Who is the man that will have life? (Prologue 3)

3 Jan. 4 May. 3 Sept.
And the Lord, seeking His own workman in the multitude of the people to whom He thus crieth out, saith again: “Who is the man that will have life, and desireth to see good days. And if thou, hearing Him, answer, “I am he,” God saith to thee: “If thou wilt have true and everlasting life, keep thy tongue from evil and thy lips that they speak no guile. Turn from evil, and do good: seek peace and pursue it. And when you have done these things, My eyes will be upon you, and My ears will be open to your prayers; and before you call upon Me, I will say unto you, “Behold, I am here.” What can be sweeter to us, dearest brethren, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold in His loving-kindness the Lord sheweth unto us the way of life.

If any one of us is here, it is because Our Lord sought him out among the multitude. It is because when Our Lord cried out, saying, “Who is the man that desireth life: who loveth to see good days?” (Psalm 33:13), each of us, hearing Him, and prompted by grace, said, “I am he. I am the man who desires life. I am the man who loves to see good days,” In other words, “I want to live, and I want to be happy.” The man who recognises in his own heart these two fundamental desires is already attuned to the desires of God for him. God, working in us by His prevenient grace, causes us to desire what He desires to give us. God says:

As I live, saith the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way, and live. (Ezechiel 33:11)

And Our Lord says, again:

I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)

So pressing is His invitation, that He cries out:

And on the last, and great day of the festivity, Jesus stood and cried, saying: If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink. (John 7:37)

And, as if this were not enough, with accents of the most touching compassion He says:

Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. (Matthew 11:28)

A man’s response to the invitation of Our Lord must not remain something sentimental and passive. There must be some concrete expression of correspondence with HIs grace, some way of going forth to meet Him whom one sees approaching. Vidi Jesum venientem ad me. “I saw Jesus coming towards me” (John 1:29). How does a man respond to the approach of Christ? Saint Benedict sums up the fundamental four elements of a man’s first response to grace in two verses of Psalm 33:

Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.
Turn away from evil and do good: seek after peace and pursue it. (Psalm 33:14–15)

The response to Christ begins with a chastening of the tongue and of the lips. Even the pious discourse of young men is tainted with arrogance, pride, vainglory. Young men are eager to make their way in the world and to court success. Young men easily fall into seductive and manipulative patterns of speech. It has always been so. This comes from the need to win acceptance, to prove oneself, and to gain affirmation. Saint Benedict says, “Enough.” In the cloister a man has nothing to win, nothing to prove, nothing to gain. He has only to accept and yield to the love with which Christ first loved him.

And we have known, and have believed the charity, which God hath to us.  (1 John 4:16)

The response to Christ has its exigencies. Faith in the charity with which God has first loved us is not quietism nor is it a matter of “cheap grace.” It summons a man to turn away from evil and do good, to seek after peace and to pursue it. In a certain sense, these exigencies of conversion are made simple in the monastic life. A man has only to obey his abbot, to follow the horarium, and to put into practice what he is being taught. The man who is where he is supposed to be, doing what he is supposed to be doing, and turning away from temptation, is seeking after peace and pursuing it.

You all know, I think, Blessed John Henry Newman’s Short Road to Perfection. Newman is not writing for monks, but for Christian gentlemen. His teaching is nonetheless in harmony with the fundamental response to grace that Saint Benedict sets forth in the Prologue. Blessed Newman says:

It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.

I think this is an instruction which may be of great practical use to persons like ourselves. It is easy to have vague ideas what perfection is, which serve well enough to talk about, when we do not intend to aim at it; but as soon as a person really desires and sets about seeking it himself, he is dissatisfied with anything but what is tangible and clear, and constitutes some sort of direction towards the practice of it.

We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings—but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound—we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what imperfection in religious service means, we know by the contrast what is meant by perfection.

He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day. I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim.

Blessed Newman goes on to describe the round of the day as he and his gentlemen companions would have lived it. The monastic round of the day is different, but Blessed Newman’s principles apply all the same. Allow me to adapt Blessed Newman’s text to our Benedictine day.

If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; go promptly to choir; at the Divine Office, apply your mind to the words you sing; carry out your assigned tasks punctually and cheerfully; eat and drink to God’s glory; go without delay to your times of lectio divina and adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; bring a smiling face and a light heart to recreation; give your weaknesses and sins to Christ; go to bed in good time—and you are already a very nearly perfect monk.