The Tools of Good Works 63 to 78

With this final section of chapter 4 of the Rule, we come to some very searching admonitions. We might expect to be told to observe God’s commandments and be chaste; but to put God’s commandments into practice every day and to love chastity is to go further.(63, 64) It is to open one’s heart to every single demand God makes. There follows a series of practical expressions of that openness. We’re not to hate anyone, nor be jealous; we’re not to act from envy, nor love quarrelling; we’re to shun self-exaltation, revere the old and love the young.(65 to 71) Hatred, jealousy and envy close the heart; concentration on self does the same; and it is dangerously easy to close one’s heart against the ‘other’, the old or the young, as the case may be. But even here, where Benedict is dealing with human nature at its rawest, there is invocation of the love of Christ. It is in his love that we are to pray for for our enemies and make peace.(72, 73) Finally, if all that has gone before should seem too hard, we are never to despair of God’s mercy.(74) Benedict is gently reminding us that we live by the mercy of God who will never fail us, no matter how often we fail him.

Benedict’s concluding remarks are probably of more interest to monks and nuns than anyone else. He refers to what he calls the spiritual craft,(75) for which he has just given us the tools. This is no high-fallutin’ spirituality, all mist and schism, so to say: this is hard labour in the vineyard of the Lord. We are to use these tools ‘unceasingly, day and night’ and render account for them on the day of judgement.(76) If they have been used well, we shall be rewarded. The monastery is likened to a workshop in which we must work carefully.(78) We might take the analogy a little further. Out of the material of our ordinary, humdrum lives it is possible to create something both useful and beautiful, but only if we are willing to serve our apprenticeship, learn our craft and practise it faithfully. For a Benedictine the dimensions of this workshop are precisely stated: they are ‘the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.’ (78) Let’s unpack that a little.

The enclosure of the monastery may be a constraint to some or freedom to others. Those who live a cloistered or enclosed life (both are technical terms) know how it concentrates mind and heart. To do the same things days after day, in the same setting and with the same people (most of whom, if one is honest, one would not choose to live with), does tend to dispel illusions about oneself. It makes one realise that one is as much put up with as putting; that learning to live charitably within a small group is much harder than generalised goodwill to all people; that to be a Christian is not a question of doing this or that, for the time will come when we are too old or frail to do anything in particular, but to allow the Holy Spirit free rein in our lives. To let go and let God be all in all is, indeed, the work of a lifetime. It is, incidentally, the only craft worth spending our whole lives mastering.