The Tools of Good Works 63 to 78

With this final section of chapter 4 of the Rule, we come to some very searching admonitions. We might expect to be told to observe God’s commandments and be chaste; but to put God’s commandments into practice every day and to love chastity is to go further.(63, 64) It is to open one’s heart to every single demand God makes. There follows a series of practical expressions of that openness. We’re not to hate anyone, nor be jealous; we’re not to act from envy, nor love quarrelling; we’re to shun self-exaltation, revere the old and love the young.(65 to 71) Hatred, jealousy and envy close the heart; concentration on self does the same; and it is dangerously easy to close one’s heart against the ‘other’, the old or the young, as the case may be. But even here, where Benedict is dealing with human nature at its rawest, there is invocation of the love of Christ. It is in his love that we are to pray for for our enemies and make peace.(72, 73) Finally, if all that has gone before should seem too hard, we are never to despair of God’s mercy.(74) Benedict is gently reminding us that we live by the mercy of God who will never fail us, no matter how often we fail him.

Benedict’s concluding remarks are probably of more interest to monks and nuns than anyone else. He refers to what he calls the spiritual craft,(75) for which he has just given us the tools. This is no high-fallutin’ spirituality, all mist and schism, so to say: this is hard labour in the vineyard of the Lord. We are to use these tools ‘unceasingly, day and night’ and render account for them on the day of judgement.(76) If they have been used well, we shall be rewarded. The monastery is likened to a workshop in which we must work carefully.(78) We might take the analogy a little further. Out of the material of our ordinary, humdrum lives it is possible to create something both useful and beautiful, but only if we are willing to serve our apprenticeship, learn our craft and practise it faithfully. For a Benedictine the dimensions of this workshop are precisely stated: they are ‘the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.’ (78) Let’s unpack that a little.

The enclosure of the monastery may be a constraint to some or freedom to others. Those who live a cloistered or enclosed life (both are technical terms) know how it concentrates mind and heart. To do the same things days after day, in the same setting and with the same people (most of whom, if one is honest, one would not choose to live with), does tend to dispel illusions about oneself. It makes one realise that one is as much put up with as putting; that learning to live charitably within a small group is much harder than generalised goodwill to all people; that to be a Christian is not a question of doing this or that, for the time will come when we are too old or frail to do anything in particular, but to allow the Holy Spirit free rein in our lives. To let go and let God be all in all is, indeed, the work of a lifetime. It is, incidentally, the only craft worth spending our whole lives mastering.


6 thoughts on “The Tools of Good Works 63 to 78”

  1. I have a second hand book version of the Rule. The previous reader/owner has underlined many passages in the Prologue and in Chapter 4. At the end of this chapter he/she has written ‘Read regularly as a reminder’ and underscored it three times, and then there are no further underlinings or comments.
    I suspect that, like me, the previous owner has felt quite overwhelmed by all these guidelines. What a relief at the end (74) to be reminded of God’s mercy.
    Thank you for bringing the wisdom of your own lived experience to this chapter.

  2. To do the same thing, day after day, and to do it with love….that can be a hard discipline. But I often think that it’s exactly what God does – day after day, time after time, loving us and making all things new. Creating anew and relentlessly loving us…something to attempt to live up to!

  3. Speaking as an ex-Benedictine novice who just left a strict monastic enclosure I identify with all of your last paragraph. I am an extrovert and found the enclosure very hard. At the same time I am in no doubts as to the profound help it was both to my prayer and my deepening love for myself, my community and for God. Within the enclosure I could not escape myself, or distract myself with interesting people, or go online to explore the insights of others and share my own. I found this simultaneously a great help and a great frustration. Some weeks I would be so glad that I was able to give up my own will into God’s hands. Then I would struggle and see the enclosure as the tyranny of the introvert over the extrovert. Surely, I would reason, there must be some way for the extrovert to be herself and still be doing God’s will in the monastery? The only answer which came was: persevere in stability and you will find it. I’m afraid I didn’t believe it. It seemed too much like spiritualising oppression and calling it God’s Will. I find it hard to know whether I was in the wrong community for me or simply never had a vocation, but I confess to a certain amount of guilt that I did not persevere. I am turning my hand now to a more apostolic retreat house lay ministry where I can continue in contemplative prayer and more directly touch the lives of others. Considering that I entered the monastery full of self-loathing and in fear of a judging God, and come out knowing myself as a beloved child of my Creator and Father, I will never regret a moment of the past two years, but it will be some time yet before I’m sure that I haven’t just turned my back on the self-forgetting and self-giving that God was asking of me. I trust I’ll find helpful Obedience waiting for me out in the world, just as he was in the enclosure.

    Thankyou for your blogging. It’s reassuring to me that not every monastic sees this activity as an unhelpful distraction from religious life, but of potential benefit to both reader and writer.

    • Be assured of our prayers for you, Tess. Only those who have undergone a Benedictine novitiate know how searching it can be. I’m glad that you can see positive things you have learned. Don’t be too quick to dismiss the other, less positive things. It will take time and reflection to make sense of it all, but God doesn’t take us apart without remaking us in a way that is ultimately more helpful. Enclosure is important for any life of prayer although some of the rules associated with it do seem to have as much to do with control as anything else. The challenge is to see beyond the imperfect human beings applying and interpreting those rules — and that lasts long beyond the novitiate, I can assure you! I pray you find what you are seeking.

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