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The Tools for Good Works

Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Chapter 4

Listen readily to holy reading, and devote yourself often to prayer. Every day with tears and sighs confess your past sins to God in prayer and change from these evil ways in the future.

A willingness to be formed is the basis of formation. Anything else is fraud. People can not be beaten into sanctity. They can only be beaten into submission. No, Benedict says, you can't get the spiritual life by waiting for it. You have to reach for it. Read things that gild your soul. Turn your mind to prayer, to a conscious response to the God present here and now. Remember who you are.

The ancients considered the gift of tears a sign of God's great favor. If we could be always sorry for what we have done to distort life in the past then perhaps we could be safeguarded against distorting it in the future. Regret is a gift long gone in contemporary culture but critically needed perhaps. In this society, guilt has disappeared and sorrow is labeled unhealthy. As a people, then, we separate one action from another in such a way that patterns escape us and pitfalls elude us. We simply stumble on, from one event to the next, unaware of the dangers in it for us, uncaring of our past behaviors, unfeeling of the callouses on our hearts.

Life, Benedict implies, is a tapestry woven daily from yesterday's threads. The colors don't change, only the shapes we give them. Without the past to guide us, the future itself may succumb to it.

"Do not gratify the promptings of the flesh (Gal 5:16);" hate the urgings of self-will. Obey the orders of the prioress and abbot unreservedly, even if their own conduct--which God forbid--be at odds with what they say. Remember the teachings of the Holy One: "Do what they say, not what they do (Mt 23:3)."

There are two ways to live in the world--as if we were connected to it like a leaf to a tree or as if we are a universe unto ourselves. Obedience, faithful listening, is essential to the choice. A Benedictine sense of obedience is not designed to diminish a person. It is designed to connect us to the rest of the human race. If we have the discipline to curb our own caprice, we can develop the self-control it takes to listen to the wisdom of another when our own insights are limited. The fact is that there are few right ways to do a thing, there are only other ways of doing a thing. To be open to the way of those who have already gone the ground before us is potentially soul-saving. That is the function of Benedictine obedience and that is a tool of the spiritual art. It shows us in others ways to goodness that otherwise we might miss of ourselves.

Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so. Live by God's commandments every day; treasure chastity, harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone, and do nothing out of envy. Do not love quarreling; shun arrogance. Respect the elders and love the young. Pray for your enemies out of love for Christ. If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with that person before the sun goes down.

The seduction of embarking on a spiritual life is that people can be fooled into believing that wanting it is doing it. They begin to believe that by traveling they have arrived. Worse, perhaps, they begin to allow others to think that by traveling they have arrived. They mistake the idea for the thing and perpetuate the idea.

Benedict knew better. He knew that the secret of the holy life was not so much a holy reputation as it was a holy attitude toward all of creation: reverence for God, reverence for the body, reverence for the other who is younger and unimportant, or older and useless now, or in opposition to us and an irritant now.

Benedict wants us to guard against a notion of superiority that will, in our most honest moments, only discourage us with ourselves.

And finally, never lose hope in God's mercy.

What Benedict wants is simply that we keep trying. Failures and all. Pain and all. Fear and all. The God of mercy knows what we are and revels in weakness that tries.

These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. When we have used them without ceasing day and night and have returned them on the day of judgment our wages will be the reward God has promised: "What the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, God has prepared for those who love. (1 Cor 2:9)."

These tools of the spiritual life, justice, peacemaking, respect for all creation, trust in God, are the work of a lifetime. Each one of them represents the unearthed jewel that is left in us to mine. Each of them represents the gem that we can be. Benedict says that in the dark days of the spiritual life, when we have failed ourselves miserably, we must remember the God who walks with us on the journey to our best selves and cling without end to the God who fails us never.

The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.

The spiritual life for Benedict of Nursia is not an errant idea. It is not something we do without thought, without concentration, without direction, without help. Monastic spirituality is a spirituality of love. It is a way of life, not a series of ascetical exercises. It takes persistence. It takes dedication. It takes a listening commitment to the human community. It asks a great deal more of us than a series of pious formulas. It asks for an attitude of mind and a style of life and way of relating that takes me out of myself into the mind of God for humanity.