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.