Today the next installment in my Year of Grace series on the wisdom of St Benedict, using as a jumping off point, the ‘tools of good work’ listed in Chapter 4 of his Rule.
The first two ‘tools’ were simply the two parts of the Great Commandment. The next set of tools are a selection of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13-17), starting with today’s, Deinde non occidere, Then not to murder.
Monks and murder!
The instruction not to murder is repeated many times in Scripture (see for example Mt 19:18; and Rom 13:9). All the same, one obvious question that immediately comes to mind is, why does a Rule for monks need to include an instruction not to murder?!
The answer unfortunately is that men are men: St Benedict himself survived several assassination attempts, including one the part of his own monks, another by a jeolous priest; and today the Pope who has taken him as patron is beset by metaphorical attempts at the same thing.
The lesson that sits behind today's wisdom saying is that God freely offers us grace: yet he also leaves men free to reject that offer, even though that freedom may have terrible consequences for others in the here and now.
Yet death now, literal or metaphorical, is in the end a small price to pay in the greater scheme of things: it is eternal life or death that we really need to focus on.
Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of the commandment in the context of St Benedict’s Rule and Life.
The way of perfection
The selection from the Ten Commandments that St Benedict includes in his tools of good work is not random.
It is in fact the list that Our Lord used in Matthew 19 when Jesus speaks to the rich young man, and calls on him to leave everything and follow him.
The rich young man claims that he has kept the commandments, yet refuse Christ’s invitation. He rejects the way of grace offered by Our Lord.
By contrast, the monk or nun has accepted the call to a higher state of life, the renunciation of the goods of this world.
Death of the soul
In the context of the New Testament, Our Lord reminds us that the commandment forbids not just literal murder, but also attempts to kill the souls of ourselves and others.
He explains in the Sermon on the Mount Our Lord explains that anger is a sin against this commandment.
Elsewhere in his Rule, St Benedict takes up the other warning in the Sermon of the Mount, against false shepherds who are wolves in sheep's clothing, seeking to kill the souls of others, a problem all too prevalent in our own time!
One of the oldest surviving commentators on the Rule, Smaragdus, notes that the Rule prohibits anything that brings about spiritual death, whether of oneself or others:
"For monks go about girded not with worldly weapons with which murders are committed, but with spiritual virtues by which souls may be saved. But just as there is such a thing as killing with the sword, there is also such a thing as killing through hatred, lying and any grave sin."
Doing the good will bring you under fire!
We shouldn’t forget the literal meaning of the commandment though.
In our own culture of death, many are all too ready to persuade themselves that abortion and euthanasia are not murder; all too ready to rationalize away evil.
Similarly, Our Lord’s own life reminds us that those who stand up for truth and insist on doing the good will be persecuted, even assassinated either literally or metaphorically.
Those speak the truth – whether about what the teachings of the Church actually are, or the fallen away state of modern religious will be ridiculed and mocked, not lauded, for speaking the truth.
It is the price we must be prepared to pay for being Christ’s true disciples.
St Benedict’s failed attempt at reforming a monastery
St. Benedict himself survived at least two assassination attempts. The first was by a group of evil monks, as St Gregory relates in Chapter 3 of the Life, and it is a curious story indeed.
The monks had invited St Benedict to be their abbot because of the prestige he had accumulated as a hermit. St Benedict warns the monks that he will be a tough leader. They claim they will obey him.
But the asceticism he demanded of them was too much, to the point where they decide to kill him by poisoning his wine!
The saint was miraculously saved.
But he also realises that there comes a point where he has done as much as he usefully can: he adopts Our Lord’s instruction when the message of truth is rejected, namely that if they won’t listen, shake the dust off your feet and move on. (Mt 10:14).
Here is the story:
"Not far from the place where he remained there was a monastery, the Abbot whereof was dead: whereupon the whole Convent came to the venerable man Benedict, entreating him very earnestly that he would vouchsafe to take on him the charge and government of their Abbey: long time he denied them, saying that their manners were divers from his, and therefore that they should never agree together: yet at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent.
Having now taken on him the charge of the Abbey, he took order that regular life should be observed, so that none of them could, as before they used, through unlawful acts decline from the path of holy conversation, either on the one side or on the other: which the monks perceiving, they fell into a great rage, accusing themselves that ever they desired him to be their Abbot, seeing their crooked conditions could not endure his virtuous kind of government.
Therefore, when they saw that under him they could not live in unlawful sort, and were loath to leave their former conversation, and found it hard to be enforced with old minds to meditate and think on new things: and because the life of virtuous men is always grievous to those that be of wicked conditions, some of them began to devise, how they might rid him out of the way.
Taking counsel together, they agreed to poison his wine: which being done, and the glass wherein that wine was, according to the custom, offered to the Abbot to bless, he, putting forth his hand, made the sign of the cross, and straightway the glass, that was held far off, broke in pieces, as though the sign of the cross had been a stone thrown against it: on which accident the man of God by and by perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death, which could not endure the sign of life. Rising up, with a mild countenance and quiet mind, he called the monks together, and spoke thus to them:
"Almighty God have mercy on you, and forgive you: why have you used me in this manner? Did not I tell you before hand, that our manner of living could never agree together? Go your ways, and seek ye out some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer among you."
When he had thus discharged himself, he returned to the wilderness which so much he loved, and dwelt alone with himself, in the sight of his Creator, who beholds the hearts of all men.”
Who are we when God offers his grace?
The question we have to ask ourselves in this story is, who are we?
Are we St Benedict in this story?
Are you a priest or bishop, entrusted with the task of governing and teaching the Church? Are you a teacher in a Catholic school? Are you a parishioner? Are you a Catholic!
Confronted with evil in the Church, do you speak up, teach, support attempt to make reforms as best you can, whether that is simply a small gesture (like voting in the Cath News poll on this blog!), or something much bigger?
For just as he did with St Benedict, God will leads us to the times and places where we are called to act, and God will give us the courage to speak, the grace to know what to do or say.
But of course we can refuse that grace, keep silent lest we be attacked and reviled, even murdered.
Or are you one of those evil monks, in need of reformation?
We all stand in need of reform, just as those evil monks did.
Yet when we are confronted with those hard sayings, do we accept them, and stick with Christ? Or do we instead attempt to shoot the messenger?
God offers us the grace of perseverance, the grace of conversion. He calls us to realise our vocation, as he did the rich young man.
But we can say no.
Don't do it.
Rather, accept God's grace, and live eternally.
St Benedict instructed his monks to say every day, at Matins, Psalm 94. It's key verse?
If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts...
This series continues here.