Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Wisdom sayings and life of St Benedict /5

Sodoma, c15th
 Today in this continuing series, a look at the fifth of St Benedict's 'Tools of Good Work', from Chapter Five of his Rule, Non facere furtum (Not to steal).


Like many of these wisdom sayings, this might be seen as a statement of the obvious. 

But even at the literal level, we often tend to minimise our offences against this commandment.   I will never forget my nephew, for example, visiting an EF Mass for the first time and being utterly scandalised by people talking about (illegally) downloading tv shows from the internet.  Others think it is fine to dud their employer just at the margins.  Or to cheat the tax man. 

We all need to be constantly reminded not to delude ourselves and steal, whether in big ways or small.

Ownership and the obligations of wealth

It is worth also reminding ourselves that even where we legitimately own goods, their 'universal destination' is for the good of others and for society, not just our own  or even our family's benefit. 

Wealth, in short, exists to be shared, and improper accumulation of it is immoral, for it is stealing it from the destination it has been assigned by God (see Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, 328-9).

One of the functions of the religious life is to model this for us all through the monk or nun's commitment to poverty.  The key temptation for a religious is to forget that he personally owns nothing, and keep gifts from family and friends to him or the monastery without seeking the abbot's permission (RB 54), or to treat the profits of the sale of his work as his own (RB 57).  St. Gregory offers several instructive tales from the life of St. Benedict on this subject, of which my favourites are the following.

The wine flask

First from Chapter 18 of St Gregory the Great's Life of St Benedict:

"Once upon a time, Exhilaratus, our monk, a lay-brother, whom you know, was sent by his master to the monastery of the man of God, to carry to him two wooden bottles, commonly called flagons, full of wine. The servant, as he was going, hid one of them in a bush for himself, and presented the other to venerable Benedict. He took it very thankfully, and, when the man was going away, he gave him this warning: "Take heed, my son," said he, "that you don't drink of that flagon which you have hidden in the bush. First be careful to examine it, and you shall then find what is within it."

The poor man, thus pitifully confounded by the man of God, went his way, and coming back to the place where the flagon was hidden, and desirous to try the truth of what was told him, as he examined the flagon, a snake immediately leaped forth. Then Exhilaratus, perceiving what had gotten into the wine, began to be afraid of the wickedness that he had committed."

The problem of nuns....from Chapter 19:

"Not far from his Abbey, there was a village, in which very many men had, by the sermons of Benedict, been converted from idolatry to the true faith of Christ. Certain Nuns also there were in the same town, to whom he often sent some of his monks to preach to them, for the good of their souls.

On a day, one that was sent, after he had made an end of his exhortation, by the entreaty of the Nuns took certain small napkins, and hid them for his own use in his bosom: whom, on his return to the Abbey, the man of God very sharply rebuked, saying: "How comes it to pass, brother, that sin is entered into your bosom ?"

At which words the monk was much amazed for he had quite forgotten what he had put there; and therefore knew not any cause why he should deserve that reprehension: whereupon the holy man spoke to him in plain terms, and said: "Was not I present when you took the handkerchiefs of the Nuns, and put them up in your bosom for your own private use?"

The monk, hearing this, fell down at his feet, and was sorry that he had behaved himself so indiscreetly: forth he drew those napkins from his bosom, and threw them all away."

Stealing from God

The greater sins though, relate to stealing from God.

For we steal from God when we withhold what we owe him, for example in prayers and the material support of the Church.

We steal from God when we fail to uphold our vows and promises, fail to follow our vocation.

St Gregory the Great records:

"A certain monk there was so inconstant and fickle of mind, that he desired to leave the Abbey. For this fault of his, the man of God daily rebuked him, and often times gave him good admonitions. But yet, for all this, he would by no means tarry among them, and therefore continually begged that he might be discharged.

The venerable man, wearied with his importunity, in anger bid him depart. He was no sooner out of the Abbey gate, when he found a dragon in the way waiting for him with open mouth. About to be devoured, he began in great fear and trembling to cry out aloud, saying, "Help, help! for this dragon will eat me up.

At the noise the monks ran out, but they saw no dragon, only the reluctant monk, shaking and trembling. They brought him back again to the Abbey. He forthwith promised that he would never more forsake the monastery, and so ever after he continued in his profession. By the prayers of the holy man, he saw the dragon coming against him, whom before, when he did not see him, he had willingly followed."

When we pursue our own desires rather than giving faithful service in a way appropriate to our state of life.  The housewife who neglects her children for her prayers; the diocesan priest who acts like a monk rather than a pastor; the priest who abandons his vocation in order to marry: all of these are surely forms of stealing, the rationalizations we tend to offer for these behaviours notwithstanding.

For our lives are not ours alone, to do with as we will, but rather a gift from God intended to be used for the good of all in the particular way he has called us.

May God give us the necessary graces of discernment and perseverence, and save us from the fires of hell.

You can find the next part in this series here.

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