The Grace of Contentment

The sixth step of humility is for a monk to be content with the meanest and most contemptible of everything, and in respect of whatever tasks are laid upon him, to regard himself as a bad and worthless worker, saying to himself with the prophet, ‘I am reduced to nothing and am all ignorance; I have become like a dumb beast before you, yet I am always with you’. (RB 7. 49–50)

Those words of St Benedict, which we read today, go clean contrary to what most people would say was a healthy attitude to self. ‘Because I’m worth it’ has become a commonplace justification for every indulgence under the sun. But if we go back to the roots of Benedict’s argument, we are forced to confront a very different world-view and a theological meaning that could easily escape us.

Benedict’s sixth step of humility is based on Cassian’s seventh sign, ‘If he is content with the lowest possible position and considers himself a bad workman with respect to everything enjoined him.’ It takes us straight back to the world of Late Antiquity, where manual work was fit only for slaves, and to Luke 17. 7–10, where the servant does no more than is expected of him. What is not said is as important as what is. Compared with God, we are creatures of no consequence — and yet, we are beloved.

For Cassian in the desert manual labour was a way of bringing a disciple to understand the meaning of humility as distinct from obedience. For Benedict, with his much more sophisticated monastic enterprise, where obedientiaries might remain in place year after year, it was a reminder that work was given, not chosen, a form of asceticism to be practised every day. The reference to Psalm 73 in the final verse situates the sixth step of humility in a familiar context, that of apparent injustice. We live in a world where the evil prosper and effort is not always rewarded as we think it should be. Yet — and it is an important qualification — it is here that the monk learns his lesson and experiences the closeness of God.

What the sixth step of humility manifestly does not ask is the false humility of Uriah Heep. We are not meant to say we are bad at our job if we aren’t. Equally, we are not to think we confer a benefit on others simply because we can do something well. We are meant to be free from such self-evaluation so that we can concentrate on what really matters, becoming closer to God. It does not take long to realise that we can be hindered in this by discontent. If we are always dissatisfied, seeking something else, something more for ourselves, we dissipate our energy. Contentment is not the same as complacency, but there are a thousand ways of disguising what we are truly about. The passionate campaigner for a good cause may indeed be selfless, but it is also possible to use a good cause to feed vanity and ambition. What Benedict wants is our spiritual freedom. His sixth step of humility is meant to set us on the right way to attaining it, and he proposes not some rarified spirituality but a solid, commonsensical approach to something that fills the larger part of every day — our work. It is here that we find grace, if we are open to it.

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All Benedictine Saints

On 13 November we celebrate the feast of All Benedictine Saints (i.e. all those who don’t have a day to themselves, so to say) and host our annual Oblates’ Day at the monastery. There is special joy today because our Canadian oblate, Margaret, will be making her oblation by video conference, in which oblates from other parts of the world will be joining. So why am I sitting at the computer in a distracted frame of mind? It is partly because today’s ‘to do’ list already looks impossible and I am not always optimistic first thing in the morning; it is partly because it is cold and dark and neither is conducive to high spirits; but mainly it is because the thought of holiness is sometimes more daunting than encouraging. Other people become saints; I/we don’t.

Regarding holiness as something ‘other’, attainable only by a special few, is, of course, a snare and delusion. It is also completely unBenedictine. The Rule of St Benedict isn’t meant for supermen or superwomen. It doesn’t prescribe any esoteric practices or extreme ascetical feats. Instead, it asks the monk or nun to live a life of daily fidelity to small things which are actually great things: to living in community under rule and abbot; to prayer, work, service, hospitality; absolute renunciation of personal ownership; an obedience as entire as it is intelligent. In doing so, the Rule shows us a way of living the Gospel that will lead to holiness. The tragedy is that many of us stumble along the way, don’t quite make it, grow weary or give up. That is why Benedictines pray for perseverance; for the grace of daily fidelity. Please pray with and for us.

 

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 4

Today we come to Benedict’s ‘last word’ on Lent, but it isn’t in the chapter he devotes to Lent itself (RB 49) it’s in the one before, On Daily Manual Labour (RB 48):

During the days of Lent, they should devote themselves to reading from the morning until the end of the third hour; and from then until the tenth hour they should do the work assigned to them. In these days of Lent they should each receive a book from the library, to be read straight through in its entirety. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent.

Aha, you may think, she has already commented on that in an earlier post, A Book for Lent. Indeed I have, but here I want to draw your attention to some other aspects of this text.

Prayerful reading, lectio divina, is the characteristic activity of the monk. In a sense, it guarantees that we shall be in touch with God and he with us. When we pray or work we can go wrong; we can be so full of ourselves that we chase after our own ideas and end up making a mess of things. Not so when we listen to God. We may not ‘meet God’ in our work or prayer, but we can be quite sure we shall meet him in our reading because scripture is the word he has spoken definitively to the Church.

So, Lent without reading of this kind is a nonsense. Moreover, you notice where Benedict places his teaching on Lenten reading? In his chapter on work. Lectio divina doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it; and Benedict expects us to devote a sizeable chunk of time to doing so.

Why is that important? The emphasis on reading scripture is a reminder of what I call the ‘slow down and shut up’ approach to the spiritual life. Lent is a time for focusing, so we read one book, not zillions of them, and we read slowly, allowing God to speak to our hearts. We have to keep in mind that Benedict’s way of reading was different from ours. We skim, speed read, forget most of what we have just read. Benedict, by contrast, expected his monks to commit to memory much of what they read so that they had a rich inner library to which to return again and again in the course of the day. That is not a bad idea for us in the twenty-first century, when we are bombarded from dawn till dusk with all kinds of information clamouring for our attention.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional practices of Lent but they all rest upon the supposition that we are familiar with the Word of God. In his insistence on the importance of reading, Benedict reminds us that even if the more ‘active’ side of Lent is impossible, we can be attuned to what God wants of us through our practice of lectio divina. Our word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin word obaudire, meaning to listen carefully, listen hard. He knows well enough that anyone who truly listens to God will enter into a dialogue of love and union with him that is beyond all words and all doing. He will enter into the silence of God himself.

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Rag-Bag Thoughts by Ragged Nun

It has been an ‘interesting’ week, hasn’t it? Week-ends don’t happen in monasteries. In fact, we are gearing up to receive a parish group here on Saturday, and Sunday is always full; so there won’t be much time to pause and look back on the past few days. One of the distinguishing characteristics of monastic life is that we try to ‘digest’ the day’s events on the day itself rather than postpone them to some future time which may never come. Hence Benedict’s insistence that, before the day’s end, we should make peace with anyone we have had a dispute with. We reflect on the day, giving thanks for graces received, asking for enlightenment, pardon or strength. It is a time for honesty. If we are feeling ragged and running on empty, we need to acknowledge the fact because God cannot fill a closed heart or mind.

Perhaps Friday, which is the end of the working week for many people, would be a good day on which to think about the week past and bring it into one’s prayer. More than that, let’s not go home for the week-end without saying ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ or even, ‘that’s O.K., it’s been difficult, hasn’t it?’ Forgiveness can transform a situation as anyone who heard Tariq Jahan this week would agree.

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Love of Truth

The Dominican motto, ‘Veritas’, has always attracted me. If I weren’t a Benedictine, I would want to be a Dominican and I suspect many others would, too. St Dominic, whose feast we keep today, was influenced by the Benedictines, and I think the whole Church has been influenced by St Dominic and his sons and daughters. With the benefit of hindsight, we may not always agree with the way in which truth was sought or what was done to preserve its conclusions, but with the ideal itself we cannot quibble. Truth matters.

Love of truth in all its forms must surely lead to love of Truth himself. That is why there is no human endeavour that is not capable of leading us to God. It is also why integrity matters so much. We cannot be truthful in speech and untruthful in deed. Careless or substandard work is as much a distortion of truth as telling a lie.

Sometimes we become downcast when we realise that we can do very little for God or other people. Love can seem a bit of an abstraction, particularly if we are confined to the circle of self because of age, poverty or serious illness. But whatever our circumstances, we can live truthfully. We can reflect the truth and beauty of God just by being. That is not little. That is true greatness.

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The End of the World

Apparently, some people think the end of the world will come this week-end (21 May, to be precise). I cannot say that it would be a great surprise if it did. We have had more than enough of ‘wars and rumours of wars’, earthquakes, fires and tsunamis, deadly plagues and all manner of human wickedness envisioned by the writer of the Apocalypse and every other religious visionary. I daresay some people are running to their bunkers in the hope of surviving a little while, rather hopeless if you think about it. What shall we be doing here at the monastery? What we always do, I suppose. Part of me thinks that if the world should end I’d like to be kneeling in prayer, giving glory to God; but if I’m meant to be cleaning out the recycling bins or casting up figures for accounts that will never be audited, that’s what I’ll do. It is where I’ll be looked for, after all.

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Washing Up a Way to Heaven

For once we begin reading RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, on Monday, the day when the working week begins for most people. The first line of this chapter, Otiositas inimica est animae, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’, is much beloved of monastic cooks as they plonk yet another huge pan in front of the novice assigned to washing-up duties. Irony apart, it is a sentence worth pondering, as is the rest of the chapter.

Our society exalts the value of leisure. Until comparatively recently, the idea of earning enough to be able to retire early was widely seen as a positive goal. Advertisements exhorted us to ‘relax’ with this product or that (does that explain the ads for discount sofas one finds in every newspaper these days? Ed). The good life was seen, not in Platonic terms, but in terms of having as much as possible for as little effort as possible. Credit card companies had a great time and very few bothered about the mountain of debt we were piling up.

We know better now. We know that Mr Micawber was right, although we still wish he weren’t. I will probably be under siege for saying so, but protests against public sector cuts are a little unrealistic. Cutting the deficit isn’t just a mantra of the Coalition Government, it is essential and there is bound to be pain for all of us. I’m not suggesting that Benedict’s meditation on the value of work is a corrective to all the sloppy thinking we have indulged in, but I do think it says something we don’t hear often enough. What we do has spiritual value. It has value whether the world thinks it important or not. Knowing that won’t lessen the grease on the pan, but it does make cleaning it, potentially at least, a noble and gracious act. What price washing-up as a way to heaven?

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Work and Vocation

It is easy to assume that what one does equates to what one is, that one’s work is the same as one’s vocation. That is especially true if one’s work is of a particular kind: medicine, say, or teaching. I suspect that there would be much less unhappiness, and certainly much less frustration, if we could accept that what we are is not just the sum total of what we do. Each one of us is a vocation; each one of us is chosen and precious in the sight of God, irrespective of what we do.

Usually that works in our favour. God is infinitely forgiving of the ways in which we attempt to spoil or ruin his creation (and we are endlessly inventive when it comes to finding new ways of doing so). It is a bit more problematic when we realise that we stand before God eternally empty-handed. We don’t really like that. Just as we spend many years of our life cheerfully defining ourselves as X, where X stands for whatever work we take up or whatever organization we work for, and go into a decline when we become unemployed or reach retirement age, so we like to point to numerous good acts or attempts at virtuous living which we hope will assure our belonging to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Salvation comes to all of us as a gift. The good deeds are important, but however much we try, we’ll never work our way into heaven. We are caught in a kind of spiritual dilemma, which is really no dilemma at all: to rely utterly on God yet work as though we depended on none but ourselves. As so often, we must live with a paradox. There is no greater vocation than to be a child of God and no harder work than to try to live up to the demands that makes.

First Bricks
Yesterday we sold our first Charitable Bond, which represents the first bricks of our ‘new’ monastery. Deo Gratias.

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Value

Facebook is apparently valued at $50 billion, which means it is more “valuable” than Tesco though less subject to public scrutiny because it is not a publicly quoted company (one wonders how long that will be true). What does that say about value in our society? Remember the dot com boom of the 1990s, when people stopped reading balance sheets and ploughed fortunes into companies which had never actually made any money? Then the backlash, the return to “only manual labour really counts” kind of thinking, and now, at long last, the painful realisation that having any kind of job is real riches.

Throughout these ups and downs I have valued (there’s that word again!) Benedict’s sanity on the matter. He appreciated manual labour, knowing that working with one’s hands guards against excessive spiritualisation of reality; but I don’t think he exalted any one activity above another. Everything could, indeed should, be of use to the community and part of the quest for God. So, whether I am working in the garden or sitting at my desk doing the accounts is all one, really. I may enjoy the garden more but that is irrelevant. The value of what I do is in its purpose: service of the community. I don’t think one can put a price on that, do you?

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