In Chapter 49 of The Rule. our Holy Father Benedict advises us that “[t]he life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. 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 negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.”
As with most Catholics in the final stretch before Lent, the word that first jumped out at me from the text was “self-denial”, and somewhere inside me I sighed for the days when that stricture could be accommodated by a forty-day abstinence from chocolate. (Having achieved some manner of spiritual sophistication in this regard, this year I’ve placed salted peanuts on the altar of sacrifice.) As I have for several years now, I’ll be giving up time spent online and redirecting it toward reading: a slew of spiritual books staring at me from my bookshelf and, for my poetic (and spiritual) progress, a concentration on George Herbert, a poet from whom I have learned much and want to learn much more. And of course I’ll be doing the Lenten fast.
But when I read through the chapter again, the word that jumped out at me was “compunction”. Contemporary usage has limited it to “anxiety arising from awareness of guilt” or “scruple”, but I knew I had read something far more interesting and nuanced about it specifically related to The Rule, and when I did some googling and scoured my bookcase, I found it in—no surprise here—something by Michael Casey in Sacred Reading, his book on lectio divina…
“The term most often used in monastic tradition for the feeling that the Bible inspires in us is ‘compunction’. The word of God awakens in us our latent spiritual sense; we become aware of realities that, until this, had been forced below the threshold of our minds: God’s call, our need for God, our desire to live a different kind of life. Compunction operates on the level of our feelings, but it is more than mere sentiment. Our feelings alert us to changes taking place at a much deeper level of our being, at the level of the heart. It is by compunction that we discover what is happening in our own inner world.”
Although here compunction is being related to the experience of lectio, it’s interesting that in The Rule St. Benedict doesn’t connect it specifically to reading; rather, he makes it a more general dynamic of monastic practice. Indeed, he calls it “compunction of the heart”, arguably making it an attribute of the listening heart with which we’re advised to approach The Rule in its very first sentence. For my own part, while I certainly understand what Michael Casey is talking about re: lectio and especially appreciate his reconfiguration of compunction from the sting of guilt to the sting of Scripture when it rouses us from spiritual lethargy or indifference. But I’ve also felt that sting at the heart of prayer, in those fleeting moments when I fall between the words and drift in the holy silence that only can give them meaning. I’ve felt it as well at work when the details of whatever the task at hand might have been have dissolved into the pure will of God.
I suspect that compunction, like any grace, is something that can only be asked for, not “worked at”. So I will ask for it. I’ll ask that my heart might feel again the sweet sting of God’s call, of my need for God, my “desire to live a different kind of life”. It’s a desire I felt the first moment I set foot on monastic ground. I suspect we all did. Let’s pray together that we might always sustain ourselves in that moment, always cherish it, always live in its sanctity.
A blessed Lent to everyone.