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Joy along the journey

Religious orders take on many penances during Lent, but they try to do it with a happy heart

Published: February 13, 2010   
St. Scholastica Monastery
Benedictine sisters at St. Scholastica Monastery pray noon praise in their chapel in February 2009. The sisters are more silent and pray more during Lent.

Most Catholics observe the 40 days of Lent with a special practice, like giving up a favorite food or activity, spending more time in prayer or doing good works. But for the men and women in religious life, even more is required.

In Benedictine communities such as Subiaco Abbey, members follow the instructions for the observance of Lent spelled out in Chapter 49 of the Rule of St. Benedict, said Father David Bellinghausen, OSB, the abbey's prior.

During Lent, St. Benedict wrote, in this translation by Father Boniface Verheyen, OSB, "Let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God 'with the joy of the Holy Ghost' (1 Thessalonians 1:6), of his own accord, something above his prescribed measure. ... Let each one, however, make known to his abbot what he offereth and let it be done with his approval and blessing."

What this means at Subiaco is that each monk submits to Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, a list of specific practices he would like to undertake with the abbot's approval. The list must include three items, Father Bellinghausen said:

  • The title of a book selected for extra spiritual reading;
  • Some food or drink to be given up; and
  • Some form of self-denial.

All of these things are to be done while looking forward to Easter joy, as stipulated by the Rule of St. Benedict, Father Bellinghausen said.

The Subiaco monks also observe Lent communally by having meat only once a day, he said, and none on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Rule of St. Benedict also is followed by Benedictine sisters. At St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, Sister Hilary Decker, OSB, said they will soon turn in their lists to their prioress, Sister Maria DeAngeli, OSB.

Sister Hilary, who is the director of the monastery's retreat center, said her personal list this year will include the book "Stretching for Glory," written by a Jesuit priest, because she is currently studying Ignatian spirituality. And while she tries to remain in prayer at all times, she will be more attentive to prayer during Lent, especially during the Liturgy of the Hours and at Mass.

For penance, she said she will be working on Benedict's virtue of "preferring the needs of others to your own."

As an example of this, she said, "If someone needs something at a moment when I'm in the middle of something that I'd like to do, if they interrupt me, I will stop what I'm doing and help them."

Penance is looked at in a more positive way now than it used to be, she said.

"It's an easy thing to give up a cookie, but it might be harder to say something nice to someone when you're feeling grumpy."

As a community, Sister Hilary said, the sisters have a custom of eating just soup and bread for dinner every Wednesday. They will eat their simple meal in silence while someone reads aloud from a spiritual book.

The sisters are generally more conscious of being silent during Lent, particularly at breakfast, and Good Friday is spent entirely in silence.

Lent has a mood of its own, she said, as a time the Church has set aside for members to observe in a special way the death and resurrection of Jesus.

"It's not a time to wear sackcloth and ashes, but it's a joyful time," she said.

The Benedictine sisters at Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro have similar customs.

Their prioress, Sister Mary Anne Nuce, OSB, said the nuns observe silence in the evening during supper while someone reads from a spiritual book. On Fridays, they forgo dessert and send the money to the Alliance of International Monasticism, a Benedictine missionary organization.

"We have Stations of the Cross on Friday night (which is not open to the public), and have silence all day Ash Wednesday. All the Fridays of Lent, we do not have our scheduled recreation."

Some of the sisters will fast on their own, Sister Mary Anne said. They will put that on the Lenten form they turn in.

As the superior, Sister Mary Anne will fill out her form and have the subprior sign it.

Last year, she said, one sister who was working very hard wanted to do an especially strict fast like water and bread. Sister Mary Anne didn't allow that, "because physically I didn't think she could do that and do her work too.

"I think the hardest penance for the women is to be silent and not talk. In our chapel and around our convent, we observe silence. That's one of St. Benedict's virtues.

"When it comes to our work, we have to talk, but we have a hallway around our chapel where we observe silence because there might be someone in there praying, and we might be heard and disturb them."

The Carmelite orders, like the Discalced Carmelite nuns of Little Rock, aren't bound by the Rule of St. Benedict, but still practice the ideals of self-denial, prayer and spiritual study during Lent.

At their convent, the Carmelite Monas tery of St. Teresa of Jesus, one sister, who asked that her name not be used, said the 12 nuns keep a monastic fast all during Lent. Typically that entails a simple breakfast, perhaps cereal and coffee, and a full meal at noon. Dinner might be an egg and soup, or fruit and soup.

"You just don't eat all you want," she said. "You're supposed to be responsible. You need your strength, so you eat what you need in order to be able to do your work."

She said they can choose to fast more strictly, or ask to do without something or ask for more prayer time, whether they have to get up earlier or stay up later or do it during their free time.

"We try and keep good silence except during recreation," the sister said. "Then there's more prayer time and reading time, we give serious attention to that. But as Carmelites, St. Teresa wanted us to be joyful and grateful, and not 'sour-faced saints.'"

That's the main thing, she said: to have a joyful approach to Lenten observance.

"It's really a great privilege, the whole Church is fasting and praying and doing good works, and that gives strength to all of us."

Father John Michael Payne, OCD, superior of the Discalced Carmelite friars at the Monastery of Marylake, said their Lenten observances include the Catholic tradition of fasting, praying and almsgiving for the 40 days preceding the feast of Jesus' Resurrection. This is in imitation of Jesus' 40 days and 40 nights of solitude in the desert following his baptism (Mark 1:12-13).

"The fast includes one full meal a day, the other meals adding up to less food than consumed in the one main meal of the day," he said. "In addition, we observe abstinence from all meat products on the Fridays of Lent and on Ash Wednesday.

"Fortunately, Catfish City usually includes a discount coupon in the (local newspaper) on Fridays. Of course, it isn't much of a penance if you love catfish (as we do)! It does become a penance when we get a craving for a hamburger or a steak on a Friday."

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