Good Zeal at the Turn of the Year

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.

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The Spiritual Selfie isn’t Helfie

The feast of the Transfiguration goes back to the early fourth century, when St Gregory the Illuminator substituted it for a pagan celebration of Aphrodite under the title Vartavarh (Roseflame). He kept the old name for the Christian feast because ‘Christ opened his glory like a rose on Thabor.’ It is an arresting image. When we read the gospel of the Transfiguration on this Second Sunday of Lent (Mark 9. 2–10), roses are usually nowhere to be seen. There are just bare branches, with a few little reddish buds showing where the new growth will come. The analogy with Lent is embarrassingly obvious. Here we are, trying to open ourselves to the grace of conversion but apparently plunging deeper and deeper into a sense of failure and sin. The promise of future growth may be there, but one has to look hard to find it; and in any case, we’re always being told that we need to take our gaze off ourselves and focus on Jesus instead. The spiritual selfie isn’t helfie.

While I agree with that, I think we may need to nuance things a little. The old practice of a daily examination of conscience, going over the events of the day and asking ourselves not so much what we did or didn’t do as where we placed our desire, what we wanted so much that it became the wellspring of our thoughts, words and deeds, is a good check on slipping into indifference. But today’s gospel asks more than that. It asks us to look hard and see only Jesus. That means seeing Jesus in ourselves as well as others, of having such a huge reverence for him that we simply cannot choose sin because to do so would be to profane his image in us. I have always loved the collect for today, with its invitation to feast interiorly on the Word — such a stark contrast with the fasting Lent lays upon us. The liturgy of the day piles paradox upon paradox, but the greatest of all is the fact that God became man and we, creatures of clay, now are filled with hope of the divine glory. The true selfie is all around us, ‘lovely in limbs not his’.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Blessing of Sleep

One of the incidental blessings of my recent surgery has been the ability to sleep ‘normally’ again. After two years of disturbed nights, I appreciate how easily we are affected by aches and pains — and what a pain we are to others when we don’t sleep well!

You can find recommendations a-plenty for how to get to sleep and ensure your sleep is sound, but along with the milky drinks and the regular routines advocated by the sleep specialists, there is one conspicuous absence: the need for a quiet conscience. I don’t mean by that an innocent conscience. Few of us are fortunate enough to live wholly unblemished lives; but although we all sin, we don’t have to let sin define us. We have it in our power to repent, to change, to try to put things right. When St Benedict gives as a tool of good works ‘make peace with your opponent before sunset’ (RB 4.70), he is merely putting into concrete form something he alludes to many times in the Rule: never nurse a grudge, never allow your conscience to become accustomed to thoughts of revenge, see where your desire leads and check it if it is leading you astray.

The old practice of ‘examination of conscience’ before bedtime is a helpful way of reviewing the day’s events. It enables us to give thanks as well as repent of wrongdoing. It can also help organize our discordant and jangling impulses into a programme for tomorrow, when we will try to live more truthfully, lovingly, etc.

Despite years of research we still do not know all sleep’s secrets. Perhaps the most elusive is the way in which sleep fashions our future. We know that the wear and tear on our bodies is repaired during sleep; we also know the psychological benefits of a good night’s sleep and the way in which problems are often resolved without our consciously thinking them through; but what of the spiritual benefits of sleep? Sleep is the one time when we can’t put up any barriers to God, when there are no obstacles to the working of grace. You may not be a monk or nun, but before you go to sleep tonight, try making your own that lovely saying of the Desert Fathers, ‘the monastic cell is like Easter Night: it sees Christ rising’, and quieten heart and mind in readiness.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Examination of Conscience

The words ‘examination of conscience’ had always sent a chill to my heart, but today’s section of the Rule, RB7. 19 to 23, proved a liberation. Benedict quotes Psalm 49.21, ‘My every desire is before you.’ How much easier, and searching, it is just to ask, ‘what have I desired today?’ than to try to go over the events of the day and scrutinize all one’s motives, etc, etc. Self-will has a way of disguising itself, but desire stands plain and naked. And sometimes, one can be surprised to find that one has chosen good when one might have chosen evil. Then one can give thanks for grace received and co-operated with rather than spurned or neglected.

Bad Behaviour
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