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!