Sunday, April 01, 2007

St. Benedict on Lent, Part 12

"Whatever he intends to offer, however, let him suggest to his abbot, and let it be done with his prayers and permission." RB 49: 8

Obedience is the primary asceticism for the monk. Yes, we look to fasting, prayer and almsgiving, as do all the baptized, but the perfect renunciation is not that of the body or of possessions, but of one's will (Jesus Christ was glorified by the Father because of his obedience unto death). This is why personal projects must never be undertaken in a monastery without the permission of the spiritual father. A young monk will not infrequently desire to undertake a serious ascetic labor, such as eating one meal a day or adding long periods of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. The abbot will likely not consent to such schemes; the daily life of a monk usually has enough asceticism built in for younger monks. If the monk is disappointed or thinks the abbot lukewarm, this demonstrates all the more the need for conversion. I will return to this theme in the next few days, as we make our way through Holy Week.

I will conclude this entry by noting that St. Benedict's famed 'discretion' (attributed to him by St. Gregory the Great) consists in finding the Royal Road of moderation in all things. Benedict was not the first to entreat this: the amazing ascetical feats of St. Antony the Great were a marvelous grace to be sure, but he himself regularly counsels moderation in his letters and in his sayings.

When we embark on a serious spiritual life, we cannot anticipate the difficulties that will arise. Most of us have repressed all kinds of dark motives and dark memories, and the practices of quiet, prayer and fasting tend to free these up. When they begin to manifest themselves, asceticism becomes much more difficult because we are so sorely tempted to return to whatever compensatory behavior we had cultivated. For example, we may be naturally fearful persons and be unaware of it because we have made a habit of binge eating to stuff away our fear. When we make that effort to fast and pray, the fears come to the surface and threaten to overwhelm us; at these times, the temptation to give up and just go back to stuffing ourselves is very strong. The more difficult the ascetic labor we have undertaken, the easier it will be to abandon it. An abandoned ascetic project can often do more harm than good, like the person from whom one demon goes out only to be beseiged by seven more harmful spirits.

The monastic tradition is aware of these pitfalls and proposes an asceticism that is humane in measure and in scope. In other words, it is a spirituality 'for the long haul'; not something that promises holiness overnight, but practically ensures conversion for those who stick it out. When we try to fix ourselves, we are prone to apply 'remedies' drawn from our own store of wisdom and experience, but this very wisdom and experience is what needs purification. We need assistance. So we turn over our projects to someone authorized by God and with more training in the spiritual combat. To this we will return on Tuesday.

1 comment:

Edith OSB said...

Just a note to let you know I tagged you for a Thinking Blogger award. I received one, and the tradition is to pass along the recognition. Monastic Musings: Thinking Blogger award
Peace,
Sister Edith

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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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