“When you give alms … when you pray …when you fast ….” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) These three things, almsgiving, prayer and fasting, were just part of the ordinary religious discipline expected of Jewish people in Jesus’ day. What is expected of us as monks is found in The Rule. In it, too, we find prayer and fasting recommended for us — almsgiving as a regular feature of the ordinary piety of individual monks is a little problematic, for monks have already given their all to the poor. (RB 58:24) “When you give alms …” and so forth, says nothing about frequency, occasion or method. So, Benedict says, “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.” (RB 49:1) For us, too, there is no one time that is better than another for what is expected of us: it is expected that we do all these things all of the time. “Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligence of other times,” says Benedict. (RB 49:2-3) So, the Benedictine approach to this season of Lent is as a time of renewal, when we recommit ourselves to the ordinary religious discipline of our own piety in our quest for God. (RB 58:7) During this time, when we feel inclined just to go on as we have become accustomed — letting this slip and that slide, perhaps as a way of prodding ourselves on to a better zeal (and we do need to cultivate it) (RB 72:3), each time we are tempted to again just roll over (RB P:2, 8) perhaps we might let Benedict’s question resound in our ears: “Friend, what have you come here for?” (RB 60:3; P:9-10)
Striving to renew ourselves for the whole of Lent will gives us time enough to reestablish wholesome rhythms (neither too slack nor too rigorous) that will help us to rebalance the daily living of our life, without which we will be unable to go the distance in our search for God. (C.f.: RB 64:18-19) To be made new again, we need to acknowledge our need to change. Then we need to commit to it. Then we need to establish new habits of behaviour and bed them down securely, for them to have any lasting consequence in our lives; else we will revert back to our old habitual ways. It all takes time — and in this season we are given the whole of Lent to try.
In whatever it is that we might decide is in need of special attention during this holy season, today’s Gospel gives a good and salutary caution for the practice of our piety. “When you give alms do not allow your left hand to know what it is your right hand does, so that your almsgiving is in secret. And your Father, who watches what is secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:3-4) Such secrecy is enjoined in Jesus’ comment on each of these aspects of Jewish piety. (Matthew 6:6, 18) Though here — in saying, “Do not allow your left hand know what your right hand is doing” — what Jesus is saying is that the secrecy he desires us to observe means keeping it even from ourselves! Jesus here is cautioning us ‘not to become elated over our good deeds’ (RB P:29), no to let ourselves get a swelled head. For, as we know from John Cassian, pride can bring to nothing any good that we might do. The Message Bible transliterates these verses like this: “When you do something for someone else, don't call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘play-actors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.” (Matthew 6:2-4) Here I am reminded of Benedict’s words: “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so.” (RB 4:62) What Jesus is asking of us, in whatever it is that we do, is that we just quietly get on with it, without worrying about what others might think, but leaving it just as something between you and God. Or, as The Message Bible has it: “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theatre, but the God who made you won't be applauding.” (Matthew 6:1)
By Dom Steele Hartmann ocso