Fourth Sunday of Lent 2017
The Psalm Response for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is the beloved 23rd Psalm. If you can recite anything from the Bible by heart, I would imagine it would be this Psalm. It is the subject of myriad paintings and songs, it is nearly mandatory at every funeral, we’ve heard it all our lives. The image of abiding in the tender loving care of the Father comforts and uplifts us, thus the universal popularity of this text.
For Lent, though, could we refocus our attention on the Psalm, rereading it with new eyes? If the Lord is our shepherd, let us meditate on our role as sheep. Sheep are not considered, by reputation, to be the brightest animals in the barn. (Recall the movie “Babe”.) Sheep follow the herd, for good or ill, and are loathe to be alone. They are not independent thinkers, they don’t have good judgement. Sheep need their shepherd to take them where they need to go and make the decisions for them.
Do we need the Lord as that kind of shepherd for us? Of course, we do, for even though we prefer to guide our own destinies the Father can do that infinitely better than we could ever hope to do. We love to think we are in control, deciding everything, and that we know best; but the Psalm suggests we might be clueless sheep who’d better follow the person with the staff and the border collie. He will lead us to the good pastures, the correct path, the living waters, and the delightful banquet. Left to our own judgement, we might end up following some dopey sheep who is running away from a particularly frightening blown leaf – and find ourselves lost among the wolves.
We Benedictines are blessed with another earthly shepherd who bravely takes up the shepherd’s staff for us here on earth, our prioress. RB 2 calls the prioress a shepherd who may have to deal with a “restless, unruly flock” and “disobedient sheep”. RB 27 reminds the prioress not to “lose any of the sheep entrusted to her” but to “imitate the loving example of the Good Shepherd”. Our monastic shepherd who will guide her sisters and oblates toward the path to God has taken on quite a responsibility. We are put in her care, we can thankfully abandon ourselves to her guiding hand.
So, there is it: we trust the Lord, we trust our prioress, and we’re good to go! It couldn’t be easier – it couldn’t be more difficult. Our wills are like iron, even when we know we should subordinate them to wiser shepherds. We can exhaust ourselves trying to maintain control and anticipate every contingency instead of trusting the shepherd.
As an oblate, the monastery environment gives us a chance to unclench, let down our guard, and sink into a different world of obedience. The example of the sisters who always defer to the prioress and one another seems foreign to us, and we oblates struggle to comply but when in Rome, do as the Romans do, when in the monastery, do as the monastics. It’s a different focus and way of thinking, not what I want but what the prioress and her representatives judge best. In a way, it’s completely freeing as we don’t have to decide or worry, the decisions have already been made. We trust the prioress and so can be free to concentrate on doing our own parts. I am not free just because nothing can be my “fault” if it should go wrong, but because God is steering the ship through the prioress at the helm, so how can we go astray?
When a sister makes a request of an Oblate, we practice our obedience by agreeing unlike in the outside world where we stop to consider the options and consequences. We are relieved of the burden of constant decision-making. It gives us a glimpse of the freedom of being a sheep who follows without thinking; when, for example, you’re asked to write a reflection for Lent, you simply do it to the best of your ability.
This Lenten Psalm offers us the opportunity to practice obedience to our monastery and to our Father, to embrace the role of the sheep. Perhaps all Lenten practices don’t have to necessarily hurt. Maybe letting go of the reins as we journey towards Easter might allow us relax and enjoy the ride.
Debby Fancher, OblSB, St. Benedict Monastery, Bristow, VA