Conference 11th February 2013
Our thoughts and prayers are with the Holy Father as he prepares for his retirement at the end of the month. May this brave and momentous decision by a holy and humble man bring many great blessings on the Church. On this Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes our thoughts and prayers are also with the sick, especially with members of our community and families who are infirm. May Our Lady strengthen and support them in their suffering.
Brethren, we are blessed as we approach to beginning of Lent because St Benedict gives us a very clear programme of action for the Holy Season in Chapter 49 of the Rule. In a way, that wonderful chapter makes a conference like this redundant. I could just say: read it and do it, and leave it at that. Conferences and homilies can be helpful at times, but on the whole the texts of Sacred Scripture and the writings of the Fathers and monastic founders have to speak for themselves and speak to our hearts, otherwise they will have no effect. I have often pondered on the fact that beautiful words leave me moved and yet untouched. What I pray for all the time is that the Word of God and, indeed, the teaching and example of St Benedict will begin to have a real effect on my life, turn my heart and lead me to a deeper and more lasting conversion. The extraordinary readings from the Mass and Office lectionaries in Lent should certainly form the basis of my Lectio, which if done with faith and love, should bring about a radical change in my life. This is why St Benedict only asks us to do well in Lent those things that perhaps we treat with a degree of negligence at other times.
Lent, of course, appears not only in Chapter 49 but also in Chapter 48, On the Daily Manual Work. There we are told that, during Lent, the brethren should be given some extra free time for reading and that everyone should be given a book from the library, which he is to read straight through in the course of the forty days. St Benedict attached much importance to reading, as much importance as to praying and working, so that the three activities together constituted most of the daily life of his monks. By reading, of course, he meant more than we do by the term Lectio Divina. His monks were not only to read, study and meditate on “the Inspired books of the Old and New Testaments”, but also learn large portions of them by heart. They were also to read, or have read to them, the writings of the “holy Catholic Fathers” as “tools for the cultivation of virtues”. We are fortunate in the monastery to have read to us each day and to have the time and the books available to read and meditate for ourselves the best of the Scriptures and the Fathers.
But reading and study is not enough, if we are left untouched by the power the Father invested in Jesus to heal all those who come to him in humility and repentance. There were many people who saw Jesus and heard him, but were not made whole and reconciled with God. All our reading and listening must lead us to a personal encounter with the Lord, such as the sick in today’s Gospel had with Jesus. “They begged him to let them touch the fringe of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.” (Mk 6: 56) We long for the healing touch of Jesus. Looking back on my life as a monk, I think that this is what has always keep me in the monastery, in spite of the many temptations that have come my way from time to time to simply pack my bags and leave. I also think it’s what brought me here in the first place, the knowledge that it would be here, and nowhere else, that I would meet Jesus and be healed by his gentle touch. Indeed, the hem of his garment would be enough. I was always deeply moved in Peru to see the faith of peasant folk around Tambogrande, who, perhaps unable to receive communion through no fault of their own or because of extreme humility, would touch their brows with the tabernacle veil and then kiss it in the hope of healing and forgiveness. They would also do that with our Benedictine habits. Would that I had that faith!
So in Lent, St Benedict “urges the whole community to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away the negligences of other times.” What a realist he is, recognising that we are negligent and at times half-hearted in our Christian and monastic lives! It’s a good idea, before Lent begins, to make a good examination of conscience and go to confession. That’s the main purpose of Shrove Tuesday rather than the eating of pancakes, though, obviously, we can eat pancakes as a penance! Prayer comes high on St Benedict’s agenda for Lent, personal prayer with tears and compunction of heart, as well as reading and self-denial. He does not ask us to do anything extreme or exaggerated, but just something extra, a token as it were. He gives us a useful list to chose from: we can “deny ourselves some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting”. But it’s not simply a question of giving things up for Lent. What would be the point of that if we did not “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing”? In fact, joy in the Resurrection of Jesus and spiritual longing for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit should mark our lives at all times. They alone make possible the work of healing the Lord Jesus must carry out in our souls as we progress on the royal road of humility towards that “perfect love of God that casts out fear”. (1 Jn 4:18)
Now St Benedict reminds us in Chapter 7, On Humility, that “through this love, all that a monk once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.” All this will be accomplished by Christ once “his workman is cleansed of vices and sin.” (RB 7: 68-70) Our Lenten exercises, then, should cleanse us of sin and vices and instil in us “the love of Christ, good habit and delight in virtue”. In order to accomplish this we put ourselves in God’s hands, as Jesus did when, led by the Spirit, he prepared himself to spend those forty days in the wilderness. We remember that, “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Mt 4:4; Deut 8:3)
I wish you all a very happy and holy Lent, a Lent that will lead each one of us to celebrate Easter with profound joy and peace in the love of Christ. Amen