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Sunday, September 1, 2024

Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to God from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for Jesus, the Christ.

Life is a teacher of universal truths. That may be the reason why the religious readings of so many nations speak of the same situations and fasten on the same insights. The Rule of Benedict, too, is a wisdom literature that sounds life's themes. It deals with answers to the great questions of the human condition: the presence of God, the foundation of relationships, the nature of self-development, the place of purpose. To the wise, it seems, life is not a series of events to be controlled. Life is a way of walking through the universe whole and holy.

This first paragraph of the Rule of Benedict brings into instant focus the basis for being able to do that.

Benedict says, "Listen." Pay attention to the instructions in this Rule and attend to the important things in life. Let nothing go by without being open to being nourished by the inner meaning of that event in life. There is an Oriental proverb that teaches: "Take from death before it takes from thee." If we do not live life consciously, in other words, we may not be living at all.

The Prologue is asking us to do the same thing. If we want to have a spiritual life, we will have to concentrate on doing so. Spirituality does not come by breathing. It comes by listening to this Rule and to its insights into life "with the ear of the heart," with feeling, with more than an academic interest.

One part of spirituality, then, is learning to be aware of what is going on around us and allowing ourselves to feel its effects. If we live in an environment of corporate greed or personal violence, we can't grow from it spiritually until we allow ourselves to recognize it. The other part of spirituality, the Prologue makes quite clear, is learning to hear what God wants in any given situation and being quick to respond to that, to "welcome it and faithfully put it into practice." To see the greed or sense the violence without asking what the Gospel expects in such a situation, is not spirituality. It is piety at best.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the Prologue's insistence that this Rule is not being written by a spiritual taskmaster who will bully us or beat us down in a counterfeit claim to growing us up but by someone who loves us and will, if we allow it, carry us along to fullness of life. It is an announcement of profound importance. No one grows simply by doing what someone else forces us to do. We begin to grow when we finally want to grow. All the rigid fathers and demanding mothers and disapproving teachers in the world can not make up for our own decision to become what we can by doing what we must.

In this very first paragraph of the Rule Benedict is setting out the importance of not allowing ourselves to become our own guides, our own god. Obedience, Benedict says--the willingness to listen for the voice of God in life--is what will wrench us out of the limitations of our own landscape. We are being called to something outside of ourselves, something greater than ourselves, something beyond ourselves. We will need someone to show us the way: the Christ, a loving spiritual model, this Rule.

First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to God most earnestly to bring it to perfection. In God's goodness, we are already counted as God's own, and therefore we should never grieve the Holy One by our evil actions. With the good gifts which are in us, we must obey God at all times that God may never become the angry parent who disinherits us, nor the dreaded one, enraged by our sins, who punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow the way to glory.

The person who prays for the presence of God is, ironically, already in the presence of God. The person who seeks God has already found God to some extent. "We are already counted as God's own," the Rule reminds us. Benedict knows this and clearly wants us to know it, as well. A dull, mundane life stays a dull, mundane life, no matter how intent we become on developing spiritually. No amount of church-going will change that. What attention to the spiritual life does change is our appreciation for the presence of God in our dull, mundane lives. We come to realize that we did not find God; God finally got our attention. The spiritual life is a grace with which we must cooperate, not a prize to be captured or a trophy to be won.

But, the Rule implies, we have been given a grace that is volatile. To feel it and ignore it, to receive it but reject it, the paragraph suggests, is to be in a worse situation than if we had never paid any attention to the spiritual life at all. For disregard of God's good gifts, Benedict says, for refusing to use the resources we have for the upbuilding of the reign of God, for beginning what we do not intend to complete, the price is high. We are disinherited. We lose what is ours for the taking. We miss out on the life we are meant to have . We are dealt with, not as children of the owner who know instinctively that they are meant to grow into new and deeper levels of relationship here, but as hired help in the house, as people who look like they are part of the family but who never reap its real benefits or know its real nature. In failing to respond to God everywhere God is around us, we may lose the power of God that is in us.

The words were not idle metaphors in sixth century Italy.

To be a member of a Roman family, the family whose structures Benedict understood, was to be under the religious, financial and disciplinary power of the father until the father died, whatever the age of the children. To be disinherited by the father was to be stranded in a culture in which paid employment was looked down upon. To be punished by him was to lose the security of family, outside of which there was no security at all. To lose relationship with the father was then, literally, to lose one's life.

And who has not known the truth of it? Who of us has not been failed by all the other things beside God--money, status, security, work, people--that we have clung to and been disappointed by in our cleaving. Whose life has not been warped by a series of twisted hopes, the roots of which were sunk in the shale of false promises and empty treasures that could not satisfy? Benedict is begging us here to realize that God is the only life-line that life guarantees us. We have been loved to life by God and now we must love God back with our whole lives or forever live a living death.