At this time of year, we tend to think over the past year and of ways of improving things in the future. We make New Year’s Resolutions which may or may not survive. Those who read a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict every day have an advantage, as the readings for the first week of January, making up the Prologue, are all about amending our way of life and growing in holiness. The first two sentences set the tone:
‘Listen, my son, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.’
So already we have three themes that recur throughout the Rule – our tasks must be done willingly, to the best of our ability and in a spirit of obedience to both God and anyone in authority over us.
The encouragement continues, as each day of reading the Prologue has sentences that can stand on their own and still have the power to make us stop and think. Here is my personal selection:
Jan 1st: ‘… whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it, that He who has now deigned to count us among His sons may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds.’
Jan 2nd : Let us arise, then, at last, for the Scripture stirs us up, saying “Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep”.
Jan 3rd: ‘Behold, in his loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life.’
Jan 4th: ‘For if we wish to dwell in the tent of that kingdom, we must run to it by good deeds or we shall never reach it.’
Jan 5th: ‘… the Lord is waiting every day for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions.’
Jan 6th: ‘Therefore we most prepare our hearts and our bodies to do battle under the holy obedience of His commands; and let us ask God that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace for anything which our nature finds hardly possible.’
Jan 7th: ‘But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow.’
The reader might be thinking of the obvious ‘get-out’ clause – St Benedict was writing for men who had chosen the monastic life and those of us leading a secular life cannot be expected to aim for the same levels of holiness as them. Pope Francis has answered this in his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate;
‘To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves’ (para 14).
Chapter three of the same document is devoted to the Beatitudes, where Pope Francis equates ‘blessed’ with ‘holy’ and gives summaries of his reflections on each BeatitudThese are based on everyday life and give us another list of sentences that can be used to encourage us in the conversion of life that St Benedict is urging:
Being poor of heart: that is holiness.
Reacting with meekness and humility: that is holiness.
Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.
Hungering and thirsting for righteousness: that is holiness.
Seeing and acting with mercy: that is holiness.
Keeping a heart free of all that tarnishes love: that is holiness.
Sowing peace all around us: that is holiness.
Accepting daily the path of the Gospel, even though it may cause us problems: that is holiness.
So we have no excuses other than our own fallibility!
Jane Coll Oblate of Pluscarden Abbey