CHAPTER LXVIII. If a Brother be commanded to do Impossibilities
26 Apr. 26 Aug. 26 Dec.
If on any brother there be laid commands that are hard and impossible, let him receive the orders of him who biddeth him with all mildness and obedience. But if he seeth the weight of the burden altogether to exceed his strength, let him seasonably and with patience lay before his Superior the reasons of his incapacity to obey, with out shewing pride, resistance, or contradiction. If, however, after this the Superior still persist in his command, let the younger know that it is expedient for him; and let him obey for the love of God, trusting in His assistance.
With Chapter LXVIII, we return to obedience. You will recall that in the last sentence of the preceding chapter, Saint Benedict said that a monk may not “go anywhere, or do anything, however trifling, without permission of the Abbot.” He has already treated of obedience in Chapter V and in the second, third, and fourth degrees of humility of Chapter VII. Chapter LXVIII is especially related to the fourth degree of humility:
The fourth degree of humility is, that if in this very obedience hard and contrary things, nay even injuries, are done to him, he should embrace them patiently with a quiet conscience, and not grow weary or give in, as the Scripture saith: “He that shall persevere to the end shall be saved.” And again: “Let thy heart be comforted, and wait for the Lord.”
It may sometimes seem to a brother that what he is being asked to do exceeds his strength. One must always keep at the ready in one’s heart the episode of the rich young man related in Saint Matthew (19:16–30), Saint Mark (10:17–31), and Saint Luke (18:22–27). It has to do, in fact, with an obedience that would have been life-changing for the rich young man, but that he, turning in on himself, thought impossible.
And a certain ruler asked him, saying: Good master, what shall I do to possess everlasting life?
Why is he called a ruler? Many reasons and explanations have been put forward, but there is one that, for monks, is singularly compelling. He is called a ruler because, being rich, single, and independent (that is, not walking in the way of the evangelical counsels), he rules himself. He is the ruler of his own life, both in the sense of having to answer to no one but himself, and in the sense of being himself the measure of all things.
And Jesus said to him: Why dost thou call me good? None is good but God alone. Thou knowest the commandments: Thou shalt not kill: Thou shalt not commit adultery: Thou shalt not steal: Thou shalt not bear false witness: Honour thy father and mother. Who said: All these things have I kept from my youth.
The young man has, up to this point, not indulged his sinful passions. He has, one might say, walked on the straight and narrow path, stayed on the right side of the law, and kept himself morally clean. Does Our Lord congratulate him on his impeccable record? Not at all. Our Lord sees that more must be asked of the young man, if he is to be freed of self-rule. He will need to take upon himself the yoke that will bind him to Jesus and oblige him to walk, not where he would choose to go, but wheresoever Jesus would go.
Which when Jesus had heard, he said to him: Yet one thing is wanting to thee: sell all whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. He having heard these things, became sorrowful; for he was very rich.
This is where this passage of the Gospel meets Chapter LVIII of the Holy Rule. Jesus asks the young man to do something that he, the young man, thinks hard and impossible. The young man turns in on himself, thinking, “This I cannot so. It is quite beyond my strength. What the Master asks of me is too much.” And so the young man becomes dejected. He falls into the sorrow of those who rely on themselves. He falls into the sorrow of those who are paralysed by the fear of being asked to do the thing that will oblige them to renounce self-rule and submit to being ruled.
And Jesus seeing him become sorrowful, said: How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God. For 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 God. And they that heard it, said: Who then can be saved? He said to them: The things that are impossible with men, are possible with God.
You see, I think, why this episode in the Gospel must be laid as a kind of transparency over Chapter LVIII of the Holy Rule. “The things that are impossible with men, are possible with God” (Luke 18:27). The rich young ruler did not receive the word of Jesus with docility and obedience. He judged that the weight of the burden altogether exceeded the measure of his strength. What would have happened if, instead of shutting down in sorrow, he had, in hope, opened himself to grace? What would have happened, had he said with Saint Augustine: “Give what thou commandest and, then, command what thou wilt”? Would he not have also been able to say with the Apostle: “I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13), and with the Immaculate Mother of God, “He that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49)?