Grant, we pray, that, putting nothing before love of you, we may hasten with a loving heart in the way of your commands.
Prayer, Feast of St. Benedict
What can be sweeter to us, dear ones,
than this voice of the Lord inviting us?
Behold, in His loving kindness
the Lord shows us the way of life.
Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue
After Jacob had taken them across the stream and had brought over all his possessions, Jacob was left there alone. Then some man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
Today is the Feast of St. Benedict. Benedict created one of the most significant and enduring documents of Western Civilization, his Rule of Life. He developed, by experience as well as study of John Cassian and others before him, a way of living for one who longed to discover within oneself and with others the “life to the full” that Jesus promised and to devote one’s whole life to becoming a student of that way. In Benedict’s words, the life he was describing was a “school for the service of God.”
A distinguishing mark of Benedict’s Rule was its moderation. It does not make punishing physical or mental demands of its followers, but it rather is a way of moderation and balance between labor and prayer, silence and speaking, study and rest. Yet, it is nonetheless a challenging mode of living out one’s life. The challenge lies in living the purity of intention and heart that is the cornerstone of an ordered life. In the words of Colossians: “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17). A great paradox of human life is that fulfillment and joy in life requires of us an ordering and a focusing of our capacity for love and attention. Unconsciously, we tend to dispersion and dissipation of our affections and our will. We tend to suffer from an innate tendency to attention deficit disorder. So, having decided to put nothing before God, we shall inevitably find ourselves wrestling with God throughout our lives.
When I was a child, my parents would often say to me, as my attention incessantly wandered into anything and anyone that surrounded me, that I was afraid that I might miss something. Most of us, including well into adulthood, suffer from our insatiable desire for knowledge and experience. Our quality of presence is mostly diminished by the dispersion of our attention. We want to be ‘in the know,” and to be included in everything of interest around us. The cultivation of single-minded attention and full presence to what is given to us for our attention and response at the moment is a struggle. There is good reason why the first great commandment calls us to love the Lord our God will all our heart, and soul, and strength. Learning this is a lifetime task. Often in our life’s course we find ourselves struggling, contesting with God, as Jacob with the angel. We are disposed to have multiple objects of our love and contending interests of our will. As Adam and Eve before us, we want it all.
At the heart of Benedict’s rule is Chapter Seven on humility. He describes twelve steps of growth in humility, which is our capacity to live in reality. The great spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing speaks of the danger of our being “greedy greyhounds” in our grasping for experiences in prayer. The truth is we are also “greedy greyhounds” in our grasping for experiences of all sorts: physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual. We are, as my parents would put it, always afraid we might miss something. The lesson of Jesus to Martha that “only one thing is necessary” is a very difficult one for us to appropriate and to live. The way of humility which Benedict lays out is the way we grow, over a lifetime, in our capacity to live by what Freud called “the reality principle.”
Psychoanalysis has taught us that we tend to live a continual battle between our id and our ego. Our passions, the impulses of our vital dimension, are powerful forces which operate on the world out of the illusion that it exists for our pleasure, that we are the center of the universe. It is the work of a well-developed ego to manage that id, to allow us to function well in society and to work in the world by channeling that passion and energy in socially acceptable and even socially constructive ways. Benedict’s way of speaking of this is that we most often keep the precepts of God because of fear. When acting morally and justly, we may not exactly be doing what we want to do, but we do it, nonetheless, by the efforts of a strong enough ego.
Benedict speaks, however, of a more harmonious way, what we might today call human wholeness. This occurs when we do the good for others and the world out of love and without effort. In this way of being, the good that we are doing and God’s loving will for the world are one with our own will. How does such a transformation of personality occur? It is by dying to that in ourselves which contaminates our vision, our ability to see what is. As we die in this way, we begin to see ourselves, the other, and the world as they are. We see things clearly because “we” are no longer the center of our attention. We look out on a world and recognize it as it is in itself, as it is in the mind of the One who created it. To live in the “real world” rather than the one of our own needs and imagination is to love the world.
To die to all in us that is ambiguous and confused, that is buffeted about by multiple and conflicting needs and desires, is to become an instrument of love. As Dante says it is the love of God “that moves the sun and the other stars.” It is the love of God that is our true life, our emergent life as we remove, by wrestling with God, the obstacles to that love within us. Reality is often an affront to our ego. We don’t like it when circumstances or other persons put us in our true place. Mary expresses her very being in the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Our journey from self-magnification to the same magnifying of the Lord is a life-long struggle. It involves a constant wrestling with ourselves and with God, the moment to moment choice to put nothing before the love of God. The way to human freedom, teaches Benedict, is the way of purification of will. It is by forsaking illusion and embracing the love of God before all else that we are brought to that place in us where fear is cast out and love is the source of all of our actions.
Having climbed all these steps of humility, therefore,
the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God
which casts out fear.
And all those precepts
which formerly he had not observed without fear,
he will now begin to keep by reason of that love,
without any effort,
as though naturally and by habit.
No longer will his motive be the fear of hell,
but rather the love of Christ,
and delight in the virtues
which the Lord will deign to show forth by the Holy Spirit
in His servant now cleansed from vice and sin.
Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter VII