The Martyrdom of St John the Baptist

John the Baptist died a horrible death at the whim of a dictator. That fact alone makes him seem a very modern man, doesn’t it? But there was more to John than that, a side to him that is not so easy to accommodate to our times. He dared to confront evil and name it for what it was: ‘it is against the Law for you to have your brother Philip’s wife’. It is worth thinking about those words. How many clergy today would challenge a leading politician about his/her irregular marital situation? Wouldn’t we be more likely to say, it is no business of yours; steer clear of politics, and of the private life of individuals?

John’s criticism of Herod landed him in prison. Although that tells us something about Herod, it tells us even more about John. He was a man of great integrity, consumed with zeal for the holiness of the Lord’s name. That made him awkward, putting him everlastingly on the margin, yet many, including Herod, found him strangely attractive. He confused Herod, who had never encountered anyone remotely similar, and yet ‘he liked to listen to him’.

Those of us who like to think we are believers are challenged by John. His integrity, his zeal, his courage and his compassion are all to be emulated. However, we do him an injustice if we forget the central fact about him: his joy at the nearness of his God. Slogging away for God may be admirable in its way, but joy, sheer unbounded delight in God and the things of God, brings us much closer to understanding the mystery of the Kingdom and the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. John’s fiery personality was lit up by that joy. At the end, that was all there was. ‘He must increase while I must decrease.’

During the days of the community retreat, these blog posts are being automated and I won’t be entering into any dialogue in the comments section. However, I hope that won’t dissuade you from commenting!


Good Zeal

Today’s chapter of the Rule, RB 72 which you can listen to here, has the title “On the Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have”. The title isn’t Benedict’s but I think he would have approved. It is modest and unassuming and, occurring as it does almost at the end of the Rule, suggests an acceptance of human frailty which is encouraging. Benedict has spelled out in great detail how the monk is to order his life and devoted several pages to the demands of living in community. Yet here he is soberly talking about the good zeal monks ought to have and must cultivate with the most ardent love as though it cannot be taken for granted, even in the monastery.

Zeal can be dangerous. We can go seriously wrong for what we believe are the best of motives. We have probably all met people so consumed by what they see as evil that they have become unpleasantly like what they detest. We may even have been guilty  of being too rigorous ourselves in situations which called for forgiveness and understanding. Zeal gone wrong leads to fanaticism and that, as we all know, can be poisonous.

Benedict’s antidote is to put energy and enthusiasm into that which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. As you might expect, he singles out for mention qualities he has already written about: patience in bearing with one another’s weaknesses “whether of body or character” (including X’s annoying little habits), eagerness to show respect and obedience to other members of the community (including that odious Y), seeking what is better for another rather than oneself and, above all, loving God, one’s superior and the brethren. He sums it all up by saying that we must put nothing whatever before Christ who, we pray, will bring us all together to everlasting life.

It is a beautiful and moving statement of the inner dynamic of monastic life but there are days when it sounds just a bit . . . effortful. That’s the problem with zeal. It has a bright, tooth-paste tang about it which most of us prefer in small doses. At this time of year, when the Christmas decorations are beginning to look a little tired and 2011 is almost upon us, we can use RB 72 as a reality check on how we actually live our lives.

So, before you write your New Year’s Resolutions, ask yourself one question. Do you put as much energy into your service of God and others as you do into making things comfortable for yourself? I blush to think of my own answer. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, but comfort achieved at the expense of others is more questionable. I think even I could become zealous about that. At least, I hope so.