The tenth of the 'tools of good works' from Chapter 4 of St Benedict's Rule is to deny oneself in order to follow Christ.
The saying is clearly echoes Scripture. In St Matthew, it follows the scene in which St Peter is granted the keys, and then seeks to dissuade Jesus from the cross (16:24): Then Jesus said to his disciples: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."
But in the monastic context, the story of the rich young man who is told if he wants to be perfect to sell everything he has, give it to the poor and then come follow Christ (Mt 19: 21) is particularly important.
The idea of denying ourselves, of giving up our own will in favour of God's is always hard, but perhaps particularly so when we live in such an affluent society devoted above all to the pursuit of individual pleasure. We need new saints and leaders today to inspire us to the heights practiced by St Benedict!
St Gregory on the impact of St Benedict
In earlier parts of this series on the life of St Benedict I noted that St Benedict himself first fled the decadence of Rome, and then even a small Christian community when his fame became too much of a danger, and became a hermit in the wilderness of Subiaco. There he wrestled with his soul until he obtained mastery. Inevitably, many in the surrounding countryside were inspired by his example, St Gregory the Great relates, and became his disciples.
Later at Monte Cassino, he also inspired a following of what we would now call oblates, or lay supporters of the monastery, who also undertook great penances - sometimes!
"A brother also of Valentinian the monk, of whom I made mention before, was a layman, but devout and religious: who used every year, as well to desire the prayers of God's servant, as also to visit his natural brother, to travel from his own house to the Abbey: and his manner was, not to eat anything all that day before he came thither. Being therefore on a time in his journey, he lighted into the company of another that carried meat about him to eat by the way: who, after the day was well spent, spoke to him in this manner: "Come, brother," said he, "let us refresh ourselves, that we faint not in our journey": to whom he answered: "God forbid: for eat I will not by any means, seeing I am now going to the venerable father Benedict, and my custom is to fast until I see him."
The other, on this answer, said no more for the space of an hour. But afterward, having travelled a little further again he was in hand with him to eat something: yet then likewise he utterly refused, because he meant to go through fasting as he was. His companion was content, and so went forward with him, without taking anything himself. But when they had now gone very far, and were well wearied with long travelling, at length they came to a meadow, where there was a fountain, and all such other pleasant things as use to refresh men's bodies.
Then his companion said to him again: "Behold here is water, a green meadow, and a very sweet place, in which we may refresh ourselves and rest a little, that we may be the better able to dispatch the rest of our journey." Which kind words bewitching his ears, and the pleasant place flattering his eyes, content he was to yield to the motion, and so they fell to their meat together: and coming afterward in the evening to the Abbey, they brought him to the venerable father Benedict, of whom he desired his blessing. Then the holy man objected against him what he had done in the way, speaking to him in this manner: "How fell it out, brother," said he, "that the devil talking to you, by means of your companion, could not at the first nor second time persuade you: but yet he did at the third, and made you do what best pleased him?"
The good man, hearing these words, fell down at his feet, confessing the fault of his frailty; was grieved, and so much the more ashamed of his sin, because he perceived that though he were absent, that yet he offended in the sight of that venerable father.
The next part of this series can be found here.