The hymn “Ex more docti mystico”, attributed to Gregory the Great (d. 604) is a classic reflection on the meaning and practice of Lent. The translation in our hymnal at St. Paul’s Monastery, “Again we keep this solemn fast,” describes Lent as “a gift ... which binds us … to faith and hope and charity”.
The third verse proposes a plan of action for the season: “More sparing, therefore, let us make the words we use, the food we take, our sleep, our laughter, ev’ry sense”… This should sound very familiar to those who follow Benedict’s Rule. In Chapter 49 on the observance of Lent, Benedict writes, “During these days … let them deny themselves some food, drink, sleep needless talking or jesting”… It is through Gregory’s writings that we have stories of the life of Benedict, so it seems quite natural Gregory’s hymn reflects Benedict’s sensibilities.
Intriguingly, in the last line of this third verse, both the translation and the Latin original of the hymn diverge from Benedict. Gregory’s verse ends with “et artius perstemus in custodia,” that is, “and let us remain more closely guarded.” Expanding on this, the translation invites us to “learn peace through holy penitence”. But Benedict’s text concludes with a different reason for this self-denial: so that we may “look forward to holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing”.
Think about past years: Have your Lenten practices done more to inspire “the joy of spiritual longing”, or to inspire longing merely for this season to be over so you can “get back to normal life”? If joyful longing doesn’t characterize your experience of Lent, it might help to take Benedict’s advice at the end of the chapter: “Let each one, however, make known to the superior what is being offered and let it be done with blessing and approval”. A trusted guide can help us choose Lenten disciplines wisely, and discern how they bear the fruit of joy.