A Monastic Year in Retrospect: 2014

Winter at HTM

Today has dawned grey and silvery, bright with frost and the sharp tang of woodsmoke. While the rest of the world busies itself with New Year resolutions and a more or less dreary catalogue of what went wrong in 2014, here in the monastery we are thinking about the good zeal we ought to have (RB 72) and what we can do to make sure that 2014 ends on a positive note, with wrongs, insofar as in us lies, righted, forgiveness given and received, and hope and trust restored. You might think that was easy for us, but we live in the same world as you do, and have just as many quirks of character. Indeed, I sometimes think that the reason for Benedict’s insistence on our bearing charitably with one another is because monks and nuns are more quirky than most and make bigger demands on one another.

To put things right with another, we must first admit that something has gone wrong. That can be difficult, especially if we secretly think the other person responsible. Unfortunately, thinking like that tends to lead to another rehearsal of the original grievance; and we all know where that ends. I think we have to ask ourselves what we most desire: victory or harmony. That doesn’t mean we do violence to our sense of right and wrong or pretend to a fault we genuinely believe we haven’t committed, but it does mean humbly acknowledging that somewhere along the line, we haven’t been all we might have been. Aquinas wrote of that which, though not sin, had something of  the nature of sin about it; and we all know how easy it is to perform what used to be called an act of charity in such an uncharitable way that it is quite the opposite. The end of the year is a good time to reflect on these things and see what we can do about them.

Here in the monastery today and tomorrow will be days of mutual apology and reconciliation, of giving thanks, of thinking about the events of 2014 and our way of living through them, all with the firm purpose of trying to do better in 2015. 2014 was not an easy year for us, but it has been a year of blessing. Learning to give thanks in all circumstances doesn’t come naturally to most of us, any more than forgiveness does. Maybe that is why St Benedict ends his chapter on good zeal with a simple but heartfelt prayer: May they prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life. Amen.

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Good Zeal

I have written quite a lot about RB 72, On the Good Zeal Monks Ought to Have, (try this post, for example), but zeal continues to fascinate, especially in others. What is it that fills some people with great energy and enthusiasm but leaves the rest of us barely capable of raising a languid eyebrow? It would be good to know, because then one might have more chance of summoning up some zeal when it is most required. On the whole, however, I think we have not so much become lazy as afraid of zeal. The announcement that the Government warning on terrorist threats has gone up a notch, from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe,’ probably won’t have made much practical difference to most of us. There will have been a slight shiver, perhaps, and a moment’s thought about the prospect of biological warfare being unleashed by IS, but most of us will have gone back to our usual concerns readily enough. We don’t understand extremist zeal, and there isn’t anything we can do about it, is there?

Actually, there is. The evil zeal of bitterness which seeks to destroy can be opposed by the good zeal, cultivated with most ardent love, which leads to God (cf RB 72.1). If we have become afraid of zeal, it is because we have got out of the habit of cultivating the kind of zeal that refuses to allow evil to get the upper hand. This zeal, as St Benedict presents it, isn’t for wimps. It isn’t what I call ‘doormat’ virtue, which isn’t really virtue at all, nor is it passive. It is an active and energetic pursuit of what makes for peace and justice, a putting Christ before all things, by people who have an eternal end in view and who can make their own the prayer with which Benedict concludes: ‘May [Christ] bring us all together to everlasting life.’ We are not helpless in the face of IS terror, nor any other kind of extremist zeal, unless we choose to be.

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The Wounded Christ

It is comparatively easy to see the wounded Christ in someone who is suffering blamelessly — the child who has just lost both parents in a car crash, the elderly person slapped across the face by a so-called carer, someone with an incurable disease. But what about seeing him in the convicted paedophile, the murderer, the political extremist? How many of us look at Kim Jong-un, for example, and see anything other than a hideous travesty of a human being?

I was thinking about this in connection with the opening words of RB 72, On Good Zeal, which we read today: ‘Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell . . . ‘ We tend to be rather keen on vicarious victimisation, unleashing our anger and contempt on those we feel we can safely condemn for their brutality or wickedness. We are indeed zealous in our fury. But, somehow, that doesn’t quite fit with what is expected of anyone who claims to be a disciple of Christ. We are called to see him in everyone, not just those who excite our compassion or admiration. That doesn’t mean giving way to a kind of wishy-washy moral flabbiness that refuses to uphold anything because it is incapable of doing so; it means something much more difficult. It means really looking, really listening and being prepared to be thought a fool because one does not follow the crowd. In the end, it means cultivating good zeal, and as the verb ‘cultivate’ indicates, that is impossible without prayer and effort in equal measure.

To sum up. The wounded Christ is everywhere, in you and me and all around. Let us try to be alert to him today.

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