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.


The Tools of Good Works 32 to 62

Today I’d like to consider those of ‘yesterday’s tools’ I didn’t write about along with those we read today, hence the longer than usual reference in the post heading.

Tool 32 echoes 31 and shows how important Benedict thought the right use of speech. We are not to return curse for curse but ‘pay back’ our antagonist with a blessing instead. Getting even, insisting on our rights, these are not qualities Benedict admires or wants to see in his monks. Self-control isn’t exactly fashionable since almost any excess can be pardoned on the grounds that we are ‘just being ourselves’, but Benedict will have none of it. We’re not to eat too much, drink too much, sleep too much or think too much of ourselves. We’re not to get angry that the world isn’t as we think it should be (grumbling) nor are we to congratulate ourselves that we are better than others in any respect. We are to acknowledge that God is the author of all that is good in us. (32 to 42).

That is a code of conduct which largely deals with the exterior manifestation of our beliefs, but Benedict probes deeper, to the spiritual core. Fearing judgement, having a horror of hell and keeping death daily before one’s eyes would seem to many macabre; but in the midst of this chilling sequence (44 to 47) Benedict inserts a wonderful motivation: to desire eternal life with all possible spiritual longing (46). He goes on to spell out how this may be done in practice and it is at this point that the chapter takes on a vibrant sense of living always in the presence of God. Hence that control of thought and tongue which at first seems so difficult (5o to 54) and the antidote to superficial living — prayer, lectio divina and a disciplined life-style (55 to 59) which underpins the obedience at the root of monastic life (60 to 61). Only thus can we attain true sanctity, though even in our striving to be holy there may be something of self left (62).

The source for chapter 4 of the Rule is a series of exhortations meant for those about to receive baptism, but with his additions and deletions Benedict gives a subtly different cast to the whole. This is instruction in monastic living and, as such, it presupposes community and order. However, to be a good community member, the individual must first get a grip on himself, aware that his/her personal holiness of life affects the holiness of all. Sometimes when we criticize ‘the Church’ we forget that we make up the Body of Christ. So, my thought for today is this. If we perceive the Church to be less holy than it should be, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves some hard questions?


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!