With today’s portion of the Rule, we get on to more testing ground. Words like ‘renunciation’, ‘fasting’ and ‘discipline’ make their appearance, along with exhortations to perform the corporal works of mercy and keep our hearts and tongues pure, free from perjury or profanity. At the heart of this chapter are two sentences that epitomize both the Christian and the monastic ideal: ‘To make oneself a stranger to the ways of the world’ (20) and ‘To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.'(21)
For two thousand years members of the Church have found the first very difficult. We have embraced the world and its ways with great eagerness, telling ourselves that we must ‘be where people are’ and ‘speak a language that people understand’. Both are true, but perhaps not in the way we have assumed. There must always be something of a prophet about every Christian, a readiness to challenge society’s comfortable assertions with the truth that comes from God, never more so than when society deludes itself into believing that it is acting with compassion when it isn’t. A good example might be the Church’s upholding of the sacredness of human life in the face of apparently strong arguments against it (e.g. see my post here).
The second sentence is perhaps more challenging still, for it calls us to give up not just bad or indifferent things but good things, too. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ is to give up family, career, personal freedom, to embrace something known only by faith, and that imperfectly and often uncertainly. It is here that most Benedictines would place the heart of their vocation. It is this that enables us to aspire to the last tools named in this section: not to pay back evil for evil (29); not to wrong anyone but patiently bear wrong done to oneself — something our world finds incomprehensible for the most part (30); to love one’s enemies.(31)
The Tools of Good Works are precisely that: tools which have to be used to be effective in doing good. As we shall see, Benedict envisages a lifetime’s practice within the enclosure of the monastery. However small or circumscribed our world may be physically, morally it can be co-extensive with the universe. To renounce oneself to follow Christ (10) is to enter upon the greatest journey of exploration ever made. How could such a journey end but in a reversal of what most people would expect (31)?