Start afresh from zero (IV:1)

CHAPTER IV. What are the Instruments of Good Works
18 Jan. 19 May. 18 Sept.

In the first place, to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, all one’s soul, and all one’s strength.
2. Then one’s neighbour as oneself.
3. Then not to kill.
4. Not to commit adultery.
5. Not to steal.
6. Not to covet.
7. Not to bear false witness.
8. To honour all men.
9. Not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself.
10. To deny oneself, in order to follow Christ.
11. To chastise the body.
12. Not to seek after delicate living.
13. To love fasting.
14. To relieve the poor.
15. To clothe the naked.
16. To visit the sick.
17. To bury the dead.
18. To help in affliction.
19. To console the sorrowing.
20. To keep aloof from worldly actions.
21. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

We are already at Chapter IV again! How did those who arranged the Holy Rule to be read three times a year go about selecting the verses for each day? I am often struck by the repartition of the text and by the passages that each day’s section throws into light. Today we read the first twenty-one Instruments of Good Works. The series begins with love and ends with love. In primis Dominum Deum diligere ex toto corde, tota anima, tota virtute. “In the first place, to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, all one’s soul, and all one’s strength.” Nihil amori Christi praeponere. “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” Both sentences are energetic. Here is no soft, sentimental love depicted in pastels. It is a strong love that enters the fray manfully without stopping to calculate the risks and without looking back to assess the losses.

Many waters cannot quench charity, neither can the floods drown it: if a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing. (Canticle 8:7)

Monsignor Knox gives the same verse thus:

Yes, love is a fire no waters avail to quench, no floods to drown; for love, a man will give up all that he has in the world, and think nothing of his loss.

There are, in effect, two things that retard growth in charity. The first is a timorous, calculating attitude that wants assurances, immunity, and promises of indemnity. Such an attitude impedes growth in charity. It is opposed to the virtue of fortitude. It is a concession to the vice of pusillanimity. Saint Thomas says, “That just as presumption makes a man exceed what is proportionate to his power, by striving to do more than he can, so pusillanimity makes a man fall short of what is proportionate to his power, by refusing to tend to that which is commensurate thereto” (II-II, q. 133, art. 1). The pusillanimous man says, “I would do this great thing, this hard thing, this costly thing, if I could first have the assurance that in so doing, I will not be wounded, will lose nothing of what I have, and will pass through the flames unscathed.” How many men shrink from marrIage, or from monastic profession, or from a stable commitment out of pusillanimity? They reason, “This will be too hard for me. It will ask of me more than I can give. And what if I should fail? It is better for me to step back and keep what I have than to go forward and risk losing all.” The Apostle was anything but pusillanimous. What does he say? Omnia possum in eo qui me confortat.

I speak not as it were for want. For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, to be content therewith. I know both how to be brought low, and I know how to abound: (every where, and in all things I am instructed) both to be full, and to be hungry; both to abound, and to suffer need. I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

The second thing that retards growth in charity is a self-pitying return over one’s losses. The French writers often speak of retours sur soi, not in the positive sense of being reflective, but in the negative sense of a morose reflection on oneself, on the injuries sustained, the losses suffered, the hurts endured. This sort of reflection weakens a man’s growth in the great-hearted virtue of fortitude and feeds the miserable vice of pusillanimity.

In the first case, a man is appalled and daunted by what he sees lying before him. In the second case, a man is appalled and daunted by what he sees lying behind him. One may quite reasonably ask, “But what about Our Lord in Gethsemani? Was He not daunted by what lay before Him? And what about certain of the martyrs? Did they not tremble at the prospect of their torments?” The clear vision of the suffering that lays before one is not opposed to the virtue of fortitude, nor is it an indulgence in the vice of pusillanimity. On the contrary, it calls forth the virtue of fortitude and presses a man to pray even as Our Lord prayed in Gethsemani.

Who in the days of his flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to him that was able to save him from death, was heard for his reverence. And whereas indeed he was the Son of God, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered: and being consummated, he became, to all that obey him, the cause of eternal salvation. (Hebrews 5:7-9)

A monk is called to the exercise of the virtue of fortitude in the practice of the sacrificial love of God and of his brethren, and this a hundred times or more each day. And a monk is called to the exercise of the virtue of fortitude in the choice of the love of Christ over every other love, over every other gratification, and over every other good. The pusillanimous man looks for ways to arrange things in such a way as to go forward without risking the loss of what he has. His spontanous and immediate reference is to losses and injuries sustained in the past, and this keeps him from engaging manfully in what lies ahead of him. We have, in the sacred liturgy over the past week, had several references to Philippians 3:13-16. It was in last Sunday’s Collect and was the Capitulum in the Office of Saint Antony:

Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended. But one thing I do: forgetting the things that are behind, and stretching forth myself to those that are before, I press towards the mark, to the prize of the supernal vocation of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded; and if in any thing you be otherwise minded, this also God will reveal to you. Nevertheless whereunto we are come, that we be of the same mind, let us also continue in the same rule.

I often think of what Père Ange Rodriguez, O.P. said to me. I refer to my notes and translate from the French:

What is needed is a total purification of the memory and of the imagination. This will allow you to recover command over these two faculties, which may become playthings of the devil. This is not about destroying these faculties, but about submitting them to reason. No more past, no more imagination, no more imaginary future. There is only the present. And the present is what you make of it.

Père Ange also said:

The goal [for you and for all of us] is to become a man without a past, so as to be able to start afresh from zero. So long as a man goes over his past, he will not emerge from it.

“So long as a man goes over his past he will not emerge from it.” Great wisdom there! I often think of these principles and try to apply them to my own life. I do not mean to my own life in a vague and general sense, but my own life today, here and now; in this present, in this place, at this very hour. I know that each of you struggle with mastering the two faculties of the memory and the imagination. One brother may be more given to ruminating over the past: ten years ago, last year, a month ago, yesterday, five minutes ago. I knew a monk who was known to repeat, “Ah, yes, Father X! I shall never forget what he said to me in 1942!”  Another brother may be tempted to imaginations of future scenarios: conflicts, losses, humiliations, triumphs, and the rest. In all such misuse of the faculties of the memory and the imagination there is a risk of falling into pusillanimity, of failing in fortitude, and of becoming dejected and paralysed. Listen again to the Apostle:

Why then, since we are watched from above by such a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of all that weighs us down, of the sinful habit that clings so closely, and run, with all endurance, the race for which we are entered. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the origin and the crown of all faith, who, to win his prize of blessedness, endured the cross and made light of its shame, Jesus, who now sits on the right of God’s throne. Take your standard from him, from his endurance, from the enmity the wicked bore him, and you will not grow faint, you will not find your souls unmanned. Your protest, your battle against sin, has not yet called for bloodshed; yet you have lost sight, already, of those words of comfort in which God addresses you as his sons; My son, do not undervalue the correction which the Lord sends thee, do not be unmanned when he reproves thy faults. It is where he loves that he bestows correction; there is no recognition for any child of his, without chastisement. Be patient, then, while correction lasts; God is treating you as his children. Was there ever a son whom his father did not correct? No, correction is the common lot of all; you must be bastards, not true sons, if you are left without it. We have known what it was to accept correction from earthly fathers, and with reverence; shall we not submit, far more willingly, to the Father of a world of spirits, and draw life from him? They, after all, only corrected us for a short while, at their own caprice; he does it for our good, to give us a share in that holiness which is his. For the time being, all correction is painful rather than pleasant; but afterwards, when it has done its work of discipline, it yields a harvest of good dispositions, to our great peace. Come then, stiffen the sinews of drooping hand, and flagging knee, and plant your footprints in a straight track, so that the man who goes lame may not stumble out of the path, but regain strength instead. (Hebrews 12:1-13)