By the help of His grace (Prologue 6)

6 Jan. 7 May. 6 Sept.

Since then, brethren, we have asked of the Lord who is to inhabit His tabernacle, 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 refers back to the dialogue with Our Lord that took the form of verses from Psalm 14. First there is the question; it comes from the soul of one who wants to ascend even to God, who longs to find rest in His holy place. The answer is given in a description of a man whose whole life is ordered by charity. This is no vague sentimental charity; it is a charity expressed in concrete deeds.

Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord: or who shall stand in his holy place?  He that walketh without blemish, and worketh justice: He that speaketh truth in his heart, who hath not used deceit in his tongue: Nor hath done evil to his neighbour: nor taken up a reproach against his neighbours. (Psalm 14:1-3).

Those who live together in the tabernacle of the Lord, that is, under His tent, must practice His commandments, all of which are ordered to charity. Only in this way is it possible to live in the unity and in the fruitfulness that Our Lord wills for His own. The pax benedictina is one of the fruits of this unity. We have the promise of unity in Psalm 67:  Deus qui inhabitare facit unius moris in domo. “This is the God who maketh men of one manner to dwell in a house (Psalm 67:7). Unity is characteristic of the life of the church of the apostolic age and of the monastic life which continues it: Multitudinis autem credentium erat cor unum et anima una; “And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). And unity is the fruit of Our Lord’s priestly prayer for us:

That they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. (John 17:21)

Saint Benedict says that “our hearts, therefore, and our bodies must be made ready to fight under the holy obedience of His commands.” Hearts and bodies is a way of saying that the whole man is engaged in the combat of holy obedience. It is a combat; have no illusions about this. A man need not be in the cloister for a very long time before he begins to realise that the pax benedictina is purchased at great cost. It is won by combat, by standing one’s ground and by gaining ground. Abba Longinus said, “Give blood and receive the Spirit.” By going forward until all that is promised has been won from the godless warring peoples who occupy it. These are not the Hethites, the Gergezites, the Amorrhites, the Chanaanites, the Pherezites, the Hevites, and the Jebusites. These are, rather, “the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). The man who goes off to the monastery is, although he may not know it at the time, going off to war. This, Saint Benedict intimates in the very beginning of the Prologue, when he says:

To thee, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever thou art that, renouncing thine own will, dost take up the strong and bright weapons of obedience, in order to fight for the Lord Christ, our true king.

But now we come to what is, to my mind at least, the most important and the most consoling phrase of this portion of the Prologue. You will perhaps already have identified it. Saint Benedict speaks of the help of God’s grace:

Et quod minus habet in nos natura possibile, rogemus Dominum ut gratiae suae iubeat nobis adiutorium ministrare.
And let us ask God to supply by the help of His grace what by nature is not possible to us.

Saint Benedict is repeating here what he has already said at the beginning of the Prologue:

In primis, ut quicquid agendum inchoas bonum, ab eo perfici instantissima oratione deposca.
In the first place, whatever good work thou beginnest to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect.

The monastic life is possible only to the man who prays, and this because prayer obtains grace, and because with grace all is possible. We have the witness of the Apostle:

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)