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Wednesday, September 4, 2024

If we wish to dwell in God's tent, we will never arrive unless we run there by doing good deeds. But let us ask with the prophet: "Who will dwell in your tent, O God; who will find rest upon your holy mountain (Ps 15:1)?" After this question, then, let us listen well to what God says in reply, for we are shown the way to God's tent. "Those who walk without blemish and are just in all dealings; who speak truth from the heart and have not practiced deceit; who have not wronged another in any way, not listened to slanders against a neighbor (Ps 15:2-3.) They have foiled the evil one at every turn, flinging both the devil and these wicked promptings far from sight. While these temptations were still "young, the just caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ (Ps 15:4, 137:9)." These people reverence God, and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is God's strength, not their own, that brings about the good in them. "They praise (Ps 15:4)" the Holy One working in them, and say with the prophet: "Not to us, O God, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone (Ps 115:1)."

Two themes emerge very strongly here. In case the meaning of the earlier paragraphs has escaped us, Benedict repeats them. Justice, honesty and compassion are the marks of those who dwell with God in life, he insists. Then, he reminds us again that we are not able to achieve God's grace without God's help. If we do good for the poor, it is because God has given us the courage to do good. If we speak truth in the face of lies, it is because God has given us a taste for the truth. If we uphold the rights of women and men alike, it is because God has given us eyes to see the wonders of all creation. We are not a power unto ourselves.

The two ideas may seem innocent enough today but at the time at which Benedict wrote them they would both have had great social impact.

In the first place, physical asceticism had become the mark of the truly holy. The Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, the dominant form of religious life prior to the emergence of communal monasticism, had been known and revered for the frugality, discipline and asceticism of their lives. They lived in the desert as solitaries. They ate little. They prayed night and day. They deprived their bodies to enrich their souls. They struggled against the temptations of the flesh and fled the world. Theirs was a privatized version of religious development not unlike those theologies that still thrive on measuring personal penances and using religion as personal massage rather than on making the world look the way God would want it to look. Benedict, then, introduces very early in the Rule the notion of responsibility for the human community as the benchmark of those who "dwell in God's tent," know God on earth, live on a higher plane than the mass of humanity around them. The really holy, the ones who touch God, Benedict maintains, are those who live well with those around them. They are just, they are upright, they are kind. The ecology of humankind is safe with them.

In the second place, Benedict puts to rest the position of the wandering monk Pelagius who taught in the fifth century that human beings were inherently good and capable of achieving God's great presence on the strength of their own merits. Benedict wants "good deeds" but he does not want pride. We do what we do in life, even holy things, the Prologue teaches, not because we are so good but because God is so good and enables us to rise above the misery of ourselves. Even the spiritual life can become an arrogant trap if we do not realize that the spiritual life is not a game that is won by the development of spiritual skills. The spiritual life is simply the God-life already at work in us.

An obligation to human community and a dependence on God, then, become the cornerstones of Benedictine life.