Just as there is a wicked zeal which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vice and leads to God and everlasting life. The monks, therefore, should practice this good zeal with the most fervent love; in fact, they should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, competing with one another in obedience. They should endure one another’s weaknesses—whether of body or mind—with the utmost patience; and no one should follow what he thinks useful to himself; instead, he should do what he thinks will most benefit the others.
The monks should fear God and love their abbot with sincere and humble affection. Let them prefer nothing to Christ, and may He lead us all together to life everlasting.
Here in the penultimate chapter, we finally see where all this is leading. All the rules and mandates and regulations guide us to this one quintessentially monastic virtue: zeal. The monk must be zealous. He must want heaven the way a rock star wants to be on stage—the way an actor wants to be in the movies. He has to be willing to make the same sacrifices that athletes and soldiers and poets make in pursuit of their dreams. The hunger, the loneliness, the humiliations, failures and sacrifices are all part of realizing that dream. The monk knows this, and when the struggle begins to wear on him, he bears it with the grim, rugged joy of a mountain climber or a triathlete. In his treatise On Virginity, Saint Ambrose wrote, “The Word of God moves swiftly. The lukewarm won’t reach him. The lazy can’t hold on. So pay close attention to his word, and be careful to follow the path God shows you, or He will quickly pass you by” (Ch 12, 74).
It’s all about good zeal.
If, as we said in Chapter 5, “supernatural docility” is what gives the Benedictine life its authentic character, then “good zeal” is what perfects it. You can think of these as the beginning and end of the spiritual discipline: the negative way and the positive way. You start with purification and end with perfection.
Saint Augustine had a pretty interesting take on this process, which he drew from the beatitudes (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Chs 1-23). The first three beatitudes, he said, are passive (“Blessed are the poor… mourning…weak”); the last three are active (“Blessed are the merciful…the pure…the peacemakers”). But the central beatitude—the turning point and crux of the spiritual life, the focus of the entire endeavor—is zeal: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5). You sometimes hear ambitious athletes or businessmen described as hungry. They are consumed by a sort of restless, savage, dogged enthusiasm that keeps them sprinting from one dream to the next. This is zeal, and it’s what separates the diehard from the mere enthusiast. When others call it a day, the zealous man is just getting started. Setbacks are “tests” and failures are just practice runs.
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” wrote Saint Augustine(Confessions, Book I). This spiritual restlessness—this hunger—is what keeps the monk on his toes. It keeps him focused and it keeps him humble, because it is a constant reminder that his work is incomplete. Hubert Van Zeller (what a name!) wrote: “When a monk is possessed of true zeal he thinks neither of reform nor of himself—and still less of how unreformed his companions are—but thinks only of how God may be better served” (The Holy Rule, p. 456).
Good zeal is what you get when you prefer nothing—nothing whatever—to Christ.