Continuing my Year of Grace series on the tools of good work, a series of wisdom sayings collected in Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict, today we reach the eleventh tool, to chastise the body.
Mortification and training in virtue
The idea that disciplining the body is necessary in order to train ourselves in virtue has been all but abandoned in the Church today. And the consequences of the peculiar idea that we are mind alone, and control ourselves through mental effort without physical training can be seen in the moral depravity that has infiltrated the Church as a result.
St Benedict's pithy summary of the idea that something more is needed actually alludes to a discussion of the subject in 1 Corinthians 9 that is particularly appropriate in the midst of the Olympics, so I'll quote it from the RSV:
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified."
Life and Rule of St Benedict
One of the most famous incidents in the life of St Benedict tells of how he overcame temptations of the flesh by throwing himself on a thornbush, which I reported on in an earlier post in this series.
It is notable though, that in his Rule, St Benedict prescribes no special penances or mortifications beyond things which though they seem fairly tough to modern eyes (such as such as no breakfast and one meal only for much of the year; no eating of red meat; no eating or drinking outside the monastery without special permission) were more or less standard provisions at the time.
Instead, he urges a path of moderation that encourages self-discipline, particularly during Lent, but allows some indulgences (such as drinking wine with meals, and a choice of dishes so that everyone can choose something they like) and insists on keeping things within the bounds that the individual can reasonably manage.
It is this proper balance that we need to recover in our lives.
The next part in this series can be found here.