1. In the first place, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.
2. Then, one’s neighbor as oneself.
3. Then not to murder.
4. Not to commit adultery.
5. Not to steal.
6. Not to covet.
7. Not to bear false witness.
8. To honor all (1 Peter 2:17).
9. And not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself.
10. To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.
11. To chastise the body.
12. Not to become attached to pleasures.
13. To love fasting.
14. To relieve the poor.
15. To clothe the naked.
16. To visit the sick.
17. To bury the dead.
18. To help in trouble.
19. To console the sorrowing.
20. To become a stranger to the world’s ways.
21. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
Today we began reading one of the Rule’s most “famous” chapters, Chapter 4, on the Instruments of Good Works. For Saint Benedict, faith cannot be seperate from works. Indeed, in the Christian life, a faith that does not produce works is dead. Over the course of this chapter St. Benedict enumerates 72 “instruments”, which obviously do not exhaust all the possibilities.
The first 9 instruments are nothing new to the Christian; one might even say that they are the elementary instruments of the Christian life.
As a father and husband, what does denying myself to follow Christ mean? We hear from every corner “follow your heart: be happy”, as if following one’s own will as it is were the answer to happiness. And yet is our heart a trustworthy compass? I know mine isn’t. It is fickle, easily swayed. Were I to follow it I’d be tossed about like a rowboat in a storm; woe to those in my care. No, true hapiness comes from following Christ, so that it is no longer I but Him who lives in me. The inner Herod that would have Him killed; the thickets of thorns; the stoney heart; the dragons and lions; all that is within that leaves no place for the Son of Man to rest His head must be cleared. I must put my faith in Him and follow Him. But why does St. Benedict say deny myself? Because Christ’s way is that of the via crucis. Taking up the cross means embracing suffering, and that is something I, in my fallen state, do not want. He emptied Himself for the sake of the Church; as a father and husband I have to discover what that means for me. Following denial of self, St. Benedict gives us the tools with which we can achieve it: ascesis.
Number 12 comes to my mind quite often as one is so often bombarded with marketing aimed at pleasure, as if a materialistic approach to life were the greatest good. “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Isn’t that what we’re constantly told? Isn’t that what we hear from our friends and co-workers? Isn’t that how we sometimes try to justify our own sins?
As a corollary of loving one’s neighbor we are entreated to help those less fortunate than us. It is always easy to discard this as a responsibility of the State or of charitable institutions and wash our hands of it, but what are our reasons for taking such positions? “I am not well off either” – there is a saying where I am from: “whoever gives to the poor lends to God”. The Lord does not ask us for what we do not have, but of what we do. He does not ask for our help in some far off future; He wants us to act NOW. “They will not use what I have given them properly” – and so we act as judge, when not even the Lord denies us His grace knowing that we will eventually squander it. Studying the Didache has helped put almsgiving in another perspective, and I have tried to act accordingly. Helping those less fortunate is something that as a parent I hope to one day involve my children in, to help cultivate in them this respect for their fellow brother and sister from an early age.
Much can be said about becoming a stranger to the world’s ways – every day we are confronted everywhere with the world’s ways. Blow after blow we receive; how easy it is to sometimes just give in instead of asking for strength; to listen to that soft, tempting whisper “give in; it’s insignificant after all; do you want to be an outcast at work?”
Each instrument in this reading will give us more than enough to meditate over, to look at our life through them.