Saint Benedict, Abba Arsenius, and Mother Mectilde (VII:5)

29 Jan. 30 May. 29 Sept.
Let us be on our guard, then, against evil desires, since death hath its seat close to the entrance of delight; wherefore the Scripture commandeth us, saying: ““Go not after thy concupiscences.” Since, therefore, “The eyes of the Lord behold the good and the evil,” and “The Lord is ever looking down from heaven upon the children of men, to see who hath understanding or is seeking God, and since the works of our hands are reported to Him day and night by the angels appointed to watch over us; we must be always on the watch, brethren, lest, as the prophet saith in the psalm, God should see us at any time declining to evil and become unprofitable; and lest, though He spare us now, because He is merciful and expecteth our conversion, He should say to us hereafter: “These things thou didst and I held my peace.”

Saint Benedict warns his monk to be on guard against evil desires because, he says, “death hath its seat close to the entrance of delight.” With all his fatherly wisdom and authority, Saint Benedict addresses his monk:”Go not after thy concupiscences.” The whole tenor of this portion of the First Degree of Humility resounds with what Saint John says his First Epistle:

I call you little children; have not your sins been forgiven in his name? I call you fathers; have you not knowledge of one who was from the first? I call you young men; have you not gained victory over the evil one? I call you sons; you have learned to recognize the Father. I call you young men; you are strong, with God’s word dwelling in you always; you have gained your victory over the evil one. Do not bestow your love on the world, and what the world has to offer; the lover of this world has no love of the Father in him. What does the world offer? Only gratification of corrupt nature, gratification of the eye, the empty pomp of living; these things take their being from the world, not from the Father. The world and its gratifications pass away; the man who does God’s will outlives them, for ever. (1 John 2:12–17)

How easily we are tricked into believing that the gratification of this or that desire will be the solution to all our troubles. Who among us has never thought along these lines?

The emptiness, the dissatisfaction with my life that I feel at certain hours will surely go away if only I could do this one thing; or go to this place or that; or undertake a work better suited to my gifts and weaknesses; or not have to cope with Father X and Brother Y; or if only I had more time for prayer, more time for reading, or more time for work.

Another temptation, that is even more pernicious, causes a man to say to himself:

If only I hadn’t made this choice. If only I had entered the abbey of Laughingbrook instead of Silverstream. If only I had married Jennifer. If only I had gone to a different school. If only I had taken an altogether different direction in life.

I often speak of the terrible “what ifs”; but you see that there are also the terrible “if onlys.” Saint Benedict unmasks the deception of the “if onlys” and would have his monk submit to what is, knowing that by welcoming the present moment with its grace, a man places himself as a trusting son directly beneath the loving gaze of the Father. There the illusions and deceits of the “what ifs” and of the “if onlys” are dispelled. Only in the sacrament of the present moment is a man open to the love that flows eternally from the bosom of the Father, through the Heart of the Son, carried along by the Holy Ghost. The man who indulges memories of the past cannot connect to the present moment in which God waits for him. The man who runs after the unreal future of his imaginings is, in effect, running from the grace that is offered him in the present moment.

Mother Mectilde herself was not spared these temptations. She was, at a certain hour of her life, thinking of withdrawing completely from what seemed to her an impossible situation. She seriously considered exiling herself in the south of France to live as a hermit in the mountainous wilds of Sainte-Baume, the region that, according to tradition, was the place of Saint Mary Magdalene’s long solitary penitence. Then, on Easter night 1651, an interior voice spoke to Mother Mectilde, saying, “Renounce, adore, and submit to my designs”. In the grace of this word, she gave up her project of living as a hermit and, in pure faith, embraced the mysterious plan of God.

I cannot help but compare this word spoken to Mother Mectilde with a similar word given to Abba Arsenius: Fuge, tace, quiesce, “Flee, be silent, be at rest.” Mectilde is told to flee from her own projects, desires, and fears. She is told to adore God, perfect and loving in all His designs. Finally, she is told to submit, that is, to bow low beneath the Hand of God, cleaving to His Will with an unconditional and irrevocable “Yes”. The three words that Mother Mectilde heard spoken in her soul contain all that is necessary for one to be happy in this life and in the next. Would that I had the wisdom to repeat them to myself every time I experience temptation, fear, disappointment, or darkness: “Renounce, adore, and submit.” These three words, in effect, go to the heart of the First Degree of Humility, and to the heart of what has been called the Mectildian-Benedictine charism.

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