CHAPTER LXXII. Of the good zeal which Monks ought to have
30 Apr. 30 Aug. 30 Dec.
As there is an evil zeal of bitterness, which separateth from God, and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal, which keepeth us from vice, and leadeth to God and to life everlasting. Let monks, therefore, exert this zeal with most fervent love; that is, “in honour preferring one another.” Let them most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of mind. Let them vie with one another in obedience. Let no one follow what he thinketh good for himself, but rather what seemeth good for another. Let them cherish fraternal charity with chaste love, fear God, love their Abbot with sincere and humble affection, and prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all alike to life everlasting.
We come again today on this penultimate day of the year to the penultimate chapter of the Holy Rule, the one towards which all the other chapters, beginning with the Prologue, converge, and in which Saint Benedict shows us the mature fruits of what he has planted and tended all along. Chapter LXXII is among those passages of the Holy Rule that a monk must learn by heart and cherish ad vitam aeternam, “until the dawning of life eternal”; donec dies elucescat, et lucifer oriatur in cordibus vestris, “until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:” (2 Peter 1:19). It is to this chapter that we may apply the discourse of Moses, as if it were coming from the lips of the Moses of monks himself, our lawgiver and patriarch, Saint Benedict:
Ponite hæc verba mea in cordibus et in animis vestris, et suspendite ea pro signo in manibus, et inter oculos vestros collocate. (Deuteronomy 11:18)
Keep these words of mine in memory, treasure them up in your hearts, let them be bound close to your hands as a remembrancer, let them hang before your eyes. Teach them to your sons, thoughts to be pondered well, at home and abroad, sleeping and waking, the legend you inscribe on door and gate-post. So this land which the Lord promised to your fathers, to be their own as long as there is a sky above us, shall be held by you and your sons in long possession. Remember the commandments I am giving you, live by them, love the Lord your God, be true to him, follow all the paths he has chosen for you, and the Lord will scatter all these nations at your coming, and you shall dispossess them, though you be no match for them in number or in strength. All shall be yours, wherever your feet shall tread; the desert, and Lebanon, and the western sea, and the great river Euphrates shall be your frontiers. None shall be able to withstand you; such fear of you, such dread of your coming will the Lord, in his faithfulness, spread abroad wherever you go. Such is the choice I set before you this day, blessing or curse. A blessing, if you will obey the commands I now give you from the Lord your God; a curse, if you disobey those commands, and forsake the path I am shewing to you, and follow the worship of other gods, untried till now. . . . . Cross Jordan you will, to conquer the land which the Lord your God means you to have and to hold; and look well to it that all the observances and decrees I proclaim before you to-day are carried out faithfully. (Deuteronomy 11:18-28, 31-32)
The evil zeal of bitterness poisons the fresh, pure waters that come to us over the aqueduct of tradition. Once contaminated by the zelus amaritudinis (zeal of bitterness), it is difficult to restore sweetness to the waters.
So they came to Mara, and even here they could not drink the water, so brackish it was to the taste; it was with good reason he called it Mara, for Mara means Bitterness. Here the people were loud in their complaints against Moses; What shall we do for water? they said. Whereupon he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord shewed him a tree whose wood turned the waters sweet when it was thrown into them. Here, too, he gave them laws and decrees to live by, and issued this challenge to them: If thou wilt listen to the voice of the Lord thy God, his will doing, his word obeying, and all he bids thee observe, observing faithfully, never shall they fall on thee, the many woes brought on Egypt; I am the Lord, and it is health I bring thee. (Exodus 15:23-26)
What things bring sweetness and health to our monastic life? The most fervent love practiced with zeal; the exquisite courtesy of honour paid one to another out of reverence for Christ; the bearing of one another’s infirmities, whether of body or character; quick obedience to one another; prizing another’s good over anything one may think good for oneself; an indefectible and chaste affection for one’s brethren; fear of the Thrice–Holy God in whose presence “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28); a filial love for the abbot, one that finds expression in sincere and humble affection; the choice of Christ before all else and above all else, that is, Christ preferred to every passing joy, attachment, desire, and attraction; and all of this in the sure hope of being brought together to life everlasting.
Mother Mectilde, in a text chosen to shed light on Chapter LXXII, says this:
Therefore, only love Jesus Christ, desire only Him, esteem only Him; possess only Jesus Christ; hope for nothing but Him; want nothing but Him; seek nothing but Him; intend nothing but Him; delight in nothing but Him; rest in nothing but Him; and find your fulfillment in being filled completely with Jesus Christ. (n. 1757, for the First Sunday of Lent)
Do these things and the rest of Chapter LXXII will fall into place gently and almost imperceptibly; or practice the rest of Chapter LXXII and you will find that, over time, quietly, and without strain and exhaustion, the love of Christ—His love for you and your love for Him—will become like the air you breathe. And in this lies the secret of the pax benedictina, the Benedictine peace in which God is glorified and men such as ourselves are brought to wholeness.