and be led by Him. Let me conclude with a quote by John Keble: ” Suppose, for instance, this very season, someone who has been all his life long blind and dead to heavenly things should find himself more than usually inclined to attend to them: this will be like Jesus of Nazareth passing by, Christ our Saviour passing by on His yearly progress from Christmas to Easter, from His birth to His cross and grave: if you feel inclined to call on Him, and ask His help as He goes along, beware how you part with such a good and holy thought: make much of it, let it not go, recall it again morning by morning: if nothing seem to come of the prayer, yet persevere, as the blind man kept on, “Son of David, have mercy upon me:” Bye and bye He will shew that He regards your prayers.”