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“The life of a monastic,” Benedict writes, “ought to be a continuous Lent”—a life in which holy reading, self-control, and reflection on the great questions of life could be of the essence. Only understanding of the past taken seriously can help us change direction.

Which is why, for those with a Benedictine heart, a Lenten spirit is not an exercise in spiritual athleticism designed to show that my fasting is better than your fasting. In a Monastery of the Heart, the Benedictine soul learns always to return to the cave of the heart, where the superfluities of life do not distract from the significance of life. What we need, Benedict knows, is the spiritual courage to cultivate a reflective soul and a disciplined mind that goes regularly into “retreat.” We must go into that space where we look, first of all, at what we set out to be, and then look consciously at what we are now doing to get there.

Retreat time is the practice of making personal time for the kind of spiritual time that is beyond the routine of religious practices or spiritual duties.

Part of our spiritual journey, Benedict implies, must—if the soul is to make progress in the spiritual life—be spent remembering what we say are our intentions in life, in the light of what we can clearly see are becoming the patterns and actions of our lives.

In fact, even during Lent the Rule does not call the Benedictine to rigorous asceticism. What we’re called to do is pray more thoughtfully, to read more intensely, to feel more keenly the distance between who we say we are—and what we know ourselves to be.

Life in a Monastery of the Heart is meant to freshen the embers and stoke the fire of fidelity, to deepen our understanding of the great treasure we seek. It is designed to bring to new life in us again the sight of the road on which we have put our feet.

The monastic heart sets up a rhythm of life that moves seamlessly between contemplation and action, between work and Sabbath, between regular quiet and reflection times throughout the year.

The Rule’s call to make life “a continuous Lent”—to reflect always on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it—is, then, Benedict’s antidote to religious posturing. There is a temptation in religious life, the Gospels warn us, to play religious, to dress the part of the seeker, “to put on a gloomy face” in order to look wan and worn out from fasting. But what is more growthful, the Rule demonstrates, is to ask ourselves regularly about all the little ways we are tempted to cut the corners of the spiritual life: there is the notion that we don’t really need formal prayer anymore, for instance. Or we can give up studying the insights of the saints who went before us. We can give up on living the faith by failing to grapple with the Scriptures, by neglecting to go out of ourselves to meet the needs of others, by refusing to tell the world a Gospel truth, by identifying with the ambitions of the profiteers instead of taking up the challenges of the prophets.

Times of personal reflection remind us always to make the space to begin—again—and in the midst of the demands of work and family, of money-making worries, and the stressors of social systems, to fix the eye of the heart on the really important things.

—from The Monastery of the Heart: Benedictine Spirituality for Contemporary Seekers, (BlueBridge) by Joan Chittister NEW EDITION