Of the good zeal which Monks ought to have

CHAPTER LXXII. Of the good zeal which Monks ought to have
30 Apr. 30 Aug. 30 Dec.

As there is an evil zeal of bitterness, which separateth from God, and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal, which keepeth us from vice, and leadeth to God and to life everlasting. Let monks, therefore, exert this zeal with most fervent love; that is, “in honour preferring one another.” Let them most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of mind. Let them vie with one another in obedience. Let no one follow what he thinketh good for himself, but rather what seemeth good for another. Let them cherish fraternal charity with chaste love, fear God, love their Abbot with sincere and humble affection, and prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all alike to life everlasting.

Coming to the end of the Holy Rule, Saint Benedict presents us with two ways. One of these, the way of an evil zeal of bitterness, separates from God, and leads to hell; the other, the way of good zeal, keeps us from vice, and leads to God and to life everlasting. The motif of the two ways is already found in Psalm 1:

Blessed is the man who does not guide his steps by ill counsel, or turn aside where sinners walk, or, where scornful souls gather, sit down to rest; the man whose heart is set on the law of the Lord, on that law, day and night, his thoughts still dwell. He stands firm as a tree planted by running water, ready to yield its fruit when the season comes, not a leaf faded; all that he does will prosper. Not such, not such the wicked; the wicked are like chaff the wind sweeps away. Not for the wicked, when judgement comes, to rise up and plead their cause; sinners will have no part in the reunion of the just. They walk, the just, under the Lord’s protection; the path of the wicked, how soon is it lost to sight!

Like Moses, in his discourse at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, so speaks our patriarch and lawgiver, Saint Benedict, in Chapter LXXII. Saint Aelred delivered a compelling sermon for the feast of Saint Benedict in which he presents our holy patriarch as the Moses of monks. It is good, I think, to read Saint Benedict’s Chapter LXXII through the discourse of Moses:

And perhaps when thou hast had experience of all this, and hast met first the blessing and then the curse I have here pronounced before thee, thou wilt feel compunction of heart, there in thy exile among the countries where the Lord has scattered thee, and wilt turn back to him again. Once more thou and thy children will be true, heart and soul, to those commandments of his which I have enjoined upon thee. And the Lord, in pity, will restore thee from banishment, will gather in those sons of thine from the lands in which he has dispersed them. Yes, though they should be sundered far apart as pole from pole, the Lord thy God will bring them back again, summoning them to return and take possession of the land where their fathers dwelt; granting them his blessing, till they are more in number than ever their fathers were. He will rid thy heart, and the hearts of thy children, of all defilement, and thou wilt find life in loving the Lord thy God, heart and soul; the curse he laid upon thee he will lay upon thy enemies instead, upon the men who would hate and persecute thee. So thou shalt return to thy obedience, listening to the Lord thy God and carrying out all the commandments I am giving thee this day; and the Lord thy God will prosper thee in all thy enterprises, children born to thee, thy cattle and thy lands fruitful, all things thine in abundance. Once more the Lord will take delight in blessing his people, as he did in their fathers’ days; but only if thou wilt obey him, and hold fast to the commandments and observances this law contains, returning heart and soul to him, thy Lord and thy God. It is not above thy reach, it is not beyond thy compass, this duty which I am now enjoining upon thee. It is not a secret laid up in heaven, that thou must needs find someone to scale heaven and bring it down to thee before thou canst hear what it is, and obey it. It is not an art, practised far overseas, that thou must wait for some one to go voyaging and bring it back to thee before thou canst learn to live by it. No, this message of mine is close to thy side; it rises to thy lips, it is printed on thy memory; thou hast only to fulfil it. See, I have set before thee this day a choice between life and death, between good fortune and ill. Thou art to love the Lord thy God and follow the path he has chosen for thee, to hold fast by all his commandments and observances and decrees, if thou wouldst live and thrive and prosper through him in the land that is to be thy home. If thy heart becomes estranged from him, so that thou dost no longer obey him, but art tempted away into worshipping other gods and doing them service, then I warn thee here and now that it will be thy ruin; the land thou art winning for thyself on the other side of Jordan will be thine only for a little. I call heaven and earth to witness this day that I have set such a choice before thee, life or death, a blessing or a curse. Wilt thou not choose life, long life for thyself and for those that come after thee? Wilt thou not learn to love the Lord thy God, and obey him, and keep close to his side? Thou hast no life, no hope of long continuance, but in him; shall not the land which he promised as a gift to thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, be thine to dwell in? (Deuteronomy 30: 1–20)

Chapter LXXII sums up all that Saint Benedict would have us understand and practice in these four concluding chapters (XLIX, LXX, LXXI, LXXII) dedicated to the charity and unity of the monastic family. The monk who is tempted to walk apart from the path taken by his fathers and brothers, even if he thinks that the path he would choose for himself is more perfect than that taken by his fathers and brothers, or more observant, or more faithful, risks forfeiting what he already has in his own community: the daily and hourly opportunity “to share by patience in the sufferings of Christ” by putting aside his own notions of perfection in order to practice humility, obedience, silence, and charity in the ordinary common life. How many monks, deceived by the bitter zeal of spiritual pride, have forsaken the common way set forth by their abbot and faithfully trod by their brethren in search of a stricter observance, only to end up with no observance at all, becoming lonely, restless men, forever seeking and never finding the ideal monastery with its perfect abbot, perfect brethren, and flawless observance?  Chapter LXXII corresponds, in some way, to the end of the Prologue. We do well today to join them together:

We have, therefore, to establish a school of the Lord’s service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous. But if anything be somewhat strictly laid down, according to the dictates of sound reason, for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be strait and difficult. But as we go forward in our life and in faith, we shall with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love run in the way of God’s commandments; so that never departing from His guidance, but persevering in His teaching in the monastery until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers of His kingdom. (Prologue)

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