1st Monday of Lent
Today’s Gospel requires a word of explanation. Jesus tells the righteous that he was hungry and they gave him food, he was thirsty and they gave him drink, in prison and they visited him. We monks must therefore be at a disadvantage, since we don’t own anything individually that we can give away, and there’s not much chance of us leaving the cloister to go around visiting prisons.
There was a 13th-century mystic of our Order who faced the same problem when she heard this Gospel read on Monday of the first week of Lent. In her book, The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness, St Gertrude told the Lord in all simplicity that she could not live this Gospel text literally, because the discipline of St Benedict’s Rule would not allow her to do so. And yet it was Jesus who wanted her to live under the discipline of this Rule which requires that no one have any personal possessions. So how can Cistercians give anything away? How can we live this Gospel text, even though we are in a monastery?
She prayed: “Teach me by what means we might be able to obtain that most sweet word of your blessing, promised in this section of the Gospel as the reward for the works of mercy.”
And she quotes Jesus as replying: “Just as I am the salvation and the life of souls, so also, in every human being, I am always hungering and thirsting for their salvation. If an individual every day applies himself to the reading of a few words of Holy Scripture in order to edify himself, he will without any doubt allay my hunger with an extremely sweet refreshment.” The Lord went on to say that the same holds true for each of the works of mercy commended by the Gospel, in such a way that these can be practiced in their entirety within the setting of the discipline of the Rule.
In effect, even contemplative monks have the means of ministering to Jesus. When we think about it, practically everything we do as Christians can mean, at a very deep level, an encounter with the Lord Jesus, a communing with him, a ministering to him. It’s true that Jesus invites us to his Eucharistic Banquet. He’s the One who provides the feast; he gives us the sacred food of his own Eucharistic Body and Blood.
But have we ever thought that we, too, like St Gertrude, can reverse roles? That we ourselves can provide a festal meal for the Lord Jesus, who hungers and thirsts for us even more than we hunger and thirst for him? He invites us, but we also can invite him to sit with us at our own table. It might not be much of a meal, but it’s the best we can provide; and his presence will turn it into a banquet.