The Tools of Good Works

Today we begin chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict, The Tools of Good Works. (You can listen to them on our main website, here.) I find it refreshing to be back to basics: Love God, love your neighbour, don’t kill, etc. There’s nothing rarified about monastic life. When we enter the monastery, we bring with us all our old faults and failings, our human nature, our psychological make-up, our shortcomings, our sinful tendencies. Often our way of life magnifies these things, intensifying the struggle and deepening the sense of failure we feel because there are no escapes. We can’t take ourselves off for a night out with friends or lose ourselves in a video or a bottle of wine for the evening. We must confront ourselves in all our shabbiness, all our frailty, every day of our lives; and if you find the idea of monks and nuns being tempted to murder one another rather shocking, I can only say that you can never have looked very deeply into your own heart. We are ALL capable of the most terrible sins.

So, what do we find this morning in RB? Essentially, we have a re-run of the Commmandments of the Old Testament, culminating in the Golden Rule, ‘Not to do to another what one would not want done to oneself.’ As we shall see, although Benedict frequently alludes to this sentence from Tobit 4.16, his intention is take things further. We are called upon to treat people not just well but supremely well, tamquam Christus, as though they were Christ. Indeed, the whole life of the monk or nun is meant to be a gradual transformation in Christ.

Novices sometimes think that this transformation will be brought about by giving oneself up to long hours of prayer in beautiful Gothic churches. When one points to the scullery or the computer as the place where one will learn about charity, there is hesitation, almost disbelief. Can washing up or working online really lead one closer to God? The answer is yes, provided one’s motivation is right and the activity in which one engages proceeds from and returns to prayer. This first section of the Tools of Good Works is an eloquent reminder that we do not have to do extraordinary things for God; we simply have to do ordinary things with love and fidelity. And believe me, that can be hard enough for a lifetime!

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6 thoughts on “The Tools of Good Works”

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I think from afar I do often see nuns as perfect being whose heart contains no darkness, and yet in reality I guess as humans none of us can be that perfect.

    • @ Samantha
      Having grown up with Nuns such a large part of my life and speaking regularly with some who have been said to be the “greatest theologians of their time”, I can recall things said, that would have required a few Hail Mary’s, and Our Fathers, therefore showing that after all said and done, they are flesh,blood and bones, just like us. It is the step further they take, that allows them a better clarity and understanding in my opinion, and that they never expect, or ask anything of anyone that they are not willing to do themselves, vocation allowing.

  2. I wonder if perhaps it’s the recognition of our human condition that opens us to God, that our need makes us look for help. When we are hungry and thirsty we seek food and drink…when we feel the misery of our own darkness we seek the Light. I love Julian of Norwich’s phrase – sin is behovely. Unfortunately, I need to be reminded of that rather a lot (and to remember that it’s not an excuse!).

  3. Thank you for this, and it’s a timely reminder for me.
    The thing is, it is an awful lot easier to feel more prayerful, and look more prayerful, kneeling for hours on end in a beautiful Gothic Church… Standing at the kitchen sink, hoovering the floor, doing those chores we rather wish somebody else would do… requires more presence of mind to make prayerful. To accept that only God will be aware of the prayerful nature of our actions. “It is for God we serve […] and not for thanks” (Ven Catherine McAuley)
    (That said, when mindfulness and action-as-prayer become second nature, it tends to be visible in a person.)
    One of the most prayerful moments of my day is often filling a hot water bottle, and placing it in the bed of one of the elderly Sisters I work for.

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