Sunday, 27 May 2012

A Year of Grace series: The Wisdom Sayings of St Benedict/1

Today is the official start of the Australian Year of Grace (well year and a half really, as it won't officially close until November 2013 when the Year of Faith finishes).

I wanted to make my own contribution in the spirit of the Year, and so today I'm launching a weekly series on the Wisdom Sayings of St Benedict (480-543).

The Year of Grace is about, amongst other things, committing ourselves to the path of holiness, cultivating the many gifts of the Spirit and seeking to grow as disciples of Jesus.

How better to do this than to contemplate the wisdom and life of one of the Church's greatest saints, a saint who lived, perhaps as we do today, at a time when civilization was collapsing?

If the Year of Grace is meant to be a quasi-retreat, think of this series as Conferences for that retreat, providing some fodder for you to think on.  So I hope you will enjoy it and find something of use in it.

But first a few comments by way of short introduction.

The Tools of Good Works

By the wisdom sayings of St Benedict, I'm actually talking about Chapter Four of his Rule, entitled the tools (or instruments) of Good Works.

They aren't particularly original.  Rather they are distillation from many sources of the key practices and attitudes that all Christians should adopt in ways appropriate to their state of life.

In fact St Benedict, in his conclusion to the chapter, says of them:

"Behold these are the tools of the spiritual craft. If we employ them unceasingly day and night, and on the Day of Judgement render account of them, then we shall receive from the Lord in return that reward which he himself has promised: Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, what God hath pre­pared for those that love him..."

The chapter is, on the face of it, a somewhat eclectic list of one liners, that starts and ends with the Great Commandment, takes in some of the ten commandments, the works of spiritual and corporal mercy, and much more.  But there are some sub-programs underlying their ordering, and some reasons, I think, why some things were included and others left out that I'll explore as we go along.

Food for reflection and contemplation

All up there are 72 (or 73 depending on how you split them) of these sayings (so they will spread nicely over that year and a half!).

Now normally of course, if one reads the Rule of St Benedict regularly, one tends to skip through them fairly quickly.

But I want to treat them one at a time, and link each one to other aspects of St Benedict's teaching, his life, and other material that might open us to moments of grace.

The first saying: In the first place, to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, all one’s soul, all one’s strength

The first of the tools of Good Work, is the Great Commandment (split into two, I'll deal with love of neighbour next week): the Latin is, In primis Dominum Deum diligere ex toto corde, tota anima, tota virtute.

The command to first to love God with one's whole heart, soul and mind is, of course, straight out of Scripture. Our Lord cites the text from Deuteronomy 6:5 when asked what is the greatest commandment (Mk 12:30).

And St Benedict places it at both the beginning and end of his list, and thus it can thus be seen as the summation of the whole Gospel, and of all the tools that come in between in St Benedict's list.

Loving God

The degree to which we can follow this Great Commandment determines and reflects the degree of our sanctity: the greatest saints are those with the greatest love for God.

A Carthusian puts it thus:

“God has commanded us to love him with ‘all your heart, all your soul, all your mind’ (Matthew 22:37), and we desire to love utterly in this way...But in this drama that of ourselves we are incompetent. We want to love purely, but we don’t want to entirely, not yet. We are so weak, so easily diverted from our true Good…Our heart is corrupt. This is our human inheritance; it is also the fruit of our personal choices. It demands ascesis: a hard, long struggle. But we are not alone. Christ has taken upon himself our nature and our sad heritage; he has redeemed us and he communicates his energy to us, the power of his Spirit, that enables us to enter the divine life that makes us children of God, and gives us the power to live, in the light, as children of God, after the pattern of Christ. But without us, not without our free co-operation, our personal response to his love.” (The Way of Silent Life, Conference II, pp 8).

How can we express our love for God: vocation

The first, and most important expression of our love for God is of course is to reject all other gods - such as the false gods of money, power and pleasure - and do for love what he wishes of us.

Of course, that's often the hardest of all the commandments to truly follow, because it requires that we properly discern our vocation, accept it, and then stay true to it.  Easier said then done!

Our vocation is first to a particular state of life: if we marry, it means no divorce; for a priest or religious, no escaping those vows and promises.

But secondly, our 'personal vocation' calls on us to act in the particular situations we find ourselves in accordance with the dictates of the Spirit.  We may be given a special call within our state of life.  And all of us are called to act, with the help of grace, to advance the faith in our families, parishes, communities and countries.

Our vocation in both senses requires a total commitment at every moment of the day.

We need the help of grace to open ourselves to this.

And we need to ask the aid of the great saints, who responded so selflessly to their calls, for aid. 

St Benedict: man of God

Let's take our inspiration from the opening of the story of St Benedict, as recounted by St Gregory the Great:

"There was a man of venerable life, blessed by grace, and blessed in name, for he was called "Benedictus" or Bennet: who, from his younger years, carried always the mind of an old man; for his age was inferior to his virtue: all vain pleasure he contemned, and though he were in the world, and might freely have enjoyed such commodities as it yieldeth, yet did he nothing esteem it, nor the vanities thereof.

He was born in the province of Nursia, of honourable parentage, and brought up at Rome in the study of humanity. But for as much as he saw many by reason of such learning to fall to dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, which he had as it were now set forth into the world, lest, entering too far in acquaintance therewith, he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf: wherefore, giving over his book, and forsaking his father's house and wealth, with a resolute mind only to serve God, he sought for some place, where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose: and in this sort he departed, instructed with learned ignorance, and furnished with unlearned wisdom." (Translated into our English Tongue by "P. W." and printed at Paris in 1608. Re-edited by Edmund G. Gardner in 1911, and again by the Saint Pachomius Library in 1995)

You can find the next part of this series here.

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