To be read: January 20, May 20, September 20
Fear the day of judgment. 45Be in dread of hell. 46Desire eternal life with all spiritual longing. 47Have an expectation of death before your eyes daily. 48Keep a constant watch over the actions of our life 49certain that God sees us everywhere. 50Dash at once against Christ the evil thoughts which rise in your heart, and disclose them to your spiritual father. 51Guard your tongue against bad and wicked speech. 52Practice moderation in speaking. 53Do not speak useless words and such as provoke laughter. 54Do not love much or boisterous laughter.
This section is troubling for many people, myself included. It appears to draw our focus onto things to avoid rather than affirm, and it seems to attempt to quash joy in the saints. I don’t think either of those are the intent behind this portion of the Rule. Let’s look.
The section begins with the admonition to “Fear the day of judgment.” Scripture tells us to fear the Lord (e.g. Deut. 10:12-22; Acts 9:31; 2 Cor. 5:11). However, St. John tells us that fear has to do with punishment, and that only perfect love (i.e. God’s love) casts out fear (1 Jn. 4:18). And Luke tells us in Acts 9:31, that as the early Church was “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it (the Church) was multiplied.” So, if we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, and we continually seek to nourish our relationship with Christ, then we need not fear either the judgment day or dread the horror of hell. So, what is Benedict saying? He places all of this in the context of the exhortation which follows: “Desire (literally, ‘yearn for’ or ‘work toward’) eternal life with all spiritual longing.” Those who are not in right relationship with Christ are alienated from God, for Jesus is the Way, and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). Benedict’s concern was that we foster a yearning and a holy desire to dwell in the courts of our God. He expands this thought with practical advice in verses 47-54.
But what about the prohibitions against laughter (cf. 6:8; 7:59,60)? Scripture tells us that “the joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). But as fallen creatures we can attempt to hide our fallenness behind a facade of bawdy laughter, with off-color jokes, or humor at the expense of another. This can be harmful to another, and that must be avoided. Laughter is not always the outward sign of a joyful heart. Nevertheless, there are times when a turn of phrase or an expression of delight may bring laughter apropos to a situation. Benedict is not opposed to an expression of joy of this sort; he is simply warning the brothers to avoid bawdy and inappropriate conversation which does not build up the Body of Christ.
We are to take all “evil thoughts which rise in our hearts” and “dash them at once against Christ.” As St. Paul tells us, “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). However, if we are honest, we can admit that we are not always so vigilant. Benedict is aware that we all fall short of the glory of God, thus, he tells us to disclose those shortcomings to “our spiritual father.” We are to quickly and readily confess our sins to God in the sacrament of Holy Reconciliation. This is not a burden, it is a blessing to be able to know that cleansing love—it is an unburdening of our spirit.
Benedict said in the Prologue that these regulations were not intended to be harsh or burdensome (v. 46), and so we need to read the directives of the Rule in that light. Benedict wants the followers of the Rule to be followers of Christ, not their own selfish and sinful desires. Let us keep that always in the forefront of our minds as we read and study the Rule, looking at the teachings and regulations not as restrictive, rather as instructive. And may we always “prefer nothing whatever to Christ.” (72:11).