(Thomas Merton’s Cell)
Guidelines for Christian and monastic good practice.
‘The first of all things to aim at is to love the Lord God with your whole heart and soul and strength and then to love your neighbour as you do yourself. The other commandments flow from these two: not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to indulge our base desires, not to give false evidence against another, to give due honour to all and not to inflict on someone else what you would resent if it were done to yourself’
I have always loved this explanation by Benedict on the Commandments. It may seem obvious to seasoned Christians, long in the faith, that following the words of the Commandments, which were then reiterated by Christ and put into the perspective of those first two, Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbour as yourself, that they should be the basis for the rest of our practice and behaviour. It is always pertinent to be reminded that the moral code that the Commandments created was not simply in the pursuit of some utopian ideal society but because of love. It makes complete sense that you would not desire to steal from, kill, injure or disrespect someone that you love, and so we are to view each other person, created and loved by God, as close to our hearts as our own family and loved ones.
‘Renounce your own desires and ambitions so as to be free to follow Christ. Control your body with self-discipline; don’t give yourself to unrestrained pleasure; learn to value the self-restraint and fasting. Give help and support to the poor; clothe the naked, visit the sick and bury the dead. Console and counsel those who suffer in time of grief and bring comfort to those in sorrow’
This small paragraph I think probably best summarises the though of Benedict when it comes to making progress in the Christian life and I think the order in which he places the various suggestions (or commands) is interesting. Firstly, the christian and/or monk (as he is for the first time in the Rule seemingly addressing not just the community but giving advice to Christians outside the cloister) is to renounce their own ambition and desires. I think this shows how pivotal that is in following Christ. It might be possible to do the other tasks that are listed, it may well be possible to be a good and decent human being by serving the poor and being generally decent to those who are in need, but if all of that is done without first renouncing the desires and ambitions of the self, then the good that is done is limited. I think of those famous folk who have given their time and money to charity only to later be found guilty of a terrible crime – their good work is tainted because they have followed too closely the desires of their own heart rather than a higher purpose.
‘Do not give yourself to unrestrained pleasure’
How often have you heard that people who are not Christian, or indeed of any practicing religion, find the ‘rules’ that are set in place to be suffocating, that it would make life boring, that the individual would no longer be able to have any fun at all. I am asked quite often if I am allowed to drink alcohol. I have even been asked if I am allowed to go to the cinema or the theatre, as though the Christian image they hold in their mind is one of Puritan proportions.
But here, Benedict writing to his monks and to Christians more generally does not outright say ‘do not have any pleasures at all’ but that there is to be a moderation. He is clearly warning against the excesses of pleasure with an insight into where that may possibly lead. It is a very slippery slope and one that is easy to fall, how often have you gone to have a couple of biscuits and before you realise half the packet has gone (spoken from someone with a very sweet tooth) – once again, balance is everything. The serious aspect of this comment though is to bring to mind who is being served. Are we looking after our own desires ahead of those of God? Can we be a good Christian if He is only ever second to our own personal wants or perceived needs?
‘Don’t get too involved in purely worldly affairs and count nothing more important than the love you should cherish for Christ. Don’t let your actions be governed by anger nor nurse your anger against a future opportunity of indulging it. Don’t harbour in your heart any trace of deceit nor pretend to be at peace with another when you are not; don’t abandon the true standards of charity. Don’t use other to make your point for fear of perjury, but speak the truth with integrity of heart and tongue.’
Quite often within The Rule the dichotomy of world vs cloister is brought to attention. I don’t think that Benedict is dismissive of the world as fundamentally a bad place, although it was the corruption of it, especially in the holy city of Rome that drove him to seek solitude and gave birth to this document, but here he is warning about our engagement. This follows a similar line to the renunciation of self. The way the world operates is different to the way in which the kingdom of God works, we saw this in the parables of Christ too. The world demands a certain emphasis on climbing the latter, being successful, accumulating wealth and power for oneself in order to show that one has become worth something. The kingdom of God and therefore the cloister and the life of the individual Christian needs to be focused on something radically different.
The vision that Benedict imparts to the readers of Chapter Four is one of personal and inner conversion. In order to deal with the world, especially at the time in which he was writing, there was a requirement to be politically shrewd, somewhat conniving, to forge alliances behind closed doors and be prepared to break them to ensure you could remain on the correct side. That sort of approach does not work for the Christian attempting to secure entry to the Kingdom of God. Instead, along with the renunciation of ambition and desire is this command to be peaceable, honest and, arguably most importantly, not to abandon the true standards of charity, in other words, to love. This is the mark of the Christian and monk.
‘If you are harmed by anyone, never repay it by returning the harm. In fact you should never inflict any injury on another but bear patiently whatever you have to suffer. Love your enemies, then; refrain from speaking evil but rather call a blessing on those who speak evil of you; if you are persecuted for favouring a cause, then bear it patiently’
When I read this paragraph of The Rule, rightly or wrongly, my mind turned to the internet and the interaction that it brings. Twitter in particular can be a wonderful tool for sharing thoughts and quotations and projects, but it can also be a place where I have seen (and experienced) some awfully potent and barbed responses when disagreements occur. It is difficult to know how to react, and it it often tempting to reply with an equally cutting comment that you know could potentially cause injury, it seems that some people deliberately set out to goad others into this sort of response.
How to deal with people who are purposefully inciting such attitudes it hard. I have taken to not responding when it comes my way (thankfully this is not often) and I do pray for those who I clash with. Some people respond by posting ‘God Bless’ or ‘Bless You’ but at the end of a rant it can come across as a passive-aggressive, weaponising of those powerful words, especially if the person doing it is a priest.
Benedict urges blessings on those who persecute you, but I do not think he means to use it in the way that I have witnessed. It must come from a genuine love, or at the very least a genuine desire to love, them. As the previous paragraph suggests, we cannot be governed by anger and if we use those words of blessing in anger, what we are actually asking for is not a blessing, but a curse.
‘Avoid all pride and self-importance. Don’t drink to excess, nor over-eat. Don’t be lazy nor give way to excessive sleep. Don’t be a murmurer and never in speaking take away the good name of another’
These few short rules whilst clearly beneficial to the development of someones character are also vital for community life. One of the key aspects of community living is that you are no longer your own, you have a commitment not just to God in the eternal but to your brothers and sisters in the temporal too. If you drink too much or over-eat, apart from developing bad habits within yourself, you are depriving others in the community of their share, potentially. This was especially important to remember when monasteries had large numbers of people and limited resources. Laziness and over-sleeping may mean that others have to pick up your slack and fulfil the tasks that you have left incomplete by complacency or duty that you have missed through sleep. All of these put the needs of the self before the others in the community and Benedict is trying to break his monks out of that worldly way of living.
Perhaps the most interesting is the command about not murmuring, but that becomes a rather important part of Chapter Five, so I shall save my thoughts on that for then.
‘Your hope of fulfilment should be centred in God alone. When you see and good in yourself, then, don’t take it to be your very own, but acknowledge it as a gift from God. On the other hand you may be sure that any evil you do is always your own and you may safely acknowledge your responsibility.’
All good things come from God and that, Benedict reminds us, includes the success we may feel in our development of character. Each of us contains the divine breath of God from creation, each one of us is made in His image, but through the transgressions of our first parents, through the stain of sin, we are obscured from reflecting that image perfectly. When glimpses of it cut through the haze of humanity, when a flash of the divine life is spotted in a change in our character, a deepening or our prayer, our insight into the life of Christ, it is not because we have earned it through our own merits or skill, but because we have been obedient and been drawn closer to Him. There is a certain irony that when we feel that – the first response is often pride, which drives a wedge in once again. There is, perhaps, nothing less attractive than when we are boastful about our piety, a very easy habit to fall in to, mistaking it for virtue.
But we are to acknowledge that our failings, our sins, our transgressions are indeed our own. Again it is tempting to blame them on circumstance or on the wiles of the enemy, but ultimately our response to his trickery is our own. Therefore we should be thankful for the gift we receive in our personal growth in holiness and repentant for our failure. Repeatedly.