The good spirit which should inspire monastic life.
It is easy to recognise the bitter spirit of wickedness which creates a barrier to God’s grace and opens the way to the evil of Hell. But equally there is a good sprit which frees us from evil ways and brings us closer to God and eternal life. It is the latter spirit that all who follow the monastic way of life should strive to cultivate, spurred on by fervent love. By following this path they try to be the first to show respect for one another with the greatest patience in tolerating weaknesses of body and character. They should even be ready to outdo each other in mutual obedience so that no one in the monastery aims at personal advantage but is rather concerned for the good of others. Thus the pure love of one another as of one family should be their ideal. As for God they should have a profound and loving reverence for Him. They should love their abbot or abbess with sincere and unassuming affection. They should value nothing whatever above Christ Himself and may He bring us all together to eternal life.
Upon reaching this part of the Rule it should be fairly evident as to what the purpose is that Benedict is attempting to guide people toward. Chapter seventy two is essentially a summary of the preceding seventy one chapters, reminding the monk or nun of their duty, to themselves and their spiritual growth, to their brothers and sisters in the community, also attempting to attain perfection, to their superior holding all things together for the common good and, most importantly, to God. The last point is especially pertinent. You could be the most disciplined monk or nun that has ever set foot inside the monastery but unless the eyes, heart and mind are raised to God then the works of the Rule are useless, it is a tool to produce the desired result of union with God, not a sacred text to be adored. The one who follows the letter but not the spirit is, like scripture says: ‘I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.’ (1 Corinthians 13:1b – The Authorised Version)
This chapter of the Rule serves to remind the monk or the nun to keep their motives pure. Whatever it was that drew them to the monastery, whether that was less than honest means or reasons, if one is prepared to submit to God even the crooked lines of our past can be written straight – but it requires an open heart, a desire, in the very least, to move toward that goal. The Rule will help and provide a backdrop for the work of the sanctification of the soul, working at the rough edges and training the mind to consider the other and God, but the monk or nun must be willing to receive the wisdom of the Holy Father and the working of the community order.
Benedict once again adds an almost competitive element to ‘outdo each other in mutual obedience’ – the principle introduced in the previous chapter (seventy one) – the same competitive spirit he introduced in getting to the oratory on time. Whilst competition is not really the aim, and there is no individual winner, if everyone were committed to mutual obedience as though it were a tournament with a prize then the winner is the entirety of the community. A willingness to do unto others is increased and each becomes more aware of the needs of others.
The beautiful prose that Benedict writes in this chapter provides a utopian glimpse of the Kingdom of God, and how we could realise that on earth, in our own communities – be that parish, family or work. To have a profound and loving reverence of God, to remind ourselves of that every day in the Work of God and allow the blessings of it to overflow into the wider world, in doing so we create an order based on Christ at the heart of creation, turning all attention away from the self-centred pride of our fallen human nature and upon the pattern of our perfection. When God is central everything else fits into place around it, the pieces of our lives in the tapestry of the divine are ably sewed together with our prayers and ordered desires, and we diminish the loose threats that can snag and unravel everything.
The simplicity of the life of the monk or nun is to allow one thing to occur, the last line of this chapter. ‘They should value nothing whatever above Christ Himself and may He bring us all together to eternal life” – When we are stripped of our attachment to worldly ‘things’, to the material objects that fuel our desire, from the ego and the inflated sense of self, then we can truly make space in our small, mortal hearts to truly love Christ and once He has entered in His Sacred Heart causes ours to expand, that we may take in humanity with compassion and love. The monastery is not an escape from the world, but the place where love is developed to contain the world.
The insights of the Rule of St Benedict, whilst expressing a particular way of life for those called to live in monastic life, provide for us, who live in the world a way to add balance and stability to our lives and grow in humility and love.