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We are, indeed, forbidden to do our own will by Scripture, which saith to us: turn away from thine own will. (Ecclesiasticus 18:30) And so too we beg of God in prayer that His will may be done in us. (Matthew 6:10) Rightly therefore are we taught not to do our own will, if we take heed to the warning of Scripture: “There are ways which to men seem right, but the ends thereof lead to the depths of hell” (Proverbs 16:25); or, again, when we tremble at what is said of the careless: “They are corrupt and have become abominable in their pleasures” (Psalm 12:2). And in regard to the desires of the flesh, we must believe that God is always present to us, as the prophet saith to the Lord: “O Lord, all my desire is before Thee” (Psalm 37:9).
The word voluntas (will) appears five times in today’s appointed portion of Chapter VII. We must, before anything else, make the distinction between our own will, sometimes called self–will, and the simple will, by which a man chooses to act. Lesser creatures act out of necessity: only man has the capacity to reflect, to choose a course of action, and either to carry out what he has chosen or to abstain from the thing he has not chosen.
The will is naturally oriented to a good. Inscribed in every human being is the desire to choose and to do the thing that promises happiness. God, in creating each one of us, had our happiness, our eternal happiness in view. When a man’s will is not aligned with God’s will for his eternal happiness, it becomes self–will, a divergence from the will of God, a turning aside from the way that leads to the happiness for which he was created. There is a prayer of Mother Yvonne–Aimée that I often say, because it speaks directly to this dilemma:
Most Holy Trinity,
do in me whatsoever you want to find in me,
so as to draw out of my nothingness
all the love and all the glory which you had in view
when you created me.
All sin is a twisting of the will away from “things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart conceived, the welcome God has prepared for those who love him. (1 Corinthians 2:9). Man’s twisted will, his self–will sets its sights on something that presents the appearances of a good but that, in the end, offers a man not happiness, but desolation, not fulfilment, but emptiness. God speaks to the soul by many and sundry means to say, “Child, your happiness is not in this thing that you crave; you may think it promises sweetness, but I tell you that it will bring you nothing but bitterness. You may think that this thing that so fascinates you will also fulfil you, but I tell you that it will leave you empty. In your desire for happiness, your will has become twisted and misdirected; give your will back to me that I may realign it with My plan for your happiness, with My plan for your life”.
All of Psalm 118, the great Psalm of the Law that we pray every Sunday and Monday at the Little Hours is a prayer for the realignment of one’s will with the Will of God:
Deliver me from every false thought; make me free of thy covenant.
Duty’s path my choice, I keep thy bidding ever in remembrance.
Disappoint me, Lord, never, one that holds fast by thy commandments.
Do but open my heart wide, and easy lies the path thou hast decreed.
Expound, Lord, thy whole bidding to me; faithfully I will keep it.
Enlighten me, to scan thy law closely, and keep true to it with all my heart.
Eagerly I long to be guided in the way of thy obedience.
Ever let my choice be set on thy will, not on covetous thoughts.
Eyes have I none for vain phantoms; let me find life in following thy ways. (Psalm 118:29–37)
It takes great faith to ask God to redirect one’s will to what He wills for one’s life, or even for one moment of one’s life. This is where humble prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary becomes indispensable. Let us just say that a man can know, either from reason, or from divine revelation, or from woeful past experience, that his self–will is not aligned with the Will of God. A man can, all the same, cling to his self–will, fearing that if he surrenders to the Will of God he will be cheated out of something that is his due, or suffer the deprivation of some perceived good, or find himself visited by all the woes of Job. It is an old temptation; it is as old as sin. It plays upon all our worst fears. The Blessed Virgin Mary does not condemn one caught in such a quandary. Our Lady looks upon Eve’s exiled children with eyes of mercy, and stretches forth her hand to help. It may take much prayer before a man’s will is untwisted and redirected to its proper end, but there is no prayer so effective as humble recourse to the Mother of God. I know of no recourse to the Mother of God as humble and, at the same time, as efficacious as the Rosary.
Brothers sometimes say to me, “But, Father Prior, you are always going on about the benefits of the Rosary. I find it hard to say the Rosary. Frankly, I find it rebarbative. You present the Rosary as a kind of spiritual panacea. It may work for you, but I can’t do it”. Fair enough. I will listen patiently to the brother who comes to me with these or similar objections, and then I will say: “Put your objections aside, stop focusing on the difficulties that you anticipate, force yourself a little to make a beginning. You will see that after one decade of the Rosary, you will be able to pray two; and after two, three; and after three, four; and after four, five. And after five, you will begin to experience something changing in you: a mysterious stirring of grace”.
There is no difficulty that the prayer of the Rosary cannot resolve; no struggle over which it cannot triumph; no resistance that it cannot overcome. Why is this so? For three reasons. First, because the Rosary is a humble prayer; it is dear to the humble of heart, and humbles those who persevere in saying it. And God never resists the humble. Second, because to say the Rosary is an act of obedience to the Mother of God. The Rosary figures prominently in the message of the Mother of God at Lourdes and at Fatima. Even the Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov told his disciples that it is a prayer dear to the Mother of God. It doesn’t matter that a man have or not have a personal attraction to these things; it is enough that he put his objections and preferences aside and say to himself, “I will do this because reliable witnesses have said that it is what the Mother of God asks; I will do it because hundreds of thousands of pilgrims — the poor, the sick of mind and body, the halt, the blind, and those in the grip of vice — have done it and obtained grace in time of need”. Humility and obedience are, need I say, fundamental Benedictine virtues. Third, the Rosary quiets the internal din that so often keeps a man from being still enough to hear “the whisper of a gentle breeze” (3 Kings 19:12) that announces the passage of the Lord.
One who perseveres in praying the Rosary will, after time, find himself saying with complete submission and abandonment to the Will of God, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). I remember — it must have been in the very early 1980s — suffering from a terrible strain of acedia and, at the same time, battling demons that left me exhausted. Only the Rosary brought me relief. I remember that on one occasion I went to my abbot to pour out my distress. He immediately asked, “Have you been saying the Rosary?” I had to admit that I had grown so weary that I had, for a time, laid aside this powerful “sword of the Spirit”. No sooner had I taken it up again than I began to emerge from the particular emotional and spiritual pathology that had laid me low.
There are two mysteries of the Rosary well suited to today’s portion of Chapter VII: the First Joyful Mystery, the Annunciation, and the First Sorrowful Mystery, the Agony in Gethsemani. I have already said something about the Annunciation; allow me to say, in conclusion, something about the Agony in Gethsemani. I seem always to hear in a kind of counterpoint to this text of the Holy Rule the poignant Communion Antiphon of Palm Sunday with its mysterious 8th mode melody: Pater . . . fiat voluntas tua, “Father . . . Thy will be done”. Saint Benedict sets forth his doctrine clearly: “We are, indeed, forbidden to do our own will by Scripture, which saith to us: ‘turn away from thine own will'” (Ecclesiasticus 18:30). How can one not relate this to the prayer of Our Lord in Gethsemani?
And he was withdrawn away from them a stone’s cast; and kneeling down, he prayed, saying: Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done. And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony, he prayed the longer. And his sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground. (Luke 22: 41–44)