Friday, March 16, 2007

St. Benedict on Lent, Part 7

"We give ourselves to...compunction of heart and self-denial"

"Self-denial" here is more literally "the work of abstention." We will get to the particulars of abstention in the following verses. Here, let us focus briefly on the whole idea of abstention and self-denial in the first place.

"Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things, and this to win a crown that withers," writes my hero St. Paul.

The last couple of days, I have received emails from high school students doing a project on monasticism in which they have been assigned to ask questions of real, live monks. One frequent question runs something like this, "Do you wish that you could have a family?" Well, I have written, yes, I wish I could have a family some days. But I also wish that I had been able to play professional baseball and lead a rock band that was bigger than U2. I wish that I had a more patience, too, and that I had time to read more Shakespeare, whose work I adore but is hard to justify spending lots of cloister time with.

The notion that we should be able to do all the things that appeal to us is part and parcel of the mistaken notion of freedom as autonomy favored by the post-Enlightenment West. The classical idea of freedom was the freedom to do the good engendered by the virtues. Virtues are not a denial in the end, but a confirmation of the goodness of the human person rightly ordered to the mean.

In order to help a plant grow in its proper measure, we regularly need to prune it, sometimes even down to the stem. Is this a denial of the plant? No: it is loving care for the plant. Similarly, in order for us to find the proper measure of food, of talk and information, and sleep, it is often healthy to reduce these goods to their bare minimum or even if possible do without. There is a freedom that comes of being able to set Shakespeare down when the duties of worship or charity beckon. The fact that we bristle at being pruned demonstrates our need for "compunction of heart."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said!


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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