Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Monastic Practices: Bona Opera

In his Rule Benedict makes specific provisions for how the monks are to observe Lent. He starts out by saying that: “the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.” He goes on to recommend that everyone undertake some ascetical practice to get ready for Easter. But he also says that the monk’s intentions have to be disclosed to the abbot who offers his prayer and approval of the Lenten practices.

Fifteen hundred years after Benedict wrote his Rule we are still practicing this. Every year during Lent we go through a process we call “bona opera,” which is Latin for “good works.” Every sister writes down what she intends to do for Lent and submits this to the Prioress who reads and blesses the intentions.

Part of this process involves having a meeting with the Prioress during Lent. It is a chance to talk about your spiritual journey, your ministry, the fact that this year, absolutely, without a doubt, you will give up chocolate. (This last one requires a courageous display of self-restraint on the part of the Prioress not to dissolve into giggles.) But seriously, talking to the Prioress is a chance to evaluate your life, whether your monastic life is truly “a continuous Lent.”

I suspect that the Prioress is considerably less interested in the specifics of our intentions regarding fasting, almsgiving and prayer than she is in knowing how we have internalized those practices. Giving up chocolate may be admirable, even if impossible, but the real question is whether we are fasting from the sort of murmuring and back-biting that destroys any community. Are we giving up a little bit of our budget money for a charity but failing to give of our time and energy to someone in our life who needs our support? Additional prayer has very little meaning if it does not translate into a transformed life.

Fortunately the Prioress already knows us very well. She knows where we struggle and where our gifts are. The point of the yearly bona opera isn’t about guilt and the memory of past good intentions. Bona opera is the gift of sharing our struggles together on this journey to eternal life with someone who understands that we are trying the best we can and who will bless us on the way.