[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
“The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent,” writes Saint Benedict, the Patriarch of Western monasticism and Patron of Europe. What characterizes the life of a monk? The vows that a Benedictine monk or nun makes today go all the way back to Benedict’s Rule, composed around the year 540 A.D. Rather than the later ‘traditional’ vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Benedictines vow obedience, stability and “conversatio morum.” The latter phrase is notoriously difficult to render into English. The contemporary Benedictine who makes this vow is saying, “I promise to live like a monk!” “Conversatio” is an entire ‘way of life’, and Saint Paul says that for all Christians, our true conversatio is in heaven [Philippians 3: 20].
Paul further contrasts this way of life to the way of life of an unspecified “many” who “live as enemies of the Cross [3: 18].” Thus to be friends of the Cross is to be act as a citizen of heaven. This helps to explain why a monk’s life should be not only a continual Lent, a personal, loving embrace of the Cross, but also a heavenly way of life. Saint Benedict’s chapter on Lent is further distinguished by twice using the word “joy” to describe the monk’s or nun’s disposition during the holy days of Lent.
It is noteworthy, too, that the opening prayer (or “Collect”) for the First Sunday of Lent makes use of this Latin term conversatio. By “worthy conduct” we hope to pursue the riches that are hidden in Christ. Why are they hidden? These riches are available only to faith. The sacrament of our faith, baptism, which is the culmination of the Easter Vigil (itself the culmination of our Lenten aspirations), is our full embrace of the Cross, our plunging into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the Cross, the world is crucified to us and we to the world. But this very death unveils for us the hidden meaning of all creation, of all history, of each human person. Lent is the time to push further down this path, to scrub away the worldliness that has overtaken us in the past year and so to live the new conversatio of a heavenly life.
A final observation, following upon a two-fold question: What causes us to slide subtly back into a worldly way of life? And what exactly is this unheavenly way of life? We tend to understand this as a question of ‘morality’ and furthermore as a question of obeying a set of rules imposed by God, Who of course has every right to set the laws of His own kingdom. Without setting aside the necessity of obedience to God’s commandments, we can ask ourselves whether this is the proper overall understanding of the ‘Two Ways’.
Once again, the monastic tradition, being rooted in the Apostolic age itself, tends to have a slightly different perspective on this question. Christ not only reveals to us His kingdom, but also helps us to delineate with greater clarity the “prince of this world,” and the nature of his rebellion [see John 12: 31]. “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against…the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts…[Ephesians 6: 12].” Lest we be carried away into speculation about the nature of demons, principalities and powers, let us note the plausible realism inherent in the traditional gospel of the First Sunday in Lent.
Jesus undergoes baptism in the Jordan. This is a mystical prefiguration of the entire Paschal Mystery, and the first thing He does afterward is to go out to the desert for combat with the Devil himself. This is another prefiguring: this time of the harrowing of hell. The gates of hell have no chance against the Son of God, nor does Satan in the contest of wits in the desert. The devil uses thoughts to appeal to the human nature of Jesus. Forty days of fasting does make one hungry…why not relax? Bread is only a wave of the wand away! But this would risk making a god of one’s belly [Phil. 3: 19]. And similarly with temptations to vainglory and pride. Why not work wonders and take the world by a brilliant display of power? Jesus refuses to let these thoughts work away at him, neither to be swayed by fear about his human body, nor to be swayed by the use of power to bully His way to the kingdom.
So our battle, too, is at the level of thoughts. As Sr. Margaret Mary Funk, OSB, has put it, “Thoughts Matter.” Fasting, prayer and almsgiving will likely give rise to disordered thoughts and fears regarding our bodily mortality, our root helplessness against the ravages of time and blunderings of fortune. The only stronghold we have is faith, trust in the love of God, our true Father. This faith allows us to imitate Jesus in identifying every deceitful thought that enters our hearts, thereby purifying them. And the pure of heart shall see God. Indeed, to return finally to the Collect again, we hope by our spiritual warfare against wrongful thoughts, to “grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ.” Let us pray for one another that we may be ready to greet the Lord at Easter with the eyes and affections of our hearts truly made pure!