The first degree of humility (VII:3)

28 Jan. 29 May. 28 Sept.
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.” 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 13:1).

The monastic life is, from the outset, a turning away from one’s own will, following the very passage from Ecclesiasticus that Saint Benedict cites: “Go not after thy lusts, but turn away from thy own will” (Ecclesiasticus 18:30). This is, without any doubt, the most difficult and the most necessary part of one’s conversion of manners. Most men, having lived the single life, come to the monastery already well accustomed to following their fancies, to doing as they please, and to disengaging from things that challenge them beyond a certain point or oblige them to make an effort.

A man must not expect to continue doing his own will once he has entered the monastery. He will inevitably find himself faced with things that he would rather not have to do, and this daily and even hourly. The same thing happens when a man marries and then becomes a father. Marriage and fatherhood require a radical conversatio morum no less heroic than that lived in the cloister.

I have many times encountered men in love with a certain monastic ideal — with the monastery that exists only in their heads — and who fail miserably when asked to renounce themselves, their cherished notions, their patterns of thinking, and of praying, and of relating to others. Such men must, sooner rather than later, die to the ideal that exists only in their heads, accept the real that surrounds them, the humble discipline of the daily observance (even if they judge it imperfect and lax, or too strict and harsh), and the teaching of the abbot. The man who resists this death to his own notions will never become a monk. He may be a pious and edifying dilettante of monastic history, a well of knowledge concerning things rubrical and liturgical, a walking encyclopedia of Benedictine trivia, but he will not be a monk. Saint Benedict says, “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).

Saint Benedict speaks of the desires of the flesh. Do not think that he refers here only to sexual desires. He is speaking of all those desires of the old man. Some of these desires we think long dead and buried and, all of a sudden, when we enter the monastery we discover that they are stirred from their hibernation and have lost nothing of their vigour. I am thinking of the desire to spend oneself and one’s time only as one sees fit. I am thinking of the desire to control other persons, to direct the course of things, to wield influence, to hold power, to claim proprietorship over oneself and over all that pertains to one’s person.

Of course, at certain hours and seasons of life, a monk will experience sexual desires, emotional desires, and desires to gratify one’s lower appetites. One must acknowledge such desires, but it is best not to analyse them, nor to indulge in introspection. In the end, I know of no better way of dealing with these desires than that set forth by the psalmist and reiterated by Saint Benedict: “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 13:1). This a very simple and efficacious form of prayer: to go before Our Lord and to say just this, “All my desire is before Thee”. He sees the whole context. He knows the history. He receives whatever we offer Him, and turns all things to good.

And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints. (Romans 8:28)

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