In an age when individualism is prized, it is odd how few people actually dare to be different. By that I don’t mean the boorish rejection of social norms that is all too common, but the willingness to adopt a completely different stance from others on many of the choices life demands of us. I mean, for example, taking one’s stand on the gospel and being prepared to follow through the logic of love and forgiveness in our relationships with others; believing that all life is sacred from the first moments of conception to (natural) death; holding chastity, whether of the single or married form, to be integral to our dignity as human beings. Then there are the more public manifestations of difference: for instance, concern for the poor and less able, a willingness to sacrifice personal advantage for the common good (e.g. in matters of taxation), a determination to secure just and equitable governance.
In a monastic context, daring to be different takes on a whole new dimension. The values that underpin the monastic enterprise are not ones that society in general admires. The idea of renunciation, especially the renunciation of much that is good (e.g. marriage and family), is definitely counter-cultural. Voluntarily submitting to the judgement of others (e.g. the superior) is another idea that, imperfectly understood, seems to crush individuality rather than lead to the full flowering of the person. In vain do we say that authority and obedience are two sides, so to say, of the same coin, twin aspects of that searching for God that lies at the heart of our vocation. It just doesn’t make sense. And that, of course, is the crux of the matter. Monastic life doesn’t make sense and never will so long as we look at it from the outside or concentrate only on the incidentals.
This morning the Rule of St Benedict has some hard-hitting things to say about evil desires and temptation (RB 7. 24–30). We don’t much like talking about evil today, save in the context of terrorist acts or child abuse. But what I think Benedict is drawing attention to is the fact that we are very easily swayed from virtue to vice. We conform more readily than we dare to be different. We make a thousand excuses for our falling away: our sin is so very little after all, just a nibble at the apple rather than a huge bite; but we are deceiving ourselves. Benedict will have no truck with such accommodations. With him, it is all or nothing. The Lord may spare us now, but the day of reckoning will come. As he says in RB 4.20, our way of acting should be quite different from that of the world, and the phrase he uses, facere alienum, is very definite, admitting of no compromise. Glad you are not a monk or nun, then? Well, when you read RB 4, as I hope you will, bear in mind that it is based on well-known forms of baptismal catechesis, intended in the first place for those who are not called to the monastic life. Daring to be different isn’t just for those who are peculiarly enthusiastic about their following of Christ, it is meant for all of us.