Chapter Seven (Part One)

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The Value of Humility

The word of God in Scripture teaches us in clear and resounding terms that anyone who lays claim to a high position will be brought low and anyone who is modest in self-appraisal will be lifted up. This is Christ’s teaching about the guest who took the first place at the king’s banquet: all who exalt themselves, he said, will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted. He taught us by these words that whenever one of us is raised to a position of prominence there is always an element of pride involved. The Psalmist shows his concern to avoid this when he says: there is no pride in my heart, O Lord, nor arrogance in the look of my eyes; I have not aspired to a role too great for me nor the glamour of pretensions that are beyond me. We should be wary of such pride. And why does he say this? It is because lack of humility calls for correction and so the psalm goes on: If I failed to keep a modest spirit and raised my ambitions too high, then your correction would come down on me as though I were nothing but a newly weaned child on its mother’s lap.’

Whenever I read any of Benedict’s words about humility the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, always comes to mind. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly, I am a devotee of Merton, I have read a lot of his works and have completed an MA Thesis on his writings, so I am somewhat bias. Secondly, from reading his autobiography, his diaries and other works, humility is something that he struggled with in his monastic vocation. Although I do not believe that Merton was an intrinsically prideful person he was an artist, a prolific writer, and there was a desire to be known for his work. The struggle to balance this with a monastic vocation was evident and it was his two abbots that really helped him to find the way.

Merton was once described as the sort of man who wanted to live in a hermitage, but have that hermitage in the middle of Times Square with a big neon sign that read ‘Hermit’ flashing over the top. He had a desire to be known but also a desire to disappear into God. When the first PhD was written about Merton, he was still alive and upon reading it he was both flattered but also perturbed and remarked ‘I have always said far too much far too soon’ – he was his biggest critic and that came from, I believe, this conflict within, to be humble but also the desire to be someone.

It is difficult to be elevated to a position of prominence without it going to our heads. We are human and there is a natural human inclination to want to be liked. This is especially problematic in the church. If you follow the calling that God has placed upon your life, be that into ordained ministry, the religious life, marriage or serving God in another equally important capacity as a layman, sometimes it is noticed and recognition comes. When God gives us the capacity to achieve the calling placed upon us, it is far too easy to take the credit. But this path will lead to ruin. It is always pertinent to remember that those who deserve to be called saint are the very people who know they don’t deserve it and yet strive for it.

‘If the peak of our endeavour, then, is to achieve profound humility, if we are eager to be raised to that heavenly height, to which we can climb only through humility during our present life, then let us make for ourselves a ladder like the one which Jacob saw in his dream. On that ladder angels of God were shown to him going up and down in a constant exchange between heaven and earth. It is just such an exchange that we need to establish in our own lives, but with this difference: our proud attempts at upward climbing will really bring us down, whereas to step downwards in humility is the way to lift our spirit up towards God.’

This passage makes clear that the achievement of humility is beyond tricky. It is something that the desert fathers dwelt on often. The moment you begin to make progress on this most arduous path you will notice it and be pleased with yourself, which is pride in your achievements and will undo the work that has been going on in your soul. So how is it possible? As human beings with these natural character traits and such, to get closer to God? The key I think that Benedict uses to unlock this problem is the phrase ‘exchange’ – there must be something transactional happening between God and the Soul. The Soul must exchange the desire for power, success, wealth – and most importantly, the idolatry of self, for the humility, grace, and mercy of God. Only when the Soul is prepared to surrender the will to the great will of God and lower itself, will God lift it to the next rung of the ladder.

One of the stories from the desert fathers that I really cling to when thinking about humility is this: One day a wise master was teaching his student. The student was making mistakes and getting his lessons wrong, often. The master flew into a rage and shooed the student from his dwelling vowing to teach him no longer. There the master remained for several days. He began to feel guilt for the way he had treated his student, for his fit of rage and his lack of patience. He resolved, after several days in prayer and fasting, to go and find his student and make amends. Upon opening his door he found the student sitting outside, exactly where he had left him. They were reconciled, but the master informed his student that their roles were now reversed.

This beautiful story captures what it is to be gripped by pride and suddenly brought low. The humility shown by the original student displaces the pride of the master and teaches him true humility. That was one lesson that he got right.

‘The ladder, then, will symbolise for each of us our life in this world during which we aspire to be lifted up to heaven by the Lord, if only we can learn humility in our hearts. We can imagine that he has place the steps of the ladder, held in place by the sides which signify our living body and soul, to invite us to climb on them. Paradoxically, to climb upwards will take us down to earth but stepping down will lift us toward heaven. The steps themselves, then, mark the decisions we are called to make in the exercise of humility and self discipline.’

Benedict introduces a step-by-step programme to achieve humility, or at the very least, begin on that path. The image of the rungs of the ladder being held together by the body and the soul show the importance of spiritual discipline and the tempering of the body, this very much brings to mind the ‘work and prayer’ mantra of the Benedictine community. To work and therefore strengthen the body, to pray and in doing so strengthen the soul which in turn both between them keep the rungs firmly in place that we may move up and down them.

Self-discipline is am important element as this is not something that can be imposed upon an unwilling Soul. There must be some desire to begin this process, even if the will is weak. This is something that I often tell to penitents in confession if they are dealing with a particularly difficult sin that is clinging closely to them. If they cannot truthfully say they want to rid themselves of it (because it is enjoyable) then I often ask, do you at least want to want to be rid of it. Although the wording is similar wanting to want something is subtly different from wanting it. While wanting it may seem far away and unachievable to want to want it is a step closer. It is a recognition of a need to change and a want for that to happen even if the will is not quite ready to get to grips with it.

The path to humility that Benedict sets out has twelve steps, which we shall begin to look at next time.

 

Chapter Six

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Cherising Silence in the Monastery 

‘In a monastery we ought to follow the advice of the psalm which says: I have resolved to keep watch over my ways so that I may not sin with my tongue. I am guarded about the way I speak and have accepted silence in humility refraining even from words that are good. In this verse the psalmist shows that, because of the value of silence, there are times when it is best not to speak even though what we have in mind is good. How much more important it is to refrain from evil speech, remembering what such sins bring down on us in punishment.’

Benedict once more appeals to scripture as a teaching aid, referring the reader to the psalms as he begins this very short chapter on the value of silence within the monastery. The first aspect of this chapter that I noticed was how surprisingly short it is for something that is clearly so important to the life of the community and central to The Rule itself. This put me in mind of my first encounters with the Nicene Creed as a student of theology. I was struck when reading that text afresh and from a different angle of the pattern of the words. There is a paragraph on the nature of God, there is a huge section (comparatively to the rest of the Creed) on Christ and then the Holy Spirit gets one line, simply confirming existence and and belief in It.

The reason for this apparent discrepancy between the three figures of the Godhead is because of how much or, to be specific, how little debate there had been about the nature of each. What is written about God in that short paragraph is relatively uncontroversial, it sets firmly those things which people of different Christian belief generally believe and what they mean.

Christ was the controversial figure and many debates raged about His nature. His divinity, His personhood, His life and ministry and so the section of the Creed dealing with Him had to be much more rich in detail to flesh (no pun intended) out some of those details.

The Holy Spirit clearly caused them very little bother. The spirit exists and we believe it. Simple. It is not that less value is placed on what has been has had the fewest lines written about it. Similarly this short chapter suggests that the importance of silence is already an accepted point and little needs to be said to reinforce that point.

The way in which this particular chapter begins is interesting. Once again it appeals to the virtue of humility and the temptation to speak, even when we believe that the words we have to say are good words.  This is really to make us stop and think; does this need to be said? is it more important that the atmosphere of silence that is being cultivated? Is it worth breaking that rich, dense silence where God may be just about to speak, in order that my own voice, my own thought, my own words may be heard by others instead?

I often think of this in relation to those beautiful words of S. Luke about Our Lady. ‘She treasured these things in her heart’ – arguably a scriptural reference to contemplation. When good thoughts arise, through prayer, through meditation, through interaction with others (however silently) rather than feeling the need to speak them aloud, internalising them and treasuring them in the heart often feels like a prayerful response.

This practice of being attentive to the good thoughts that we have but curbing our natural inclination to speak means that when it then comes to bad thoughts, those sharp words or reactions that we would make in situations of stress, anger or irritation – they too will be somewhat tempered and we may be able to more effectively keep to the right path.

‘In fact so important is it to cultivate silence, even about matters concerning sacred values and spiritual instruction, that permission to speak should be granted rarely to monks and nuns although they may themselves have achieve a high standard of monastic observance. After all, it is written in scripture that one who never stops talking cannot avoid falling into sin. Another text in the same book reminds us that the tongue holds the key to death and life. We should remember that speaking and instructing belong to the teacher: the disciple’s role is too be silent and listen’

Permission to speak – if you are a fan of the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army then that phrase may well put you in mind of the enthusiastic but bumbling Lance Corporal Jones, who, when addressing his senior officer always begins with those words. The humour that derives from this particular situation is that he never actually waits to be granted permission and usually what he has to say is not worth the time it has taken to make the request, usually some crackpot idea or inept response.

To be given permission to speak is a two fold discipline. Once again there is a strong element of submission, that we are putting ourselves under the authority of another and therefore have to accept that permission may not be given. Secondly, it rations the amount of time we are given to speak. Everything said, therefore, should be of value. If you were granted three wishes you would no doubt think very carefully about what you might ask for, but if your wishes were unlimited there would be little need for such discernment.

Silence is a continual theme in the Gospels. Our Lord withdraws often from the crowds and the hubbub of the city and market place and withdraws into solitude and silence. When Mary and Martha receive Jesus into their home, the silence sitting and listening of Mary is prized more highly than the energetic, practical response of Martha, and of course the contemplation of Jesus’ own mother in S. Luke’s account as mentioned earlier.

To sit in silence with God allows us to drink in the wisdom that He offers. To continually bombard Him with words, or indeed to fill our entire world with the audible response to our own thoughts degrades the amount and the quality of time that we give to God and to others.

‘If any, then, have requests to make of the superior they should make them with deference and respect. As for vulgarity and idle gossip repeated for the sake of a laugh, such talk is forbidden at all times and in all places; we should never allow a disciple to utter words like that.’

These final two points seem to be more practical to the health and life of the community. They show a need to reinforce the hierarchy by showing suitable respect to the superior, once again a visible display of the virtue of humility that a life submitted to Christ, the Rule and the superior demands but also that gossip, whilst it may give a laugh, is always at the expense of another. This does not show value to each member of the community equally. Some are in on the joke whilst others remain the butt of it. It forms cliques and different allegiances amongst the community which can cause division and disharmony.

Chapter Five

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Monastic Obedience 

‘The first step on the way to humility is to obey an order without delaying for a moment. That is a response which comes easily to those who hold nothing dearer than Christ Himself. And so, because of the holy service monks and nuns have accepted in their monastic profession or because they fear the self-destruction of hell or value so much the glory of eternal lie, as soon as a superior give them an order it is as though it came from God Himself and they cannot endure any delay in carrying out what they have been told to do. Of such servants of His the Lord says that they obeyed Him as soon as they heard Him. We should remember also that He said to the teachers whoever listens to you, listens to me.’

It is fair to say that all of us have a selfish streak that is most interested, first and foremost, in the preservation of the self or the furthering of ones own desires and ambitions. To be a Christian means to surrender our will to God and allow Him (even the language of ‘allow’ is soaked in a ridiculous notion that I could, in some way, prevent God from doing whatever He wills to do) to use our lives as He sees fit. We have to surrender our personal ambition when it does not align with His. That can be an incredibly painful aspect of growing in our spiritual life.

For the monk or nun in community there is an added layer to this. They are to think of their superior as ‘Christ in the monastery’ and treat instruction as though it comes from God Himself. This places a huge amount of power in the hands of the Abbot or Abbess. But part of the humility exercised through the monastic vows of obedience is that trust has to be put in the system – that the community, guided by the Holy Spirit, has chosen the right person to lead them. Obeying and following the instruction of that chosen person, though you may not like the person or even believe they are the right choice for the role, demonstrates a commitment to the vow, to the community but also to God.

To accept that someone else may know better than we do, may have a clearer view of the situation and therefore have given suitable instruction is the first step toward humility, to admit that we might not be the last word, is easier for some. In a modern world that has driven into us from a young age, through consumerist advertising and other forms of unhealthy media, that we are the centre of our own world. It has created in many people (myself included) a worrying sense of entitlement that is difficult to shed and harder to penetrate, even for a moment. To surrender to God is one thing, to surrender to another human being is quite another but it is healthy to be reminded, often, that we are not the centre of the universe around which everything else rotates.

‘The obedience of such people leads them to leave aside their own concerns and forsake their own will. They abandon what they have in hand and leave it unfinished. With a ready step inspired by obedience they respond by their action to the voice that summons them. It is, in fact, almost in one single moment that a command is uttered by the superior and the task is carried to completion by the disciple, showing how much more quickly other acts are accomplished together because of their reverence for God.’

To be able to be comfortable to stop whatever task you have in hand and move swiftly, without complaint, without question, to something else is a difficult thing to do. No doubt we have all been irritated by the phone ringing just as we sit down to something else, or the unexpected visitor who seems to have an uncanny ability to call around just as you think you are done for the day. But to be able to respond in a positive way shows that the self-centred part of ourselves is not as strong, that my perceived needs or wants are not more important than someone else’s pressing concerns. It is a way in which we can take seriously what it means to be community, what it means to model being the body of Christ.

And it is important to focus on the reason for this sort of obedience. It is not because it is good in and of itself, it is not even that it leads toward the virtue that is humility, but it is because it is a way to show due reverence to God. The Church militant is the Bride of Christ and as members of it, we are to show it due diligent attention, despite the imperfections, catastrophic failures, and often hopeless management of it. Christ loves it enough that He was prepared to die for it. Are we prepared to unselfishly serve it, and therefore Him, through it?

I always find interesting the haste that is mentioned in this chapter. Why must the response to the call be with so much speed? I think this is largely because of that old phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’ – If the superior were to ask and the monk or nun were to respond ‘Yes, in a minute’ – while the task may well be completed eventually and the subordinate has shown willing, the delay, the ‘minute’ that is given (and let us be honest, it is never  minute when we say such things, is it?) is buying more time for our own endeavours. It is a suggestion, although passively, that what we are doing is still more important. The act taking place immediately without delay, is reminiscent of the response of those early disciples to the call of Christ, especially in the break-neck pace of Mark’s gospel, where they leave ‘immediately’ and follow Him. His call does not take second place to their own agendas, desires, or whim.

‘Those who are possessed by a real desire to find their way to eternal life don’t hesitate to choose the narrow way to which our Lord referred when he said: Narrow is the way which leads to life. They live not to serve their own will nor to give way to their own desires or pleasures, but they submit their way of life to the decisions and instructions of another, living in a monastery and willingly accepting an abbot or abbess as their superior. No one can double that they have as their model that saying of the Lord: I came not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me.’

Benedict is a master of understanding the human condition. If you are like me, when you read those first two paragraphs and the heavy instruction that is given, you may well have balked at what was required. That inner sense of self-entitlement railing against being challenged. How does Benedict deal with this? He refers straight back to scripture, reminding the reader and his monastic fraternity that this is all about the journey toward eternity. Those aspects of refining  the soul which may be painful are incredibly insignificant compared to what is offered, an eternity in Glory. The narrow path is not the easy path, but it is the one that paves the way to the throne room.

No doubt that some encouragement is needed, and so the primary example is skilfully deployed by Benedict, not as a trick of rhetoric or a manipulation of sensibility but because at the centre of the Benedictine rule is Christ. He, like the monk, the nun, the Christian, submitted Himself to the will of another, the one who sent Him, God the Father. Even when submission to that will meant the sacrifice of His life. Here, we are being asked to follow suit, not to give up our lives but to give up a very particular aspect of our selfish nature, a death must occur, a death to self.

‘We should remember, however, that such obedience will be acceptable to God and rewarding to us, if we carry out the orders given in a way that is not fearful, nor slow, nor half-hearted, nor marred by murmering or the sort of compliance that betrays resentment. Anything like that would be quite wrong because obedience to superiors is obedience to God, as the Lord Himself made clear when He said: He who listens to you, listens to me. Indeed, obedience must be given with genuine good will, because God loves a cheerful giver. If obedience is given with a bad will and with murmuring not only in words but even in bitterness of heart, then even though the command may be externally fulfilled it will not be accepted by God, for he can see the resistance in the heart of a murmurer. One who behaves in such a way not only fails to receive the reward of grace but actually incurs the punishment deserved by murmurers. Only repentance and reparation can save such a one from this punishment.’

If there was any doubt as to the purpose of this chapter then Benedict clearly tidies that up in this final paragraph. Doing what you are told is not enough, not if you are going to be openly hostile about it. What is the point in fulfilling the instruction given to you and holding on to a bitterness about it. That does not show that you have submitted in anything other than body, and while that is a partial submission, it is not what is required. Can you imagine if the early followers of Christ having ‘immediately’ left everything did nothing but complain with every step that took them further from home?

There is a strong focus on murmuring in this paragraph which relates specifically to the community that Benedict is writing The Rule for. You may well have experienced this in your place or work, your family or even your church. The muttering complaint of one person, while it may not be an open assault on the leadership of the community, is poison. It gets into the interactions between others, it begins to turn their mind, it undermines the leadership without ever giving any chance for redress. This toxicity can soon take a well balanced and harmonious community and turn it upside down. It breeds further complaint, many of which are not justified.

This is also, of course, a reminder that God focuses on what is inside. What is happening in the mind, in the heart and in the very depths of the soul. It is a similar warning that Jesus issued to the Pharisees. They may have ‘cleaned the outside’ by following the letter of the law perfectly and publicly, but their hearts were cold and hard. The purpose of these rules, especially obedience, is not simply to provide stability and order within a community, a family, or a church but to shape the character of each member, that they will be less focused upon themselves and more focused upon others, that they will be less like their old, fallen, human self, and more like His divine self. There must be a willingness to conform, not to bitterly follow the rules, but embrace what they are trying to teach.

 

Chapter Four (Part Two)

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‘You should recognise that there will be a day of reckoning and judgement for all of us, which should make us afraid of how we stand between good and evil. But, while you should have a just fear of the loss of everything in hell, you should above all cultivate a longing for eternal life with a desire of great spiritual intensity. Keep the reality of death always before your eyes, have a care about how you act every hour of your life and be sure that God is present everywhere and that he certainly sees and understands what you are about’

These words from Saint Benedict may not provide much comfort at their first reading. Several pop from the text; afraid, evil, fear, loss, hell. This is an aspect of the Christian life that we, as modern Western Christians are keen to skip past However, whilst we are content to focus on Christ as our friend, as our companion on the journey and our saviour, which are all good and right images, it should be balanced with the reminder that Christ is also the one in judgement, the one whom is master and king. What we are engaged in as Christians is the hard work of holiness, it is not a game that can be played on a whim or a luxury that we attend to when we have the time or when the Church seasons draw our mind to it in Lent and Advent. Without keeping before us a desire for eternal life with great spiritual intensity Benedict essentially asks, what is the purpose of this monastic experiment? Indeed, what is the purpose of our Christian devotion if it is not drawing us toward God in eternity.

‘Keep the reality of death always before your eyes’

Again, this may seem like a strange piece of The Rule, odd advice perhaps for those that wish to live a content and full life, perhaps even thought of as somewhat depressing or morbid. There are two points to make in this regard. Firstly, it is bluntly practical. You will die. I will die. Each one of us will die. There is nothing more certain in life than death. To face that reality, to be prepared as far as one can be means that focus and attention is sharpened, which is the second point. Our life is short. In the terms of eternity, in the time frame of God, it is a split second, despite living longer than our ancestors, despite all of the medical advancements and the cures to various ills, we don’t have long on our earthly pilgrimage. This, Benedict highlights, is to bring to our attention that in serving God, in preparing to meet Him, we don’t have long. We cannot dawdle. Be alert, be awake, be prepared. Each hour that passes brings us closer to Him and we have to ensure that when our lives are weighed before Him, we have made use of the gift.

Memento Mori (Remember that you have to die’) is a mediaeval Christian practice of reflection upon death. The purpose is not to reduce our mental state to one of pointlessness as we realise that all our endeavours will too pass away, but to sharpen our focus against what is vanity and what has genuine depth and meaning.

‘If ever evil thoughts occur to to your mind and invade your heart cast them down at the feet of Christ and talk about them frankly to your spiritual father or mother. Take care to avoid and speech that is evil and degenerate. It is also well to avoid empty talk that has no purpose except to raise a laugh. As for laughter that is unrestrained and raucous, it is not good to be attracted to that sort of thing.’

The imagery used here for evil thoughts is strong, they are invaders, arrows from the enemy being aimed at the heart and mind of the one striving for righteousness. We cannot bare this burden alone, we cannot carry all our own troubles and deal with assaults of the enemy ourselves. Benedict gives sound advice, to give them to Christ. Not just to gingerly approach and place them before Him, asking would He please assist, but to cast them down, toss them at His feet, dash them against the stones of Calvary. Secondly, get some support from the Christian community. Find a wise spiritual father or mother and seek their advice. For the monk this is an easy task, their monastic system provides for this with there holy father or mother, their abbot or abbess. For the Christian in the world, we too have the gift of Parish priests but also those that have given their lives in the service of the church as Spiritual Directors. If you do not have one, and you are serious about your Christian life, I would echo Benedict’s words, find one.

Once Benedict has drawn attention to the assaults from the other side he begins his practical advice on how to mould the character of the monk or Christian. They may seem like simple tips, don’t speak evil, don’t use degenerate words. Von Hugel once wrote that ‘Man is what he does with his silence’ and I think the same can be said of words. If our words in prayer are pious and spiritual but our words in the company of others, in our daily interactions, are not, are we living a united life to the glory of God.

‘You should take delight in listening to sacred reading and in often turning generously to prayer. You should also in that daily prayer confess to God with real repentance any evil you have done in the past for for the future have the firm purpose to put right any wrong you may have done’

This is one of the most beautiful phrases within The Rule (A text that although practical and somewhat severe is one that contains very many beautiful phrases), a reminder to turn generously to God in prayer. What does our prayer look like normally? Is it fraught? snatched in a five-minute window between other tasks, something that we only really get around to in the moments before bed and is interrupted by promptly falling asleep. That is not generous prayer. It is often said that God would just appreciate the effort, that someone is doing something is better than nothing. While that may be true to an extent, would we treat our human relationships with a similar callous disregard? Only contacting someone when we needed something, when we needed an ear to listen to our worries or asking a favour, would we maintain a depth of relationship if we were not generous in our time, and importantly, took time to listen to them too?

It is also quite telling that the first type of prayer that Benedict mentions in this paragraph is one of confession. While we are to be generous in our prayer we need to ensure that a large part of that is to confess our faults and resolve to do better. We are not to use our generous prayer to simply increase our shopping list of demands or pleas, but to use that time to firmly resolve to improve our spiritual life.

Don’t act out the sensuous desires that occur to you naturally and turn away from the pursuit of your own will. Rather you should follow in obedience the directions your abbot or abbess gives you, even if they, which God forbid, should contradict their own teaching by the way they live. In such a case just remember the Lord’s advice about the example of the Pharisees: accept and follow their teaching but on no account imitate their actions. 

Benedict is practical again and honest about the nature of our humanity. We are prone to sensuous desires. We are susceptible to following our own will based on our need for gratification, in whatever form that may take. In many ways those naturally occurring elements cannot be stopped but they can be controlled. We can choose what we do with them. When they crop up in the mind, do we simply push them aside, accepting them for what they are and continue on or do they take hold of us until we feel that we are unable to do anything but give in to them.

‘No one should aspire to gain a reputation for holiness. First of al we must actually become holy; then where would be some truth in having a reputation for it. The way to become holy is faithfully to fulfil God’s commandments every day by loving chastity, by hating no one, by avoiding envy and hostile rivalry, by not becoming full of self but showing due respect for our elders and love for those who are younger, by praying in the love of Christ for those who are hostile to us, by seeking reconciliation and peace before the sun goes down whenever we have a quarrel with another, and finally by never despairing of the mercy of God.’

This is the subtle distinction between striving for holiness and striving for a reputation for holiness. To say that you want to become a saint is perfectly good and perfectly right, in fact I would go as far as to say that it is the only suitable desire for a Christian, but to say that you want others to think that you are a saint, although similar in the pattern of speech, betrays a different desire. One glorifies God through their saintly actions, the other raises the self by the glorification of others. Strive to be a saint for God, not for yourself.

Of all the behaviours that Benedict says to refrain from in this passage and all of the noble acts that he suggests may pave the way of holiness, the one that really stands out is the final phrase. ‘By never despairing of the mercy of God‘ – keeping, once again, firmly in the mind that God the centre of all of this holy activity and that His mercy is abundant and beautiful in moments of failure and when hope ceases.

‘These, then are the guidelines to lead us along the way of spiritual achievement. If we follow them day and night and never on any account give up, so that on judgement day we can give an account of our fidelity to them, that reward will be granted to us by the Lord which he himself promised in the scriptures: what no eye has seen nor ear heard God has prepared for those who love him. The workshop in which we are called to work along these lines with steady perseverance is the enclosure of the monastery and the stability of community life.’

Spiritual Achievement always seems like a bizarre concept and it could, rightly, be challenged. If we are in the business of speaking about achievement then that surely means that there are ranks of success, do some come first and win the ultimate prize, whilst others languish in a lower rank? What is assured is the promise of God in scripture that the reward for those who are faithful and fulfil the commandments and statutes of God is eternal life, the mystery which no one has seen or heard, but there are indeed ranks. I may be granted the gift of eternal life through my faith and my devotion (please, God) but am I to be thought of as Blessed, or Saint in the future? Will my spiritual achievements merit such? We should follow these guidelines in the hope that whatever reputation we may achieve in death (or as one of those rare living folk who seem to ooze sanctity) we may give glory to God.

Finally Benedict leaves us with another practical aside. The workshop where this is to take place is within the stability of the monastery and the stability of community. We cannot do this alone.