Friday, August 30, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 3: Tools, continued...

The tools of good works are these...

(23) Not to cultivate a desire for revenge
(24) Not to entertain deceit in the heart.
(25) Not to make a false peace.
(26) Not to forsake charity.
(27) Not to swear, lest perchance you swear falsely.
(28) To speak the truth with heart and tongue.
(29) Not to return evil for evil.
(30) To do no injury, and even patiently to endure the injuries done to you.
(31) To love your enemies.
(32) Not to curse those that curse you, but rather to bless them.
(33) To bear persecution for the sake of justice.

      A few years ago, some obnoxious idiot made an extremely offensive video mocking the prophet Mohammed.  If you were watching the news (and I don’t necessarily recommend it) you saw video feeds from across the world of angry Muslims burning American flags and rioting in the streets.  I suppose you can’t really blame them.  Or maybe you can.  After all, there were millions of other Muslims across the world who, no doubt, were equally insulted, but who did not riot in the streets.  And to be sure, in America we had our own reactions.  Both the President and the Secretary of State filmed apologies.  The producer of the offending video was apprehended by the F.B.I. and taken in for questioning.  The film itself was publicly condemned by the World Council of Churches.  Even the Jewish Anti-Defamation League disavowed it.

       Interestingly, a very similar video surfaced not long before.  One of my students was the first to show it to me.  This other video started with a procession of monks trudging across the screen before a statue of the Sacred Heart chanting, “The Vatican is B*** S***”  Next, an actor, dressed as the pope, walked on screen holding a cell phone, pretending to talk to god.  Later in the film, they refer to Mother Theresa and her nuns in terms so foul, I can’t even hint at them in writing.  So you see, these two films had a lot in common.
      But here’s the clincher:  the anti-Islamic film was produced by some nobody in his basement and aired on YouTube.  The anti-Catholic film was produced by Showtime (a division of CBS).  You do remember hearing about it, though, right?  Don’t you remember the outrage in the media?  The presidential apology?  The expressions of sympathy from other religious authorities?  No?  Well, you wouldn’t have because they never happened.  In this country, bigotry and hate speech are acceptable—so long as they are directed at the Catholic Church.  Anti-Catholicism is, in the words of Philip Jenkens “the last acceptable prejudice.”  Frankly we’re used to it.
      Still, I’d be lying if I said that part of me didn’t want to storm the corporate headquarters of CBS and burn Matthew Blank’s office to the ground.  But of course, tool number twenty-nine says never to return evil for evil.  So instead, we pray for Mr. Blank.  And we pray for Penn Jillette and we pray for Raymond Joseph Teller.  We bless those who persecute us.  We love our enemies.  And if that doesn’t make us feel better, well…one or two of the cursing psalms couldn’t hurt.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 2: Tools, continued...

The tools of good works are these...

(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 those in trouble.
(19) To console the sorrowing.
(20) To be detached from worldly ways.
(21) To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
(22) Not to give way to anger.

      Saint Benedict’s monks are here instructed “to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”  Each of these tools, therefore, is designed to keep Christ at the center of our lives.  But what’s the deal with number thirteen?  Are we really to love fasting?  I can see how fasting might be useful, if only for the sake of staying thin.  But to love it?
      Personally, I find fasting uncomfortable and tiresome; but then there are a lot of things that are uncomfortable and tiresome that are also good for me.  Perhaps it is of more value to think in terms of exercise.  Like exercise, fasting is good.  And anything good can be loved.  What for the medieval mind was “chastisement” or “mortification” we today might well think of as training: lifting weights, running, practicing for sports…these are all ways of making our bodies look and feel the way God intended.  For Saint Benedict, these are also ways of showing the body who’s boss so that we can control ourselves when we need to.

Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into three
parts: the ‘id,’ the ‘ego,’ and the ‘superego.’  The id, he said, was our lower animal nature, and the superego was our higher intellectual nature.  The job of the ego, he claimed, was to mediate between the higher and lower so that we didn’t live totally in our heads or totally like animals.  You might think of it in terms of the little angel and devil sitting on your shoulders.  Things like fasting and abstinence strengthen our ego so that we don’t run around like dogs, eating, sniffing, attacking anything that crosses our path. In other words, our desires shouldn’t rule us.
      Speaking of desires, you’ll notice that Saint Benedict doesn’t say that anger is itself a sin.  After all, if you see something evil or unfair, it should make you angry.  If it doesn’t, then there is probably something wrong with you.  It’s when we give way to anger or dwell on it in our hearts, that the sinning begins.  So we need to maintain a certain distance from these emotions, just as we maintain a certain distance from “worldly” ways.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with loving the world.  It is, after all, a gift from God.  But we shouldn’t be “worldly” in the sense of letting this world (or our emotions) get in the way of loving Christ, which is our first priority.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Chapter 4, Part 1:The Tools of Good Works

The tools of good works are these:

(1) Firstly,to  love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole strength...
(2) Then, your neighbor as yourself (cf Mt 22:37-39; Mk 12:30-31; Lk 10:27).
(3) Then, not to kill...
(4) Not to commit adultery...
(5) Not to steal...
(6) Not to covet (cf Rom 13:9).
(7) Not to bear false witness (cf Mt 19:18; Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20).
(8) To show respect to everyone (cf 1 Pt 2:17).
(9) And what you would not have done to yourself, not to do to another (cf Tob 4:16; Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31).
(10) To deny yourself in order to follow Christ (cf Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23).
(11) To discipline the body (cf 1 Cor 9:27).
(12) Not to chase after pleasures

    This may be the strangest chapter of the Rule.  For starters, it doesn’t look like the other chapters.  It’s just a list—and a long list at that.  But Saint Benedict knows what he’s doing, and the longer you spend sorting through his ‘spiritual toolbox,’ the more sense it makes.  Some of the tools are oddly shaped, and others may not be used very often.  Still others take real training to use, and some may be downright dangerous if used the wrong way.  But you need to have them all handy, and you need to know how to use them when the time comes.  Because when something needs fixing, there’s just no substitute for the right tool.
      As you might expect, Saint Benedict finds most of his ‘holiness tools’ in the Bible, but there are some surprises too.  The bit about chasing pleasures, for example, might strike you as a little odd.  What’s wrong with pleasure, after all?  Why not chase after it?
    Still, the longer you think about it, the more sense it makes.  Pleasures (like good food
or good music or pretty much any good thing) are nice, but temporary.  When they come our way, we should enjoy them.  But when we start to chase after them, we confuse our priorities.  Think, for a moment, of the ‘rich young man’ that Jesus tried to recruit in the Gospel of Mark.  “He went away sad,” Mark tells us, because he had many possessions.  The guy in that story lost his calling simply because he was too preoccupied with chasing after pleasures.
      The kids at my school often ask me why I quit being a beach lifeguard in order to become a monk.  Isn’t being a lifeguard more fun?  Well, yes, in some respects.  But in defense of my decision, I can say this: there’s nothing more depressing than a forty-year-old lifeguard.  Because everyone comes to a point in their life when they must choose between fun and joy.  And to choose the former over the latter just leads to a whole lot of emptiness.  These decisions aren’t always life-changing, but they do have their consequences.  And they are often very difficult because joy is so frequently accompanied by suffering.  Ironically, the rich young man went away sad because he threw in his lot with fun.  Let us pray that in our daily decisions—great and small—we have the wisdom to choose joy, no matter how fun the alternative.

Chapter 3: Calling the Brethren for Counsel

          Whenever important matters are to be transacted in the monastery, the Abbot should call together the whole community, and having heard the brethren's views, let him decide for himself what he thinks is most fitting. And this is why all should be called to the meeting: because the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best. Let the brethren, for their part, give their advice with humble submission, and not presume stubbornly to defend what seems right to them. But as it is fitting for disciples to obey their master, so also it is fitting for the master to manage all things with prudence and justice. Therefore, let all follow the Rule as their guide in everything, and let no one depart from it just because they want to. No one in the monastery should follow the whims of his own heart, and no one should dare to argue disrespectfully with his Abbot, either inside or outside the monastery. Let the Abbot himself, however, do everything in the fear of the Lord and out of reverence for the Rule, knowing that, beyond a doubt, he will have to give an account to God, the most just Judge, for all his rulings.
           I honestly don’t know which is harder, having to be detached from your own opinion, or having to listen to everyone else’s. But Saint Benedict wants us to do both. For a monk, even leadership is about listening—and get this: the younger monks often have the best advice. So even the abbot has to practice listening. After all, the monastery isn’t a dictatorship; the superior has to follow the rules just like everyone else. But then, the monastery isn’t a democracy either. So when push comes to shove, the abbot must have the last word. And each monk is bound by his vow of obedience to do what he says and not to grumble when they think their advice has been ignored.
            Many years ago, I had a boss who seemed to want his own business to fail. I don’t know what was wrong with this guy, but it felt to me like he invented special rules just to keep us from succeeding. So I typed up a proposal detailing the various improvements I felt ought to be made to enhance our productivity and competitiveness. I wrote it in the most civil, official-sounding, courteous terms possible. I had my coworkers proofread it, and they agreed it was full of good ideas. Then, with all the respect and deference I could muster, I submitted it to my boss. Naturally, he ignored it. So I sent the proposal to his boss, who read it, called me into his office, told me I’d made some excellent points, and then didn’t do anything about it either. Well, I didn’t want all that work to go to waste, so I rewrote it one last time and sent it to the CEO, who of course never responded at all. That’s when I decided to write an actual letter of complaint, protesting the incompetency of my employer, and detailing my proposal in stronger terms that I thought might finally get someone’s attention.
           At that point, a wise coworker took me by the arm, sat me down in the employee lounge, and said, “The boss knows what you think. And his boss knows what you think. Everyone knows what you think, from the CEO down to the floor manager. So maybe it’s time for you to shut up.” I hummed and hawed and lectured him for a few minutes, and when I stopped, he took my complaint out of my hands, threw it in the trash and said, “You lost. Get over it. Every boss appreciates an assertive employee, but there’s a very fine line between being assertive and being a jerk. You just crossed that line."
             Not only did his advice save me my job, it actually gave me great peace of mind. A sad fact of being human is that sometimes you lose. Sometimes people don’t want to hear what you have to say. So what? You try your hardest and you do what you can. But you have to allow for the very real possibility that you may be wrong. And that’s ok too. Because in the end, God does not call us to be successful. He calls us to be faithful.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Chapter 2: What Sort of Man the Abbot Should Be

      When a man takes the name of Abbot, he should govern his
disciples by a twofold teaching; namely, he should show them all that is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words… Let him so adjust and adapt himself to each one according to his character and understanding–that he not only suffer no loss in his flock, but may rejoice in the increase of a worthy fold.  And let the Abbot always bear in mind that he will be held accountable by God Himself for both his own teaching and for the obedience of his disciples.

    For a monk, the abbot takes the place of Christ in this world.  His monks owe him respect, love, and above all, obedience.  But unlike Christ, the abbot is imperfect.  In one sense, therefore, every abbot is a hypocrite, because it is his job to teach his monks how to do something that even he can’t do.  I’m guessing this is why Saint Benedict named this chapter “What Sort of Man the Abbot Should Be” and not “What Sort of Man the Abbot Is”.  No matter.  We owe him obedience anyway, because God put him in charge.  This is why we call him “Abbot,” an ancient word for “Father.”

      The abbot, like any parent, receives his authority straight from God.  Every culture in the world recognizes that, unless parents do real harm to their children, no one has the right to take this authority away from them.  But right around our teenage years, we begin to realize that this authority is neither earned nor deserved nor even effectively managed.  Our parents demand things of us that they themselves would never do.  They forbid things that they would never give up.  All sorts of rules apply to us, but very few seem to apply to them.
      Saint Benedict understands this.  So he warns the abbot that he will be held accountable by God.  This can be comforting to those of us who are put under someone else’s authority, but it can also be very frightening when we assume that authority ourselves.  Of course, you may not find yourself wielding the sort of influence that an abbot has, but there are other positions of leadership that carry the same obligations: the team captain, the club president…even just being popular carries the weight of considerable responsibility because your peers look to you as a mentor and as an example.  They will imitate your virtues, but they will also use your vices to excuse their own misbehavior.  So beware.  One way or another, you will be held accountable—and more so by the example you set than by the words you speak.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Chapter 1: The Different Kinds of Monks

           It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first kind is the Cenobite, that is, the monk who lives under a rule and an Abbot. The second kind is that of Anchorites, or Hermits—those who, trained for combat in the desert, are able, with the help of God, to fight evil single-handed, without the help of others. But a third and most despicable class of monks is that of the Sarabites, who, living without a shepherd make their own cloister, not in the Lord's sheepfold, but in their own. The gratification of their desires is their law; because what they like they call holy, but what they happen to dislike they call unlawful. There is, in fact, a fourth class of monks which we call Gyrovags. These so-called monks keep constantly moving, staying three or four days at a time in different cells as guests. Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite, and are in every way worse than the Sarabites. It is better to pass these over in silence than to speak of their most wretched life.

             There was an old monk in my monastery who used to joke at the start of every Lent that he was going to fast whenever he wasn’t hungry. His point, I think, was that all of us love the rules that are easy to obey, but find reasons to disobey when the rules get difficult. Saint Benedict doesn’t have much patience for this kind of hypocrisy. He utterly despises wannabes—the do-it-yourselfers who make up their own rules as they go…or worse yet, make up rules that just happen to coincide with what they’re already doing.
            I teach Theology at a prep school in Saint Louis, Missouri. Not long ago, a kid raised his hand and point-blank declared that the Church’s teaching on Purgatory was stupid. Frankly, I think he was just trying to get a rise out of me, but before I could answer, the kid in front of him turned around and said, “So who died and made you pope?” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Unless you are truly convinced that you are holier, wiser, and smarter than the combined resources of the entire Catholic Church, you might as well concede that the pope speaks with more authority than you do.

            In class a few days later, the same kid raised his hand. When I called on him, he turned around to the rest of the group and said, “I see you guys at parties and on the weekends. You’re no holier than anyone else. At least I’m true to myself.” There’s a part of me that has to admire a kid like this. He certainly had the courage of his convictions, and I congratulated him on that.[1] The problem was that he actually didn’t know what his convictions were. After all, anyone can claim to be true to himself. If you want to do something really courageous and admirable, try being true to someone better than yourself—like, say, Jesus.

[1] Tom is in college now, and stirring up just as much trouble there as he stirred up back in high school—except that he discovered he could make much more trouble by defending the Church’s teachings!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Prologue, Part 2

      Cheerfully receive and faithfully put into practice the advice of your loving Father, that by the toil of obedience you may return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience you have wandered away.  To you, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up your own will, take up the strong and most excellent weapons of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King.

      This might be one of those passages that we are tempted to skip over.  It sounds awfully medieval, doesn’t it?  All this talk of obedience and weapons and battle and kingship…
      These days, we have a tendency to prefer a “kinder, gentler” Jesus.  We like to think that we have put the whole idea of kingship more or less behind us.  What is a king, after all, if not a sort of romanticized dictator?  No, we’re more civilized than that.  We prefer to think of Jesus as someone…to hold in very high esteem.  And our Heavenly Father?  Well, we tend to think of Him more as a “heavenly grandfather”—a benevolent, but slightly senile old guy who doesn’t really care what we do so long as no one gets hurt. [1]  And even if we do hurt someone, he’s not likely to notice or even remember it later.

Pantocrator Mosaic of Hagia Sophia
     The stern Pantocrator you see painted on the ceilings of ancient Cathedrals—Jesus, the Judge of the Nations, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings enthroned over the earth…that’s a little passé.  We live in more civilized times, we prefer now to think of Jesus as more of a facilitator…a group therapist, perhaps.  But let’s not forget that this is the guy who is going to “judge the living and the dead.”  This is the guy who’s going to sit at the right hand of God the Father—who will “rule with an iron rod” and “tread out the wine of fury and the wrath of God almighty.”
      Now I’m not suggesting that it is good to be afraid of God—as though he were sitting up there in heaven just itching to hit the ‘smite’ button on his computer…but then again, as the Book of Proverbs tells us, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  For if God is truly good, then he must be truly just.  Moreover, if our actions in this world are to have any real meaning, they must have real consequences in the world to come.
      The Catechism says this: “The seventh of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, and yet first in the rising scale of value, is the Fear of the Lord, which contains the virtue of Hope and impels us to a profound respect for the majesty of God. Its corresponding effects are protection from sin through dread of offending the Lord, and a strong confidence in the power of His help.”
      Notice that hope walks hand-in-hand with this holy fear.  Although we “dread offending the Lord,” we know that we have the strength, in Christ, to be holy in His sight.  We have the Eucharist.  We have the sacrament of Reconciliation.  We have the combined resources of the largest charitable organization in the world at our disposal.  We are the Church, the glorious bride of Christ, who reaches out her hands to the poor, extends her arms to the needy, whose value is far beyond pearls.  By virtue of our citizenship in this kingdom and by means of our obedience to this king, we have the courage to call ourselves soldiers in this, the greatest of all battles.

[1] C.S. Lewis wrote something similar in his book, “The Problem of Pain.”  Read it.  I promise it will be worth your time.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Prologue, Part 1

     Listen, my son, to the teachings of the master, and incline the ear of your heart.


     The first word of the Rule of Saint Benedict is also the most important.  For the monk, it represents the focus of the spiritual life: listening to God.  Everything a monk does—from the way he eats and sleeps to the way he works and prays—is designed to help him learn how to listen. 
 “Are you listening to me?”  “Can’t you hear what I’m trying to say?”  People use these expressions all the time when they are arguing.  Just think how many problems would be solved if they really did just listen to one another.  A wise old monk once told me that I should never answer a complaint without repeating it back to the person who made it.  Why?  Because it assures them that I am listening. You can’t force people to listen to you, but you’d be surprised how open they are once they’re convinced that you are listening to them.
The monk’s life, however, is not so much about listening to other people as it is about listening to God.  And that’s even more difficult.  Why?  Because God is a gentleman.  He speaks very, very quietly, and he rarely forces anyone to listen to Him.  So if we’re not vigilant, we can easily mistake some other voice—or even our own voice—for His.  This is why it’s so important to share your spiritual journey with someone older and wiser—a parent, or a priest, or a spiritual mentor who can help you to distinguish the true voice of God from the many imposters who want to take His place.
I’ll leave you with something else that same monk told me: when you meet a wise man, listen to him and you will learn wisdom; when you meet a foolish man, listen to him and you will learn patience; when you are alone, listen to God, and you’ll learn everything else.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


           Right around the beginning of the fifth century A.D., a teenager was bored with his classes.  He was studying law.  His father was wealthy and influential.  This was a smart, charismatic kid, and he seemed destined for greatness.
Young Saint Benedict In His Cave
            But he hated school.
            It wasn’t so much that he had anything against learning per se; it was just that the whole business felt like a waste of time.  And the more he learned, the less he liked it.  He was training to go into politics, but the world seemed to be going down the tubes.  There were gangs of kids in the street armed to the teeth, there were wars going on all over the world that never seemed to end and there was a sudden influx of terrible diseases for which there were no known cures.  There were scandals in politics and scandals in the Church.  In short, the World (with a capital ‘W’) was a big disappointment.
            So he ran away.  But he didn’t do what most teenagers do when they run away.  He didn’t join the circus or find his fortune in The Big City.  Instead, he went to live in a cave on the side of a mountain.[1]  The long and short of it is that this he spent three years in more or less total isolation, just praying.  Ironically, all this praying made him rather famous.  People started coming to him for advice.  And the next thing he knew, there were hundreds of guys living in the same mountains trying to do the same thing.  Folks even invented a name for them: the monakoi—the lonely men—or in modern English, monks.  Many years later, he wrote a little book on how to be a monk, which came to be known as The Rule.
            The kid, of course, was Saint Benedict, and his Rule became one of the most influential documents in the history of the world.  It is full of great advice, from who should apologize after an argument, to how many times a day you should to pray, to what you ought to do with old underwear and whether or not you should sleep while wearing a knife.
The problem is that Saint Benedict wrote this book rather a long time ago (1500 years ago, to be precise) and the language is somewhat medieval, so these days, folks don’t read him like they used to.  What’s more, the folks who actually need this advice the most are the very folks who read him the least—namely, teenagers.  So this book is a sort of introduction and commentary designed to help make Saint Benedict’s advice more accessible.

A Note on the Translation
            Whenever I quote Saint Benedict’s Rule in this book, I have used Benedict Verheyen’s 1949 translation.  But I’ve made some adaptations.  I’ve modernized the language and left out the cumbersome, confusing, or repetitive bits.  If you want to read the entire Rule beginning to end, I recommend the famous “RB 1980,” translated by Timothy Fry, Timothy Horner, and Imogene Baker.

[1] The story is, of course, more complicated than this, so if you want all the details, read The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great.