…If we always remember and use them, and give them up only on Judgement Day, the Lord shall reward us as he promised…
How do we live this?
How we could meditate and reflect on each of the 72 ‘instruments’ independently and bear much fruit from doing so. Many more experienced and suitable scholars and practitioners have divided this lists of thoughts up into manageable chunks and I commend them to you (search for them online). I, however, want to continue my more general reflections on reading the chapters of the Rule of St. Benedict and this week I will try and voice my overview of this chapter. I must remind you, the reader, and myself of my task in doing these reflections: I am wanting to discern how monasticism may factor into parish ministry and what that approach to the life of faith, lived out by monks/nuns, has to say to those outside traditional monastic communities.
With that in mind my first thought about this chapter is how overwhelming each short ‘command’ is. Few of them don’t leave a mark of some description on my conscience and all of them challenge the state of my inner life. To hold them all and to ‘always remember and use them’ is an added challenge and I could easily stop reading the Rule of St. Benedict until that is obeyed but I continue to feel as I pray through this reading that there is an understanding of grace that is rarely mentioned but is necessary if this life is to be lived.
We have explored before the basic premise that we begin the spiritual life, humbled by God, our ultimate Master and Judge. That we throw ourselves on His mercy and from there be thankful for the work He does in our lives. Through this lens, reading these 72 commandments is like the Sermon on the Mount in that you are forced to ask,
How can we be saved?
Surely all of these are impossible to sustain and achieve.
The reply to that feeling is it does indeed seem impossible to achieve all of this on our own, for your own benefit. This sense of futility is another invitation to enter into humility and stand in the strength of God’s mercy and grace alone. Let’s be honest we all need a daily dose of grounding in the true state of our humanness.
I was reminded this week of our tendency to err on the side of one of two extremes when it comes to self-analysis: either we see ourselves as complete failures, deserving of nothing but the destruction that comes from our own mistakes and characters, or we deserve all privileges and ‘blessings’ for we are wonderfully and fearfully made. Neither of these are quite correct on their own. We should be mindful of both our inherent ability to self-destruct and to hurt others in the process whilst holding onto the truth of the gospel; God is merciful and just and His steadfast love endures forever.
It may be my Roman Catholic upbringing but I have preference to speak of my sin, my dirty junk that I carry in my life. I seek out punishment for the blatant and harmful mistakes I make. I call others to balance the current popular notion that human beings are essentially good and we are the solutions to our own problems. Despite my counter-cultural proclamations against humanist philosophy I cling to grace.
Bono was quoted as saying,
You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s—. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity. (Bono, excerpt from, ‘Bono: in conversation with Michka Assayas’, Christianity Today, January 28th 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/augustweb-only/bono-0805.html?paging=off)
If I am to read, and even begin to attempt to live out, all 72 instruments of good works then I’m going to have to know grace and to trust it.
For all of my readers who err on the side of seeing themselves as ‘junk’: judgement is not from you but God, the merciful Judge, and if you call on the name of Jesus, that Judge will look on Him instead of you. You will be judged with Christ.
For all my readers who err on the humanist side seeing themselves as their own solution and to continue to try and live the perfect life all by yourself: you will be judged in that way. If you live by karma you will be allowed to be judged by karma… I wish you well.
If a community is going to embrace the message of the gospel of Christ then each member should follow Christ’s example and obey His commands fully trusting and knowing that discipleship is done in the strength of grace and mercy and nothing else. Without a message of grace then all ‘good work’ is rendered moot.
The Seclusion of the Monastery
Aside from reflecting on the necessity of grace whilst living the life of faith and growing in the spiritual discipline of conquering our own thoughts; I was struck by the final sentence of the chapter,
But the workshop in which we must diligently perform all these things is the seclusion of the monastery and our stability in the community.
For those of us not based within a secluded monastery, living and breathing a monastic life, this final sentence leads us to feel even more stranded. It is true that in order to diligently perform all these things you need to give yourself time and space. Everday life does not lend itself to spiritual discipline. Why not? From my experience there’s no ‘let up’.
When we begin any new hobby or craft or practice, we need the space and time to allow the inevitable failures to happen. One does not pick up a violin and become Niccolo Paganini, it takes work and failures to develop sustainable skill and aptitude. In the busyness of everyday and in our culture so afraid of failure we are called to be in control of our development. There’s no forgiveness for not attaining maturity overnight; one is either mature or not, there seems to be no process encouraged.
A true community is like a loving family; each member is allowed to grow and develop over time. Forgiveness should offered continually and inter-generational leading is encouraged. Those that have been through the early stages of frustration and mistakes must encourage and support the novices. True community, based on the humility being encouraged through the Rule of St. Benedict and the grace at the heart of Christian faith, is a place where failures are not only expected but encouraged for,
Failure… leads to quite artistic things, because if you are not afraid of failure you can try, you can experiment, you can search for new ways, whereas when you are afraid of failure you wouldn’t do it, you would do it the way you did it yesterday… (Lev Dodin in conversation with Robin Thornber at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 23rd April 1994, Michael Stronin (tr.), cited in Maria Delgado and Paul Heritage (eds.), ‘In Contact With The Gods?: Directors Talk Theatre’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996) p74)
Where is such space in parish ministry? How do we encourage this approach to life together? My BA dissertation* explored this idea in great detail (now is not the time to outline my proposal. If you would like to know more contact me and let’s chat!)
As we grow into a deeper spiritual life we must hold onto one thing, grace, and seek out another, community. With these two things we can begin to live out the Kingdom of God to which we have all been called.
I suspect most of us shy away from a deep acceptance of grace and resist a deep experience of community. I wonder what a focus on these two concepts and experiences would do to a parish church? I wonder what transformation or revelations would occur if a parish church scrapped all other activity and committed to a life governed by these two principles?
Most Merciful Judge, thank You for Your grace. Thank You that I am judged not on the law of karma but the law of grace. lead me to experience community which holds me, as I am to grow into Your likeness and to only cease in that search on Judgement Day, when You will look on Christ and pardon me.
Come, Lord Jesus.
*The title was, ‘The Divine Collective: how modern ensemble theatre practice can help establish creative Christian communities.’