To be read: January 2, May 2, September 2
In the first place, each time you seek to begin a good work, earnestly pray that He will perfect whatever good you begin, 5in order that He who is pleased to count us as His children, need never be grieved at our evil deeds. 6For we ought at all times to obey Him, serving Him with the good things which He has given us, that He may not, like an angry father, disinherit his children, 7nor, like a dread lord, enraged by our evil deeds, hand us over to everlasting punishment as most wicked servants, who would not follow Him to glory.
We all get excited about beginning a new work. And rightly so. But, are we directed by God in that work? Have we commended that work to God for His guidance in its execution? Do we begin, then to lose interest and let it fall dormant? Do the cares of the world, our self will, the tempter, all seek to snatch these good deeds away from us? These verses ring with the truth of the parable of the sower. Sadly, all too often our good work is not brought to completion; and far less often to perfection.
The keys to bringing the works we do to perfect completion are earnest prayer and stability. The promises of chapter 58 will be foreshadowed here. With stability, the pilgrim Christian will have God’s grace to persevere. But only if he or she has made the effort to bathe that good beginning in earnest, insistent prayer. For, “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). And with stability we also promise fidelity. We need each other. We need fellowship. We need commitment to live disciplined spiritual lives in fidelity to the Gospel and to the Rule. It is very unlikely that we will bear permanent and perfected fruit if we labor on our own. The third promise, obedience, was touched on in yesterday’s meditation and is a solidly recurring theme throughout the Rule. I might think that I know what needs to be done, but without God’s guidance and submission to His will I will follow my own conscience and reason, and that often leads down dark paths of greed and pride. God knows what the goal of these works need be, and His desire is that we accomplish them for the good of the Kingdom. Are we going to obediently follow His will and see it through to perfection in Christ?
There are also some seemingly harsh words in these few verses. For example, Benedict warns that we need to be obedient lest God “like an angry father, disinherit his children,” or “like a dread lord, enraged by our evil deeds, hand us over to everlasting punishment.” Some of St. Benedict’s phraseology, disciplines, and practices strike our ear and our consciences as outdated and somewhat loathsome. The idea of corporal punishment, excommunication, and as we see in the verses today, disinheritance and “everlasting punishment as most wicked servants,” all resonate as somewhat antiquated ideas to our modern Christian ear. Nevertheless, we cannot, like Thomas Jefferson did with the Holy Scriptures, cut out the uncomfortable passages and focus only on what seems pleasant to our fragile minds. We must listen to the word of the Rule, as we have been exhorted, as sons and daughters, with the ear of our heart. And like children of the King, we cannot at first blush always understand all that is being conveyed in these verses. We must walk with the Master and learn through obedient fulfillment of the discipline of the Rule. St. Benedict was writing the Rule in a different time and addressing a culture of an earlier age, and we need to understand that, not only Benedict, but also the culture of his day have something to teach us. Their experience can inform our own if we allow it to do so.
We must not take any chapter or verse from the Rule out of the context of the whole. Our father Benedict sets the tone in the first verse of the Prologue when he addresses the reader as “My son.” We are not servants or slaves of a Rule and a lifestyle. Our work is a labor of love. St. Benedict is not striving in these early verses of the Prologue to instill fear, he is exhorting us, using the language of his day, to practice a sacred piety within the context of the ordinariness of daily life. It is an exhortation for us to experience the martyrdom of self will, that we may daily die to Christ. In so doing, we will find our works perfected and our lives renewed in Him.