As we have now moved into the lead in season to Lent, of Septuagesima, it is time to start thinking about Lenten penances!
Advice from St Benedict
During Lent, St Benedict, in his Rule. suggests that we adopt not just one form of penance, but rather an integrated regime.
Everyone, of course, monk and layman alike, was traditionally bound to the strict Lenten fast.
To that, St Benedict added to that extra time in the day for lectio divina, with the instruction to read one book (selected by the abbot) straight through.
He also instructs that we:
"...refrain from sin and apply ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, compunction of heart, and to abstinence. In these days, therefore, let us add something beyond the wonted measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence in food and drink..."
The psalms as a Lenten penance
By way of private prayers to add, one possible option for this seems to me to say and study the psalms. There are some sets of psalms particularly appropriate for this purpose that you could consider.
1. Psalm 118: One option would be to say some or all of Psalm 118 (the longest psalm of the psalter), that great hymn of praise for the law, and one with an ancient history if a letter attributed to St Benedict's sister, St Scholastica, describing Lenten practices at her monastery is to be believed. You can find a set of notes, with one part for each day (mostly one post per stanza) of Lenten penitential obligation, here.
2. Holy Week Tenebrae: A second option might be to say and meditate on the psalms used for the special night Office of Tenebrae during the Sacred Triduum. You can a series of notes on these psalms from last year's Lent series listed with background and links here.
3. The Gradual Psalms: Another traditional option is to say the fifteen gradual psalms (Psalms 119-133). The Gradual Psalms, or Songs of Ascent, have a traditional association with Easter, as they were originally probably pilgrim songs sung as the people travelled to Jerusalem for major feasts such as the Passover, and also have an association with the solemn ascent of the fifteen steps of the Temple at the entry to the feast.
Although fifteen psalms might sound a lot, in fact they are mostly very short (and include two of the shortest psalms in the psalter). In fact the Gradual Psalms were typically all said before Matins each day in most monasteries from the ninth century onwards, and when this obligation was commuted, it remained obligatory for monks and clerics to say them at a minimum on Wednesdays in Lent for many centuries. In their devotional arrangement, which you can find here, the first five are offered the dead, the second five for the expiation of our sins, and the final five for our particular intentions.
I had actually been planning to do a Lenten series of notes on these, but looking at them find that they don't really lend themselves to a particularly Lenten flavour of meditations, so I'll save these for sometime after Easter.
The Seven Penitential Psalms
The most traditional psalm set of all for Lent though, is saying the Seven Penitential Psalms each day (or you could do one a day if that is too much!).
After some reflection that is what I'm planning to do again this year, so on this blog during Lent I'm going to revisit my previous series on these psalms (originally posted over at Australia Incognita blog), and provide some new material, particularly focusing on those psalms used in the day hours of the Benedictine Office that I haven't yet deal with here in any detail, viz Psalms 50 and 142.