Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict by Mother Rebecca
Verses 31-32 of the prologue: In just this way, Paul the Apostle refused to take credit for the power of his preaching. He declared: By God’s grace I am what I am”. And again he said: He who boasts should make his boast in the Lord.”
In four consecutive verses St Benedict has repeated six times one specific teaching: “they praise God working in them”, “not to us but to your name give the glory”, “by God’s grace I am what I am”, “He who boast should make his boast in God”, “judge it as the Lord’s power and not their own”, and “refuse to take credit for the power”. Benedict seems to be perhaps a bit worried that his monks will see their works and power as their own and thus “fall headlong” into vainglory.
Michael Casey says we do not need to be doing anything in particular to be in union with God but rather allow all things to bring us to that loving stance. Spiritual progress can be measured by our ability to integrate our work and our prayer until our entire life becomes a single unending prayer – a channel for God to do His works of Love. How are we doing in this crucial spiritual task? How will I reveal that Love today? Casey says (quote) “It is good to practice self-denial and to give interval time to prayer but this is no excuse for ignoring appropriate relationships, the obligations of work, and the demands charity makes. Spiritual growth is not registered by the strict observances and needing time for this or that but rather spiritual progress is habitually seen in growth in availability, in a certain lightness of being, and in simple, uncomplicated happiness”. So another way we can measure our monastic growth is by the measure of our freedom to be available in community and its daily demands. This reminds me of a statement from Walter Kasper that has stuck with me since my novitiate days. His stated that “true freedom means availability”!
We often attribute our inability to find inner rest or the freedom to be available to external causes. But the truth is that if we are unable to find this inner freedom, it is because of a divided heart, not because of all the things we need to do. It is a lack of integration of our work and prayer. Gandhi said “we will never find rest, even alone in solitude, if we are anxious, turbulent, curious, or even overzealous!” We are called not to avoid things that disturb us but to learn not to let anything disturb us. There is a big difference between these two approaches. Benedict has told us several times in the Prologue that our main task is not to swell the ego but to expand the heart! Virtue can only grow in humility; vice always grows in vainglory no matter how good the work.
Timothy Radcliffe said “When we pray, we are liberated from the terrible burden of thinking that we are tremendously important, and that everything depends on us. This is not a license for irresponsibility but a prerequisite of proper responsibility. Adam and Eve lost the joy of paradise because they did not trust in God whose only desire was to give them more than they could desire. They grabbed at the fruit because they would not let God be God and so destroyed their own happiness.”
Hildemar, who wrote the first known commentary on the Rule back in the 800’s, said “it is called a grace because it is given for naught. Whenever you use the word grace, you exclude all merit”. The Apostle Paul says in his 1st letter to the Corinthians that “the grace of God was not in vain in me” [1 Cor 15:10]. Again he says in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians “We encourage you, brothers, not to receive God’s grace in vain” [2 Cor 6:1]. How does one receive God’s grace in vain? Hildemar answers, “You have received baptism but if you do not live according to baptism, you have received God’s grace in vain. Again: you received the gift of obedience: if you do not show obedience, you have received the grace of God in vain.” You have received the gift of humility: if you are not humble, you have received God’s grace in vain. We see that God’s only desire is to give us more than we can desire. A joy complete. Have I received that grace of joy in vain? Or is there any grace that I have been given for naught that I am wasting?
I read a story (by Wayne Muller, Sabbath) about a friend of Henri Nouwen who was reading an article in The New Yorker and came across Henri’s name. It seemed Hillary Clinton had been reading his writings on gratefulness and forgiveness. So he called Henri to ask about it. Henri told him that he had been invited to go to the White House to be a spiritual counselor. While he was appreciative of the Clinton’s request and while the White House invitation seemed to be a recognition of the importance of spiritual masters, he nevertheless sent his apologies, and did not go. “I don’t want to be the court chaplain”, he said, “I am here with Adam, my disabled friend. There are others who can go to the White House. Adam needs me.” Henri was not boasting in himself but recognized his call was to a disabled child. I wonder if Adam ever knew that he was chosen over the President of the United States. Did Adam know how important he was, confined to a wheelchair and needing constant care?
But to bring this closer to home, do we, like Henri, see our life in community in this manner? Do I realize that I am where I am meant to be – that God has called me to be who I am here at OLM? There are no splashes here but there are those in need around me that I am called to serve and to love. Stability in my community life is all the boasting I have and it all goes to God who called me to this wonderful, yet hidden and humble, vocation.
So let us take heed of St Benedict’s teaching for we can only find peace in our soul, and be a flowing channel of God’s love, when we can say with joy and gratitude “By God’s grace I am what I am.”