What are the Instruments of Good Works (II)

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.

I should like today to focus on the 41st instrument of good works: Spem suam Deo committere. Of the three theological virtues, that is, of the virtues that bind us directly to God, hope is, I think, the one least considered and, at the same time, the one most necessary to the monastic life. The monastic life is, essentially, an act of renunciation of all that risks dulling a man’s appetite for God alone or, if you prefer, a man’s lifelong choice of God over all that this passing world has to offer. The monk is, by definition, a man who hopes in God or, if you will, a man who staked his very life on hope in God.

Saint Thomas tells us that, “hope makes us tend to God, as to a good to be obtained finally, and as to a helper strong to assist” (Summa II:2, art. 6). In some way, nothing speaks more to the heart of a monk than those verses of the Psalter that express hope. I should like to go through the whole Psalter with you, verse by verse, in search of every mention of hope. The monk is the man of the Psalter. How many times have I said this to you! And the Psalter is the great book of hope. So long as a monk is telling his Psalms, and meditating them, hour by hour and day by day, his hope will stay green. As soon as a monk is distracted from the work of his Psalmody, he begins to descend into hopelessness.

Psalm 15, Conserva me, Domine, is the first great Psalm of hope: Conserva me, Domine, quoniam speravi in te, “Keep thou me, O Lord, for I have hoped in thee” (Psalm 15:1). All of Psalm 24 is an expression of hope, beginning with the first verse, by which the Church opens each new liturgical year: Ad te, Domine, levavi animam meam, “All my heart goes out to thee, O Lord my God” (Psalm 24:1). Psalm 26 is the prayer by which a man, surrounded by enemies on every side, and in the thick of spiritual battle, holds fast to hope: Expecta Dominum, viriliter age: et confortetur cor tuum, et sustine Dominum, “Wait patiently for the Lord to help thee; be brave, and let thy heart take comfort; wait patiently for the Lord.” (Psalm 26:14). I could say much about Psalms 41 and 42; I shall leave them to your meditation. Frequently, in my own desire to give voice to my hope in God, I repeat these verses of Psalm 61, which end with the glorious affirmation, Et spes mea in Deo est (Psalm 61:8):

No rest has my soul but in God’s hands; to him I look for deliverance.
I have no other stronghold, no other deliverer but him; safe in his protection, I fear no deadly fall.
Yet even now, my soul, leave thyself in God’s hands; all my trust is in him.
He is my stronghold and my deliverer, my protector, that makes me stand unmoved.
God is all my defence and all my boast; my rock-fastness, and my hope is in God. (Psalm 61:2, 6–8)

We cannot, here and now, go through the whole Psalter; this is something that you can do and, I am sure, will do as you advance in your monastic life. Each man must make his own discovery of the Psalter as the great book of hope. I should like, nonetheless, to say something about one particular Psalm. I often send brothers in the throes of temptation, or discouragement, or doubt, or fear to the monk’s Psalm par excellence, Psalm 72, a psalm of hope. The Psalmist looks at the lives of those who, apparently, have found happiness, security, fulfillment, and success. Their lives, it seems to him, are filled with good things, with rewarding experiences, with the pleasures of intimate companionship, self–determination, and abundant material goods. The psalmist is troubled because he has persevered in preferring God to all these things, and God seems not to be keeping his side of the contract. “Look at these sinners”, says the Psalmist, “how they live at peace, how they rise to greatness! Why then, thought I, it is to no purpose that I have kept my heart true, and washed my hands clean in pureness of living; still, all the while, I am plagued for it, and no morning comes but my scourging is renewed” (Psalm 72:12–14). It is easy, at certain hours, to muse that while I have given up everything that gives meaning to life in this world, I am left empty and suffer deprivation, while the man who helps himself with both hands to heaps of what this life has to offer seems to be fulfilled and to want for nothing.

This is the classic temptation of the monk, especially (but by no means exclusively) in mid–life: one has missed out on life, and now it is too late for one to do anything else but continue on, waiting for death, in quiet despair. This is, at bottom, a temptation against hope. The Evil One seeks, more than anything else, to sow the seeds of hopelessness in the cloister. A monk tempted against the virtue of hope sees only loneliness and death in his chastity; he sees only confinement in his enclosure; he sees only frustration and limitations in his stability; he sees only the loss of personal freedom in his obedience; he sees a massive waste of time in the Opus Dei; and, in the end, he comes to resent the monastic observance altogether, and to wish that he had done something else with his life, made other choices, and seized upon other opportunities.

Yet ever thou art at my side, ever holdest me by my right hand.
Thine to guide me with thy counsel, thine to welcome me into glory at last.
What else does heaven hold for me, but thyself?
What charm for me has earth, here at thy side?
What though flesh of mine, heart of mine, should waste away?
Still God will be my heart’s stronghold, eternally my inheritance.
Lost those others may be, who desert thy cause,
lost are all those who break their troth with thee;
I know no other content but clinging to God,
putting my hope in the Lord, my Master;
within the gates of royal Sion I will be the herald of thy praise. (Psalm 72: 23–28)

The 41st instrument of good works can all too easily pass unnoticed. It is, nonethless, indispensable and of daily use to every monk. A monk’s life can be either be a tragic case of quiet despair or a shining beacon of hope.  Choose hope, then, always choose hope. Choose hope even in the face of apparent hopelessness and, as we say on the day of our monastic profession, you will not be disappointed in your hope. Suscipe me secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam, et non confundas me ab exspectatione mea, “Take Thou me even to Thyself, as Thou hast promised, and I shall live: and let me not be confounded in my hope” (Psalm 118:116)

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