Here in the monastery, we are preparing our Bona Opera (good works) forms as we do each year before Lent begins. Each monk fills out the form detailing the good works he intends to perform during the 40 days of Lent, and submits it to the Abbot on Ash Wednesday.
The Abbot will consider each monk’s proposed good works before returning it with his blessing or suggested revision. The Abbot also includes a short inscription from the Rule of Saint Benedict that is applicable. All of this is based on Chapter 49 of the Rule (included below).
While we as monks make a special effort to do these things as part of our monastic way of life, all Christians can — and should — do something similar within their own vocation. Conversion is the goal for us all. As you read on, insert the word “Christian” for each occurrence of the word “monk,” and you’ll see that you can make a Bona Opera commitment of your own. Think and pray about it, and review it with your confessor or spiritual director (in place of the Abbot).
Typically, for Lent each monk chooses specific practices relating to the three primary forms of penance mentioned in Scripture (Matthew 6:1-18; Tobit 12:8) and encouraged by the Church — fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (or acts of charity). These are to be works aimed at our conversion in relationship to oneself, to God, and to neighbor, and they should be something above and beyond what we ordinarily do each day as monks.
For example, a monk may choose to make a special point of “fasting” from gossip, to devote an additional 15 minutes a day to the prayerful reading of Scripture, and to give “alms” by spending some extra time with elderly and infirm confreres. In any event, the good works should be sacrifices, but with due moderation, and should promote habits that could extend beyond Easter.
Above all, the good works should be rooted solely in the love of Christ in a way that extends that love to others. In other words, deciding to give up chocolate to lose 10 pounds is not a good example of a Lenten good work. Neither is cutting out all caffeine, and then becoming irritable with everyone. Both miss the point entirely.
Instead of focusing on “giving something up” for Lent, a good idea is to approach fasting, prayer and almsgiving from a positive standpoint. For prayer, perhaps one could spend 10 minutes each day simply resting in God’s presence and offering thanksgiving. Fasting could consist of turning off the car stereo or cell phone on the way to work and riding in silence (a good time to offer that thanksgiving!). Almsgiving might include taking the time to get to know someone you don’t think you’ll like very well.
By all means, give something up, but make sure it also adds up spiritually. Remember that Christ is Risen, and that light should shine through you in your good works, so that in all things, God may be glorified!
RULE OF SAINT BENEDICT
CHAPTER 49: ON THE OBSERVANCE OF LENT
Although the life of a monk
ought to have about it at all times
the character of a Lenten observance,
yet since few have the virtue for that,
we therefore urge that during the actual days of Lent
the brethren keep their lives most pure
and at the same time wash away during these holy days
all the negligences of other times.
And this will be worthily done
if we restrain ourselves from all vices
and give ourselves up to prayer with tears,
to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.
During these days, therefore,
let us increase somewhat the usual burden of our service,
as by private prayers and by abstinence in food and drink.
Thus everyone of his own will may offer God
"with joy of the Holy Spirit" (1 Thess. 1:6)
something above the measure required of him.
From his body, that is
he may withhold some food, drink, sleep, talking and jesting;
and with the joy of spiritual desire
he may look forward to holy Easter.
Let each one, however, suggest to his Abbot
what it is that he wants to offer,
and let it be done with his blessing and approval.
For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father
will be imputed to presumption and vainglory
and will merit no reward.
Therefore let everything be done with the Abbot's approval.