repairer of the breach

I was struck again by the reading from the prophet Isaiah that we heard at Mass today, Isaiah 58, a reading I go back to very often. We heard the longer version of it at Vigils on Ash Wednesday. God says through the prophet, perhaps a little sardonically, (if I may paraphrase…) you complain that I do not respond to your fasting? Well, the problem is you serve your own interests on your fast days! Your fasting is all about you! I don’t want you just to bow your head like a bulrush and lie in sackcloth and ashes. You do all that and yet your relationships are still bad. I want you to do justice; I want you to take care of the naked, the hungry, and the homeless––not to mention your own kith and kin! Then he uses three images: if you do this your light shall break forth like the dawn, you shall be like a spring of water, and, the one that really struck me, you shall be called a repairer of the breach.[i] If you do these things as your fast something’s going to come out of you––energy like light, creativity like a spring of water, and healing like a repairer of the breach.

Like so many Catholic kids growing up, I always thought of Lent only in terms of what I was “giving up for Lent.” It’s only as an adult that I learned that Lent, as we heard in the Gospel today,[ii] is actually about three practices: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving or mercy. “Prayer knocks, fasting obtains and mercy receives,” is the famous adage of Peter Chrysologus. In the Sermon on the Mount, the one that Jesus mentions first is actually righteous deeds, almsgiving, charity, doing something positive, serving your community, acts of charity and kindness, just as Isaiah is demanding. It’s not just about me! It’s about the whole Body.

So, as beautiful as the well-known Chapter on the observance of Lent is in St. Benedict’s Rule for Monks,[iii] at first I was a little disappointed with it, because Benedict only mentions private prayer and abstinence from food or drink (in addition to needless talking and idle jesting). Though there are many other places in the Rule where Benedict encourages charity, especially in his exhortations to mutual obedience and humility, he doesn’t specifically mention it in the context of Lent.

But what we have to remember is that the ancients took the penitential side of Lent even more seriously than we do; and they took penance in general much weightier than we do. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries there was an order of penitents, called conversi. Those were the ones who had committed some serious sin and were allowed a one-time second chance (called exomologesis) to reconcile with the church through a mini-catechumenate along with the actual catechumens. This came to be known as “canonical penance” for certain sins, and they were actually excluded from the Eucharist during that period until Holy Thursday. That’s the important thing to remember––they were excluded; you could even say, “excommunicated.” The early Church, especially in the West, considered the status of penitents to be similar to that of the catechumens, and they thought that the sacramental forgiveness of Lent was analogous to Baptism. Just as Baptism was the paenitentia prima–the main penitence, this canonical penance was a paenetentia secunda–a second penitence, and it was as unrepeatable as Baptism was.

Benedict is really part of that ancient early mindset, and monastic life too was understood as a recommitment to Baptism and the baptismal promises, the baptismal covenant. So when we hear St. Benedict say that the monk’s whole life should be a little Lent, you could think of it as meaning that our whole life is a continuous renewal of our Baptismal vows, a continual recommitment to the Gospel of Jesus, a continual exomolgesis. And so our whole life is in some way about trying to rejoin the Body of Christ from which we have excluded ourselves by our sinful acts.

Remember too that in the Rule there are times when monks are excommunicated from the table or from the oratory for certain offences. For really serious faults no one is to speak to them; they are supposed to eat and work alone. There’s an essay in the RB80 on “The Disciplinary Measures in the Rule of Saint Benedict,” and it points out that “The life of penance is consequently not a matter of morbid sorrowing over one’s sins”; it’s “an aversion from self-centered isolation and [a] conversion to Christ who is found in the community of the covenant.”[iv] (Hence again the calls to put others needs ahead of one’s own and for mutual obedience.) So Benedict calls Lent a time of joy and spiritual longing, because it’s a preparation for Easter––not only the day when catechumens receive Baptism and full reception into the community of believers, but also the day when the conversi are brought back into full communion, the day when the breach is repaired.

We need to keep in mind that our own penance, our own ascetical practices are never just about our individual perfection. They are about overcoming self-centered isolation and conversion to Christ by rejoining the community of believers. I would say even farther: our ascetical practices are for healing of relationships in general, re-establishing right relationship all over, with others and with nature as well as with our own selves and God.

Let’s look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing––praying that at Easter when we renew our own baptismal promises, our light would break forth like the dawn, and that we would be like springs of water; longing that all breaches would be repaired and that we could be the repairers.

Side note: our friend and Baptist minister Mel Williams was here this past week and told about a Christian movement being started right now called “Repairers of the Breach,” addressing many of the social issues we are facing as a country right now. You can find it online.


17 feb 18


[i] Is 58:1-14.

[ii] Mt 6:1-6, 16-18.

[iii] RB 49.

[iv] RB80, p. 428.

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