6 Jan. 7 May. 6 Sept.
Since then, brethren, we have asked of the Lord who is to inhabit His temple, we have heard His commands to those who are to dwell there and if we fulfil those duties, we shall be heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Our hearts, therefore, and our bodies must be made ready to fight under the holy obedience of His commands; and let us ask God to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us. And if we would arrive at eternal life, escaping the pains of hell, then – while there is yet time, while we are still in the flesh, and are able to fulfil all these things by the light which is given us – we must hasten to do now what will profit us for all eternity.
Saint Benedict speaks today of the battle waged in the heart and in the body. It is not uncommon for a brother to think that, upon entering the monastery, his heart will be flooded with the pax benedictina. How often has a postulant arrived in the cloister, unpacked his bags, and, with a great sigh, sat down in his cell for the first time, saying to himself: “Peace at last. Peace at last”, only to come out of choir the next morning with a war being waged in his heart. I have more confidence in the perseverance of the man who describes his heart as a battlefield, than in that of the man who tells me that he encounters no struggles and sheds no tears. If you are becoming a monk, you are engaged in battle. There is a reason why I gave each of you a copy of the Antirrhetikos of Evagrius.
• The battles of the heart have to do, first of all, with pride. Pride has been called the umbrella under which all sinful behavior is found. It has also be called the queen of vices. The chief symptom of pride is summed up in the Non serviam of the devil. Just as the first sign of humility is obedience, the first sign of pride is disobedience. The prideful man is often clever enough to camouflage his disobedience; he may prefer murmuring and critical insinuations to overt acts of disobedience. The prideful man is, in any case, convinced that he knows more, that he knows better, that sees more clearly, thinks more logically, and judges more justly. Some other examples of pride come to mind: one brother takes offense easily; another bristles when corrected; another cannot bear to be seen making a mistake; another attributes malevolent intentions to others, and still another harbours a secret disdain for others and is quick to point out their faults.
Following the teaching of Evagrius, the other battles of the heart are against gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, and vainglory. The brother who thinks that he has conquered, once and for all, the coarser vices, and has only to give his virtue a few final touches, is the one most deluded by pride and, consequently, the one most susceptible to falling into the very vices that he thinks he has already vanquished. It is useful, I think, to look at what characterises the eight capital vices.
• Gluttony focuses on a legitimate desire — food, drink, rest, comfort — and seeks to indulge that desire without restraint, often for fear of being deprived of something, or having to go without it. Gluttony can also be a way of isolating oneself from emotional pain and of keeping others at a distance. In nearly every instance, gluttony reveals a fear of abandonment and a lack of trust in Divine Providence.
• Lust focuses on the desire of something forbidden, generally, but not always, of a sexual nature, and suggests to a man that if he indulges this desire, it will provide him with an escape from anxiety, stress, loneliness, and sadness.
• Greed focuses on getting more of something. Like gluttony, greed can come out of a fear of running out of what one thinks is necessary to one’s health and happiness. The greedy man is quick to grasp things and slow to let go of them. The greedy man accumulates things in a pitiful attempt to stay in control of his life.
• Sadness is linked to instability. It is the principal temptation against the vow of stability and the joyful observance of enclosure. The man in the grip of sadness wants to be somewhere else; he wants to be doing something else; he wants to be with other people. He is perpetually restless and incapable of being content with what is, with where he is, and with whom he finds himself. He is always looking for an excuse to get out and to get away. Paradoxically, the only proven remedy for sadness is stability in the enclosure of the monastery.
• Anger is often driven by a bitter zeal to set things right, to correct an injustice, to settle a score, or to defend a cause. Anger may be driven by a bitter zeal to do something or to procure something that, in itself, is harmless or even good. Even when anger springs from a relatively accurate perception of circumstances, it wreaks havoc, injures others, poisons the atmosphere, wounds charity, and fragments unity. It is easy to justify one’s anger. It is difficult to control it and even more difficult to repair the damage it causes.
• Acedia is a kind of weariness of the heart. It makes a man sluggish. The monk in the grip of acedia finds the observances too hard, the customs of the house annoying, the admonitions of the abbot boring, the good zeal of others exaggerated, and punctuality unreasonable. Such a brother will, more often than not, develop a positive loathing for the sound of the bell.
• Vainglory is a desire to be raised above others. The monk in the grip of vainglory has an insatiable appetite for approval. He craves praise. He thrives on marks of respect and honour. He secretly waits for others to acknowledge the superiority that, in his own mind, is self–evident. The other side of vainglory is a kind of schadenfreude: the vainglorious monk feels bolstered when another brother makes a mistake, or sings a wrong note, or mispronounces a word, or burns the soup. The vainglorious monk takes a secret delight in catching others in a fault.
The monk who lives with Our Lady, who hides nothing from her, shows her everything, and tells her all his thoughts can be assured of victory in his combat against the vices. True devotion to Mary is a sign of humility; souls infected with spiritual pride are, more often than not, ill at ease in her presence. The very mention of the Holy Name of Mary can cause them to squirm. If prideful souls profess a devotion to Mary it is either a false devotion, or a formalistic one, or a notional one, that is, one that has not yet descended from the head into the heart.
The rosary, because it is a profoundly simple and humble prayer, eradicates pride. When pride begins to shrink, all the other vices begin to shrink with it, and virtues begin to sprout in their place. I have often told you about the founder of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, the famous Dominican, Père Marie–Joseph Lagrange, who, walking back and forth in the alley next to the Couvent Saint–Étienne, prayed the full fifteen mysteries of the rosary every day. One day, a bright young scholar, with his head stuffed full of book learning, approached Père Lagrange and, with a smug smirk, asked, “But Mon Père, is it possible that you tell your beads each day? The rosary is suited to old women and poor ignorant folk, but I don’t understand why you, with your vast scientific knowledge of the Bible, walk back and forth telling your beads?” Père Lagrange looked straight at the young scholar and said, “Yes, I say the rosary because it decapitates pride”. Then with a little bow and a sweet smile, Père Lagrange continued his beads.
Saint Benedict says, “let us ask God to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us”. There is no more effective way of doing this than by having recourse to Mary, the Mediatrix of All Graces, and the simplest way of having recourse to her is by saying the rosary. The monk who tells his beads is, most effectively, carrying out what Saint Benedict enjoins: he is asking God, through Mary, “to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us”. Such a monk will not be disappointed in his hope.