I love the fact that just before we come to the end of the secular year we re-read chapter 72 of the Rule of St Benedict which describes the good zeal we, his followers, ought to have. I find it makes an excellent way of looking back over the past year and examining not just my own conscience (although that is principally what I try to do) but also scrutinising how we, as a community, have lived up to our calling. For the first time I’ve been tempted to add an assessment of how the State has acted because I don’t believe any of us with the right to vote can distance ourselves from what is done in our name, however much we may dislike or wish to repudiate what we regard as wrong, misguided or dishonourable. I say nothing of the Church because I long ago learned that questioning anything as a woman, especially a nun, often results in slap-downs or censures and I don’t want to over-react as I know I sometimes do.
Here is what St Benedict says about zeal, or you can listen to another translation in today’s podcast of the Rule:
1 Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, 2 so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. 3 This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: 4 They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Romans 12.10), 5 supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, 6 and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. 7 No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. 8 To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; 9 to God, loving fear; 10 to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. 11 Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, 12 and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.
Note that Benedict begins with bad zeal which separates from God and leads to hell. Most of us are familiar with that kind of zeal. We see it often enough in those who take a close interest in other people’s sins or use social media to express their rage or disgust. I fear we may see it in ourselves, too, if we dare to look at ourselves properly. We can pursue an argument in a way that is really pursuit of a person; we can use the gifts God has given us to belittle or discomfort another; we can even assume the high moral ground as a way of insulating ourselves from the consequences of our own actions. Are you beginning to feel uncomfortable? I hope you are, because I am.
So let’s move on quickly to the characteristics of good zeal. For most of us the sins of omission far outnumber the acts of deliberate cruelty or wickedness, and reading through Benedict’s list of the qualities we need to exercise, I am acutely conscious of missed opportunities. As an individual, as a community, as a country, I know we can do better than we have. Fervent love in the practice of virtue, respect, patience, doing what is better for another, being supportive, these are generous qualities, they are also civilized and humane qualities. Looking back on the past year I can see both where we have succeeded and where we have failed. I am no great fan of New Year resolutions, but I’ll be making a general intention of trying to do better, and I know the community will, too. It is, after all, the commitment we renew every day with our vow of conversatio morum. I take heart from the fact that this short chapter of the Rule ends with a prayer. We can do better; we can be better. It is, in the end, a joint enterprise that leads us to heaven. Thank God for that.