PROLOGUE (VI) By the help of His grace

6 Jan. 7 May. 6 Sept.

Since then, brethren, we have asked of the Lord who is to inhabit His temple, we have heard His commands to those who are to dwell there and if we fulfil those duties, we shall be heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Our hearts, therefore, and our bodies must be made ready to fight under the holy obedience of His commands; and let us ask God to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us. And if we would arrive at eternal life, escaping the pains of hell, then – while there is yet time, while we are still in the flesh, and are able to fulfil all these things by the light which is given us – we must hasten to do now what will profit us for all eternity.

Saint Benedict, continuing to drawn upon Psalm 14, (Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle?) describes his monk as an inhabitant of the temple of the Lord. Dwelling in the temple of the Lord, like the prophetess Anna, “who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day” (Luke 2:37), Saint Benedict’s monk hears the commands of the Lord and fulfils them, in the hope of inheriting the kingdom of God. Again, it is Saint Luke who gives us an image of Benedictine life at the end his Gospel: et erant semper in templo, laudantes et benedicentes Deum, “And they were always in the temple, praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:53). For us, the temple, which is, by the divine design revealed to Moses in Exodus 25–27 and finally realised by Solomon, a kind of enclosure, is the monastery. Saint Benedict himself says in Chapter 4: “And the workshop (officina) where we are to labour at all these things is the cloister of the monastery, and stability in the community.” There is, then, the operarius, (the workman chosen by the Lord), the opus Dei (the work of God to which the workman is associated), and the officina, (the enclosure of the monastery in which the workman dwells in order to carry out his work by night and by day).

Saint Benedict returns to the daunting reality of spiritual combat: “Our hearts, therefore, and our bodies must be made ready to fight under the holy obedience of His commands.” Saint Benedict echoes the Apostle who, writing to his dear Ephesians, says:

Finally, brethren, be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of his power. Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Therefore take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect. (Ephesians 6:10–13)

Monastic life is not a pious holiday, an endless round of chants, processions, incense, and splendid apparel. It is rather a ceaseless vigilance (νῆψις), according to the word of Saint Peter that we hear every night at Compline:

Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. (1 Peter 5:8)

Monastic life is also an unseen warfare: an endless round of skirmishes, and sometimes of exhausting and bloody combat with the world, the flesh, and the devil. There are men who, as soon as they encounter difficulties, struggles, fatigue, and disappointments, want to run away from the monastery. Such men forget that Saint Benedict will say at the end of the Prologue: “Do not therefore fly in dismay from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be strait and difficult.” Saint Athanasius shows us that a man must enter the cloister as his hero, Saint Antony, entered the desert: to struggle against the attacks and deceits of the devil. The devil began to attack Saint Antony as soon as he began his monastic life. We read in Chapter V of Saint Athanasius’ Life of Antony:

But the devil, who hates and envies what is good, could not endure to see such a resolution in a youth, but endeavoured to carry out against him what he had been wont to effect against others. First of all he tried to lead him away from the discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxations of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue and the labour of it; he suggested also the infirmity of the body and the length of the time. In a word he raised in his mind a great dust of debate, wishing to debar him from his settled purpose. But when the enemy saw himself to be too weak for Antony’s determination, and that he rather was conquered by the other’s firmness, overthrown by his great faith and falling through his constant prayers, then at length putting his trust in the weapons which are ‘in the navel of his belly’ and boasting in them— for they are his first snare for the young— he attacked the young man, disturbing him by night and harassing him by day, so that even the onlookers saw the struggle which was going on between them. The one would suggest foul thoughts and the other counter them with prayers: the one fire him with lust, the other, as one who seemed to blush, fortify his body with faith, prayers, and fasting. And the devil, unhappy wight, one night even took upon him the shape of a woman and imitated all her acts simply to beguile Antony. But he, his mind filled with Christ and the nobility inspired by Him, and considering the spirituality of the soul, quenched the coal of the other’s deceit. Again the enemy suggested the ease of pleasure. But he like a man filled with rage and grief turned his thoughts to the threatened fire and the gnawing worm, and setting these in array against his adversary, passed through the temptation unscathed. All this was a source of shame to his foe. For he, deeming himself like God, was now mocked by a young man; and he who boasted himself against flesh and blood was being put to flight by a man in the flesh. For the Lord was working with Antony— the Lord who for our sake took flesh and gave the body victory over the devil, so that all who truly fight can say, ‘not I but the grace of God which was with me.’

This last word of Saint Athanasius links up directly with what Saint Benedict says today: “Let us ask God to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us.” This little sentence is, I think, one of the most important teachings of the Holy Rule. Already, here, Saint Benedict alludes to something that he will address more fully in Chapter LXVIII, concerning commands that are hard and impossible. Chapter LXVIII ends with this injunction: confidens de adiutorio Dei, oboediat, “trusting in the assistance of God, let him obey.” In both the Prologue and Chapter LXVIII, Saint Benedict speaks of having to face impossible things. There is not a monk who, at one time or another, has not been tempted to declare the whole life impossible and run away. It is an old story. There are accounts of monks in the Middle Ages — I am thinking in particular of a certain text of Saint Aelred — saying things like, “I cannot bear another day, nay, not another hour of this life. The choir grinds on my nerves. The very odour of my neighbour makes me ill. The food is insipid and indigestible. My habit is ill–fitting and uncomfortable. I cannot sleep by night and I cannot stay awake by day. The sound of the bell is torture to my ears. Brother X is dull–witted and sluggish. Brother Y is imperious and haughty. Brother Z is lazy and feckless. The abbot is rigorous, or lax, or lacking in sympathy, or too indulgent. How have I come to live among such a crowd of incompetents, imbeciles, and neurotics? I know what I shall do; I shall run away from this prison, this madhouse, this wasteland, and find a better place and more intelligent and congenial people. I shall taste once again of freedom, and pleasure, and all the gratifications that are denied me in this dull and wretched cloister. I shall cast off the habit, grow out my hair, and find my fortune far from here.” It is an old, old story:

And not many days after, the younger son, gathering all together, went abroad into a far country: and there wasted his substance, living riotously. And after he had spent all, there came a mighty famine in that country; and he began to be in want. And he went and cleaved to one of the citizens of that country. And he sent him into his farm to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him. (Luke 15:13–16)

It is an immense grace to have to admit that the monastic life is impossible. It is also a severe but salutary thing to fall, to fail, to find oneself prostrate in the dust, if by it one is brought to humble supplication. It is by humble supplication that one can obtain grace, and it is grace that makes things deemed impossible possible.

And again I say to you: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And when they had heard this, the disciples wondered very much, saying: Who then can be saved? And Jesus beholding, said to them: With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:24–26)

I will never tire of insisting on grace and on the necessity of prayer, itself an effect of grace, to obtain grace. It is by grace that a soul is prepared to receive grace. It is by grace that a soul rises from sin and begins to walk in newness of life. It is by grace that one avoids sin. It is by grace that one practices virtue. It is by grace that one perseveres in what is good. Is this not what Our Lord Himself revealed to the Apostle? I give it to you in the translation of Monsignor Knox:

But he told me, My grace is enough for thee; my strength finds its full scope in thy weakness. More than ever, then, I delight to boast of the weaknesses that humiliate me, so that the strength of Christ may enshrine itself in me. I am well content with these humiliations of mine, with the insults, the hardships, the persecutions, the times of difficulty I undergo for Christ; when I am weakest, then I am strongest of all.. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)

The Benedictine monk, like every other Christian, lives by grace; he is utterly reliant on grace. He knows that grace is obtained by prayer, and so, the monk prays always. One can make a kind of syllogism: (1) Monks are, at all times in need of grace. (2) Grace is obtained by prayer. (3) Monks, therefore, pray at all times. This is why I have so often referred you to the tenth chapter of Saint John Cassian’s Tenth Conference on prayer without ceasing. The Apostle says:

We have not a high priest, who can not have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin. Let us go therefore with confidence to the throne of grace: that we may obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid. (Hebrews 4:15–16)