Mindfulness of God

The section of the Rule that we read today, RB 7. 10 to 18, is a key text, not merely for Benedictines but for all Christians. To understand why Benedict links mindfulness of God with humility we must take a step back and consider the story of Adam and Eve. It was forgetting God that allowed pride to to take hold in their hearts, distort their vision and lead them into sin. It’s exactly the same with us. When we forget God, we are apt to sin because our vision becomes crooked and self looms too large. Consciousness of God makes us see ourselves as we are, and humility is, in essence, truthfulness. To be truthful about ourselves means there can be no room for pride.

For some, the idea that God is always watching them is disconcerting. I myself find it encouraging. To know that nothing escapes his notice, that the very hairs of one’s head have been numbered, that even when I sin his love continues to enfold me, is to know that God is indeed a loving and compassionate God. Maybe our problem is not so much mindfulness as fear. We forget God because we are afraid of so great a love. Put like that, isn’t it rather silly of us?

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7 thoughts on “Mindfulness of God”

  1. On the page and in the daily reading of the rule that is to be found on your main site, I find this very difficult. I am not comfortable with a humility based on fear and an awareness of hell.
    Here you substitute ‘mindfulness’ and ‘consciousness’ for fear.
    The passage becomes alive and aspirational. Is your translation of ‘fear’ a modern interpretation or is it implicit in the original Latin?
    There wasn’t much about fear and humility in my fifth form Gallic Wars!

  2. When I were but a wee novice, the Benedictine key to humility we encountered again and again by lesson and by example (even, or esp., when the example given was the exception proving the Rule) was obedience to the spirit of the community and to the law of the Abbot – whose leadership molded and nurtured that very spirit. ‘Singularity’ was the great anathema – whether that be sneaking down the pub after lights-out, or else piling on the penances during Lent.

    To an outsider (and not to a few young insiders) that can seem a tad spooky, a bit ‘cultish’ even – do only that which you are instructed, no more and no less. Different Houses have different approaches to and understandings of that way of life in common: ours, being French, leaned towards the “It’s forbidden until it’s compulsory” model, whereas the English monasteries seemed to be closer to the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” variety: smoking was never mentioned, therefore never prohibited.

    We, for an example, were told to speak of ‘our cowl’ or ‘our spade’, because a ‘my’ implied personal ownership. (‘Our migraine’ though never caught on.) On the spiritual side that could be best expressed by the saying of a desert Father: “If you see a monk ascending to heaven all by himself, grab him by the heel and drag him back down to earth.”

    Although, in the end, all this was quite what I could never do, and the main reason why I finally fled, I still believe that this is the rock on which religious formation within a monastery must be founded: obedience to God as mediated by the Abbot standing for Christ and the brethren as His Church. (Tough stuff but not without its compensations – no monk worth his salt ever takes a blind bit of notice of what any interfering Bishop or PP might want to add to the mix.)

    Above all, I have never felt so totally accepted and loved as when in religious community. Not a cultish love, that only praised the adherent and the acolyte. But a total love for a madarse sinner by other madarse sinners. All in it together? By crikey we were, thanks to good St. Benedict and his godly Rule.

  3. In Latin the passage is
    Primus itaque humilitatis gradus est si, timorem Dei sibi ante oculos semper ponens, oblivionem omnino fugiat [11] et semper sit memor omnia quae praecepit Deus, ut qualiter et contemnentes Deum gehenna de peccatis incendat et vita aeterna quae timentibus Deum praeparata est animo suo semper evolvat. [12] Et custodiens se omni hora a peccatis et vitiis, id est cogitationum, linguae, manuum, pedum vel voluntatis propriae sed et desideria carnis, [13] aestimet se homo de caelis a Deo semper respici omni hora et facta sua omni loco ab aspectu divinitatis videri et ab angelis omni hora renuntiari.

    [14] Demonstrans nobis hoc propheta, cum in cogitationibus nostris ita Deum semper praesentem ostendit dicens: Scrutans corda et renes Deus; [15] et item: Dominus nouit cogitationes hominum; [16] et item dicit: Intellexisti cogitationes meas a longe; [17] et: Quia cogitatio hominis confitebitur tibi. [18] Nam ut sollicitus sit circa cogitationes suas perversas, dicat semper utilis frater in corde suo: Tunc ero immaculatus coram eo si observavero me ab iniquitate mea.

    In the Hebrew Bible, words used for ‘fear’ (of God) include ‘yir’ah’ and ‘pachad’ that have the notion of terror or dread, rather than respect or honour.

    But, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and understanding and is only the beginning of the story! The Love of God reflected through Jesus Christ has the power to cast out this fear and set us free. There is no fear in love, butt perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. We can’t comprehend the utterly Great News of Jesus Christ if we don’t first appreciate the fear of God? Without total awe, wonder, terror, dread, reverence, and respect for a perfectly holy, righteous, and just Creator, can we truly appreciate what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did for us on Calvary’s cross?

    • Thank you Muriel for sharing your scholarship and especially for linking Benedict’s words to the Biblical Hebrew.
      Again I find myself drawn to ‘awe’, ‘wonder’, ‘reverence’, ‘respect’ rather than fear or dread.
      Like Claire, I find comfort in a God who sees hairs on heads and sparrows falling, whilst knowing that these are all images of the unimaginable.
      When Benedict writes with Biblical quotation, are we to believe that this image is his image of God. To put this another way – is it particularly Benedictine to focus on the fear of God?
      I’m struggling to express myself here as much of this is new territory for me. On a lighter note, I enjoyed the image of our two sisters conversing in America in English, German and Biblical Hebrew.

  4. Thank you for all your comments. It seems that when I have the least time available, several very interesting points are made. I think I’ll devote a whole blog post to the concept of timor Dei, but my short answer for now will have to be that Benedict’s use of love and fear is finely nuanced. I don’t think anyone who could write of God and community life with such tenderness as he does had a bleak conception of God.

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