Fr Billy Swan
In these challenging times for preachers and teachers of the Gospel, it seems important to avoid two extremes that Christ the Master preacher and teacher, deftly succeeded in doing. The first extreme is to exaggerate the differential relationship between the Church and the world. This is where the call to holiness removes Christians from the world to such an extent that they no longer engage with the joys, sorrows, challenges and real-life situations of the vast majority of people. They become so heavenly that they become no earthly good. As Pope Francis has warned us in ‘Rejoice and be Glad’, this can lead to an elitism where the bonds of communion between the Church and the world become weaker:
‘Not infrequently, contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savour’ (Rejoice and Be Glad, 58).
The other extreme is to try and marry the ‘Heilige Geist’ and the ‘Zeit Geist’. In other words to perfectly reconcile the Holy Spirit with the spirit of the age in which we live. Any attempts to do this will inevitably lead to us twisting the Gospel message to becoming something it is not, in order to make it more relevant and acceptable. Such efforts lead to a silencing of the Church’s message as a prophetic voice and a diluting of her witness as a prophetic sign in a fallen world in need of salvation. For if the Church is no different to the surrounding culture, then who would be attracted to the alternative way of life she tries to model?
One man who was acutely aware of this latter danger was St Benedict whose feast day we celebrate on 11th July. Disillusioned by the corruption he saw in Rome, he fled to a cave in Subiaco outside the city, to discern the way God was calling him to model a holy life that was both ‘in the world’ but ‘not of the world’.
I recently read a book entitled ‘Humility Rules: Saint Benedict’s 12-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem’, written by the Benedictine Augustine Wetta. In the book, the author cleverly and humourously, juxta-poses twelve pillars of the Benedictine rule and contrasts them with modern wisdom. In this article, I briefly outline six of them and will post the last six next week. All twelve are accompanied by a brief commentary:
1. Be afraid – Fear of God. The Bible tells us that the fear of God is the first step to wisdom. We are often encouraged today not to be afraid but the Word of God asks us specifically to be afraid of the living God. St Benedict instructed his monks: ‘Always have the fear of God before your eyes and avoid all thoughtlessness so that you are constantly mindful of everything God has commanded’. For if we fear God in the right way, then we fear nothing or no-one. In the words of St John Henry Newman: ‘Fear and love must go together ; always fear (God) always love, to your dying day’.
2. Don’t be True to yourself – Self-denial. Young people in particular are constantly being told to be true to themselves. A noble ideal for sure. But where then is the room for self-denial? Modern wisdom also puts great emphasis on the human will: ‘You can be who you want to be’. In contrast, St Benedict writes: ‘Do not be in love with your own will’. For Benedict, doing God’s will was the key to the fulfillment of all desire – a desire our own wills are too small to hope for.
3. Don’t Follow your Dreams – Obedience. Everyone has dreams. That’s good. The trouble is that the scope of these dreams are sometimes unrealistic, utopian and often centered on ourselves. Yet, dreams are important for they drive us forward and empower of with a sense of purpose. Therefore, what matters is the dreams we have and whether they include things like creating a better world, doing God’s will for our lives and becoming saints. That’s why Pope Francis wrote a book called ‘Let us Dream: the path to a better future’. But in order to stay on this course, we need the help of others to show us the way - not to follow ‘our way’ but ‘The Way. In the words of St Benedict: ‘The brethren must be obedient not only to the abbot, but also to one another, knowing that this path of obedience is how they will reach God’.
4. Suffer Fools Gladly – Perseverance. What is perseverance? It is fidelity in the midst of failure. This is an important lesson that all of us have to learn. The need to get up after a fall, dust ourselves down and try again. We all know what it’s like when things don’t go our way or when we meet people who test our charity and patience. The challenge for us is not to criticize others or moan our misfortune but to turn it around on ourselves and ask how the Lord is asking me to love and to grow. In his Rule, St Benedict warns no less than eight times against moaning and complaining. In doing so he followed an earlier tradition of St John Chrysostom who said: ‘It is better to do nothing than to do it with murmuring for even the very thing itself is spoiled…For murmuring is intolerable, most intolerable; it borders upon blasphemy; it is a proof of ingratitude; the murmurer is ungrateful to God’ (Homily 8).
5. Put your worst foot forward – Repentance. St Benedict’s Rule makes plenty of room for human failure. He takes for granted this will happen and moves quickly to address it in a balanced and fatherly way. He writes: ‘The monk should confess his sins to God daily in prayer with sighs and tears and resolve to amend them for the future. Later, he should reveal those thoughts to a spiritual father’. What matters for Benedict is for the person to grow in love and to live in humble dependency on God’s grace. Denial of the broken side of human nature is one of the major problems of our time. If ‘Man is the measure of all things’ (Protagoras), then what happens when that measure is shown to be flawed? If we don’t see this, then repentance makes no sense. And if there is no repentance, we are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again.
6. Be Someone’s Doormat – Serenity. Grievance procedures are now a standard part of work policies. ‘Know your rights’, ‘stand up for yourself’ and ‘fight back’ we are told’. Contrast this with the words of St Benedict: ‘When ill treatment comes your way, try to accept it. Learn to be content with the lowliest and worst of everything, and in all that is demanded of you’. There is great wisdom in this. Most of us have the same triggers that cause us to react angrily or defensively when we are criticized. But maybe the criticisms are right? Maybe there is truth in them? The mature person keeps calm and serene even when they are attacked. St Benedict writes: ‘When ill treatment comes your way try to accept it. Learn to be content with the lowliest and worst of everything and in all that is demanded of you’. For the wise and spiritually mature, when challenges come our way, we remain serene because we know that we are never alone. Our peace of mind and ultimate value does not depend on how others think of us or make us feel. That is why Benedict’s advise to his monk of ‘Don’t chase after pleasures’ is so important.
PART 2 NEXT WEEK