The Workman and His Tools

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Painting: Saint Joseph, Georges de la Tour, 1642.

CHAPTER IV. What are the Instruments of Good Works
18 Jan. 19 May. 18 Sept.

In the first place, to love the Lord God with all one's heart, all one's soul, and all one's strength.
2. Then one's neighbour as oneself.
3. Then not to kill.
4. Not to commit adultery.
5. Not to steal.
6. Not to covet.
7. Not to bear false witness.
8. To honour all men.
9. Not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself.
10. To deny oneself, in order to follow Christ.
11. To chastise the body.
12. Not to seek after delicate living.
13. To love fasting.
14. To relieve the poor.
15. To clothe the naked.
16. To visit the sick.
17. To bury the dead.
18. To help in affliction.
19. To console the sorrowing.
20. To keep aloof from worldly actions.
21. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

The Right Tools

Saint Benedict's instruments (or tools) of good works hearken back to the Prologue of the Holy Rule in which the Lord recruits His own workmen in the marketplace. The workman needs his tools. With the right tools one can do almost any task. Saint Benedict recognizes the importance of equipping his monk -- the workman of Christ -- with a vast array of tools, adapted to the work of acquiring virtue and renouncing vice.

Monks Who Are Practicing Christians

Chapter IV has nothing specifically monastic about it. Saint Benedict's 72 instruments belong to all Christians, and to those living in the world as much as to those within the enclosure of the monastery. Before anything else, Saint Benedict wants his monks to be practicing Christians. This first section of the instruments of good works thus begins with the commandments and goes on to enumerate the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Herein one finds the very rudiments of Christian living.

Love of God and Neighbour

The first 21 instruments begin with love and end with love. The first and second instruments are: "In the first place, to love the Lord God with all one's heart, all one's soul, and all one's strength. Then one's neighbour as oneself." The twenty-first instrument is: "To prefer nothing to the love of Christ." The instruments that fall in between are the demonstration of the love of God and of one's neighbour, and the sign that one has, effectively, resolved to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

The Love of Christ

I was first drawn to the Rule of Saint Benedict by his compelling emphasis on the love of Christ. The adorable person of Our Lord Jesus Christ illumines the entire Rule. Saint Benedict presents Him as the one who first loved us; the one in whose blessed Passion we share by patience; the one for whose love we are resolved to forsake all else; and the one whose love we prefer to all other things. Benedictine life is, above all else, the love of Jesus Christ, the very love that in the Most Holy Eucharist makes Him our priest, our victim, our food, our drink, and our companion.

19 Jan. 20 May. 19 Sept.

22. Not to give way to anger.
23. Not to harbour a desire of revenge.
24. Not to foster guile in one's heart.
25. Not to make a feigned peace.
26. Not to forsake charity.
27. Not to swear, lest perchance one forswear oneself.
28. To utter truth from heart and mouth.
29. Not to render evil for evil.
30. To do no wrong to anyone yea, to bear patiently wrong done to oneself.
31. To love one's enemies.
32. Not to render cursing for cursing, but rather blessing.
33. To bear persecution for justice's sake.
34. Not to be proud.
35. Not given to wine.
36. Not a glutton.
37. Not drowsy.
38. Not slothful.
39. Not a murmurer.
40. Not a detractor.
41. To put one's hope in God.
42. To attribute any good that one sees in oneself to God, and not to oneself.
43. But to recognise and always impute to oneself the evil that one doth.

Living Together

Instruments 23 through 43 are a development of the Christian moral life. They may well serve as an examination of conscience in preparation for confession. Instruments 23 to 33 are indispensable to one living in community; without the constant use of these instruments community life in the monastery (as in the family, or in the parish) would quickly degenerate into bitterness and factions.

Hope in God

Instrument 41, "To put one's hope in God," makes the use of all the other instruments possible. Thus do we sing at the end of the Te Deum that prepares us for the hearing of the Holy Gospel at Matins: In te, Domine, speravi: non confundar in aeternum; "O Lord, in Thee I have hoped; let me never be put to shame." Nothing, it seems to me, is more useful to a monk than frequent acts of hope.

20 Jan. 21 May. 20 Sept.

44. To fear the Day of Judgment.
45. To be in dread of hell.
46. To desire with a special longing everlasting life.
47. To keep death daily before one's eyes.
48. To keep guard at all times over the actions of one's life.
49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.
50. To dash down on the (Rock) Christ one's evil thoughts, the instant that they come into the heart.
51. And to lay them open to one's spiritual father.
52. To keep one's mouth from evil and wicked words.
53. Not to love much speaking.
54. Not to speak vain words or such as move to laughter.
55. Not to love much or excessive laughter.
56. To listen willingly to holy reading.
57. To apply oneself frequently to prayer.
58. Daily to confess one's past sins with tears and sighs to God, and to amend them for the time to come.
59. Not to fulfil the desires of the flesh: to hate one's own will.
60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot, even though he himself (which God forbid) should act otherwise: being mindful of that precept of the Lord: "What they say, do ye; but what they do, do ye not."
61. Not to wish to be called holy before one is so: but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called.

The Last Things

Instruments 44 through 47 address the last things: judgment, hell, heaven, and death. Saint Benedict does not want death to take his monk by surprise. Saint Benedict's own death, as described by Saint Gregory in the Second Book of The Dialogues, wholly illumined by the adorable mysteries of Our Lord's Body and Blood, is the shining image of what every Christian's death can be.

Presence of God

Instruments 48 through 51 have to do with temptation and evil thoughts. Saint Benedict would have his monk be vigilant, and aware of the presence of God in all places, even as the psalmist was.

Lord, I lie open to thy scrutiny; thou knowest me, knowest when sit down and when I rise up again, canst read my thoughts from far away. Walk I or sleep I, thou canst tell; no movement of mine but thou art watching it. Before ever the words are framed on my lips, all my thought is known to thee; rearguard and vanguard, thou dost compass me about, thy hand still laid upon me. Such wisdom as thine is far beyond my reach, no thought of mine can attain it.
Where can I go, then, to take refuge from thy spirit, to hide from thy view? If I should climb up to heaven, thou art there; if I sink down to the world beneath, thou art present still. If I could wing my way eastwards, or find a dwelling beyond the western sea, still would I find thee beckoning to me, thy right hand upholding me. Or perhaps I would think to bury myself in darkness; night should surround me, friendlier than day; but no, darkness is no hiding-place from thee, with thee the night shines clear as day itself; light and dark are one.

Unmasking the Enemy

As for evil thoughts -- for the monk's battleground of spiritual combat lies in his thoughts -- they are to be dashed against the rock that is Christ, and revealed to one's spiritual father. Unmasked, the devil has no hold over a soul. Transparency with one's spiritual father, a fundamental expression of humility, is indispensable to one who aspires to the love that casts out fear.


It is very rewarding, father, to have these reflections on the Holy Rule, to guide us as we read, daily, the wisdom of St. Benedict. Thank you.

Of the first 21 tools, it seems that the first half are "interior works", i.e., working on one's own soul before effectively doing corporal works of mercy. I take it this "order" is pedagogical, and that in reality these things are inseperably linked.

All of those are wonderful and would make a man holy if sincerely followed.
I especially noticed #12, and how hard it is to apply it to a modern lifestyle that seeks after "vanities" and distracts from the fear, awe/presence of God. Our Lord's life was anything but "delicate".

Dear Father Mark, pray for me, for I fall short in most of those recommendations!..


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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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