Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lenten Prayer

As we prepare to begin our Lenten journeys tomorrow on Ash Wednesday:

Father, we are led by your Spirit during these 40 days of Lent to unite ourselves with your Son in the desert. Speak tenderly to us during this time of reflection and renewal.

Reveal and remove all obstacles that impede us from truly seeking and following you.

Roll away the heavy stone from the tomb of our sinfulness, and let the light of the Resurrected Christ radiate through our works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Raise us from the darkness, open our eyes to your light and our ears to your voice, so that our hearts overflow with the inexpressible delight of love as we drink in the dawn of Easter glory.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bona Opera

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!


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.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Belated Introduction

Come to Me,
all of you who are weary
and find life burdensome;
I will refresh you.
Take My yoke on your shoulders
and learn from Me,
for I am gentle and humble of Heart.
You shall find rest
because My yoke is easy
and My burden light.

-- Matthew 11:28-30

When I began this blog a couple months back, I had intended to properly introduce it as well as myself. But, Advent and then Christmas were soon upon us, so it seemed best to wait.

Better late than never, as the saying goes.

First, as to the blog’s title — The Yoke of Christ — and why I chose it. Those who are familiar with me know that nearly six years ago I experienced an intense spiritual reawakening or conversion. I reached a point in my life where I knew I must give myself to God, without knowing why or what for. So I did. Now, I’m a Benedictine monk, and as St. Anthony of the Desert famously said, “Each day I begin again.”

Anyway, when I sincerely called out for God’s help for the very first time at the age of 37, my heart began whispering to me in ways I had never heard before. “Come to Me” is what I kept hearing within, over and over. Accompanying this strange beckoning was a sudden and intense desire to read Scripture, which I had never done before. The words sang to me, and when I first read the passage above, my heart began to burn with an indescribable love of God. So, step by step, at times striding and at others stumbling, I began to follow and heed those words: “Come to Me.”

Several more years of transformation and discernment followed before I entered the monastery. Then, in January 2008, as I prepared to make my first vows of obedience, stability, and fidelity to the monastic way of life at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, my retreat director pointed something out to me. His observation provided new depth, meaning, and purpose to those words echoing in my heart.

Take a look at the illustration above. Where do you see Christ? My problem was — and still is sometimes — that I was viewing Christ as the driver of the oxen under the yoke. That’s a terribly distorted view of obedience. True obedience to God is freedom.

My retreat director asked me to reconsider how a yoke is used in the agricultural tradition. Vaguely, my idea was a burdensome harness thrown over the shoulders of one poor beast. Wrong. Rather, as The American Heritage Dictionary defines it, a yoke is a crossbar with TWO U-shaped pieces that encircle the necks of a PAIR of oxen, mules, or other draft animals working in a TEAM (emphasis added).

This altered my image of obedience as I prepared to make my vows. Now, I picture God the Father gently guiding his team, plowing and sowing the Spirit’s seed-ground of the Church so all in the world may reap the harvest of Life. And working with me (us) under the yoke (or cross) is Christ Himself. He works with us all, encourages us, and promises us joy beyond all knowing for those who “Take My yoke on your shoulders and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. You shall find rest because My yoke is easy and My burden light.”

I invite you to reflect on that image further and meditate on the Gospel passage above as you consider your own call as fellow laborers for the harvest.

That, as the story goes, is why I have titled this blog as I have.

Finally, as to the blog’s purpose. There are no grand designs, and I will post as my monastic prayer, work, and schedule allow. However, I do not intend to simply record my comings and goings. How boring! Rather, I simply hope to share a little spiritual food for thought now and then — as the Master of the Harvest provides.

Time to plow …