Saint Benedict teaches us that our life ought always be Lenten (Rule, ch. 49). One way in which we are faithful to this injunction is by living the liturgical contemplation so beautifully exemplified in the Sacred Liturgy of these days. If the Lent of 2017 leaves us with but one lesson well-learnt, let it be this: that this central tenet of our vocation: to live and breathe the Church’s sacred rites; to allow them and the realities which they celebrate to capture us and permeate us and thereby to bear even greater fruit in our prayer and work.
The Sacred Liturgy gives us just so much to savour in these days! On every day of what Eastern tradition calls “the great fast,” we are presented with a true feast! Before Saint Joseph and Saint Benedict and indeed the Archangel Gabriel interrupt the fast next week with even further feasting (in a manner most welcome, of course), I would like to ponder one liturgical text a little: the matins hymn for Lent in the monastic office, Ex more docti mystico, which it is our joy to sing each morning according to the Ambrosian melody.
In this ancient hymn, variously attributed to St Ambrose and to St Gregory the Great, the Church wisely places upon our newly-opened lips each morning nine stanzas which are tutorial for our Lenten observance. Each teaches us much, but of them I would like highlight but two. Firstly, its third verse:
Utamur ergo parcius / Verbis, cibis et potibus, / Somno, iocis, et arctius /
Perstemus in custodia.
More sparing therefore let us make / the words we speak, the food we take / deny ourselves in mirth and sleep / our bounden watch more strictly keep. (Translation: Hymns Ancient and Modern: Historical Edition, London 1909)
We don’t have the textual sources to confirm this, but one could be forgiven for thinking that here the author has provided a metrical recapitulation of the provisions of the Holy Rule for Lent: “let him stint himself of food, drink, sleep, talk and jesting” (ch. 49). Might this even argue for St Gregory as the author? No matter: we are now more than half-way through the ‘Lent-part’ of Lent – Passiontide being a little over a week away. In the days remaining to us to sing Ex more docti mystico let it prompt us to a more fervent observance of our Lenten duty as outlined in the Rule.
The second verse I wish highlight is the penultimate one:
Laxa malum, quod fecimus: / Auge bonum, quod poscimus, / Placere quo tandem tibi / Possimus hic et perpetim.
Put all our evil deeds away / Enlarge the good for which we pray / that we, though late, our wanderings o’er / may please the Thee now and evermore. (Translation: ibid.)
Do we not hear echoes of the Prologue of the Holy Rule here, with its call to conversion of life, to stability in the school of the Lord’s service?
The Prologue teaches us: “If, for good reason, for the amendment of evil habit or the preservation of charity, there be some strictness of discipline, do not be at once dismayed and run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow.” This discipline of the monastery is the discipline of Lent. Let us not run away from it, for what we sing teaches us this discipline is not an end in itself but a means to an end.
The words “auge bonum quod poscimus” – increase the good for which we pray – take us beyond our Lenten discipline, indeed beyond all our monastic discipline, towards the Good to which they are ordered. The Prologue makes this more explicit: “As we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments; so that, never abandoning his rule but persevering in his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers also of his kingdom.”
Let our more faithful Lenten observance be a sign and a reminder of these great realities of our monastic vocation. As Ex more docti mystico prays in its final words (ut fructuosa sint tuis / Ieiuniorum munera), may Almighty God bless our fast in this Lent of 2017, and our ongoing perseverance in our vocation, with abundant fruit so that we may be pleasing to Almighty God, now and in eternity. +