Set a watch, O LORD, before my keyboard

Certain events over the last couple of weeks seem to have coalesced to bring about this post. Some time ago we received Father Prior’s “Benedictine Approach to the Use of the Internet & Social Media“; shortly thereafter our reading of the Introduction to the Devout Life brought us to the chapters on conversations and detractions; this past week saw some celebrations of the vetus ordo at the Fatima shrine, the main celebrant being a well known American cardinal. The flood of invective on Portuguese social media on the part of the laity and, even worse, priests has brought all the more to mind St. Benedict, St. Francis de Sale and Father Prior’s words on silence.

Perhaps it is the age we are living in, or perhaps it is just my impression, but it seems that we live in a time when most people seem to be very opinionated and they make a fact of letting everyone know their opinions whether others want to know them or not. Yet looking to the Holy Rule for guidance, what does the Holy Patriarch have to say about much speaking? In Chapter VI, after quoting the Scriptures St. Benedict puts the matter quite succinctly:

[I]f at times we ought to refrain from useful speech for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin.

While the Rule is essentially directed at those living the cenobitic life, general rules can be taken from it that can be applied to the lives of those of us living in the world, as D. Mark Kirby shows the aforementioned commentary. One of the verses of Sacred Scripture that I am most reminded of is

In the multitude of words there shall not want sin: but he that refraineth his lips is most wise. (Prov 10:19)

Looking back at St. Benedict’s injunction to refrain from talking even for “useful speech” through the lens of Proverbs 10:19, I can look back at everyday situations in my life where conversations (be they in person or online) that start out innocent enough many times slowly begin to degrade: a complaint is made here, a fault of another is revealed there, and the conversation suddenly snowballs, leading either one or both parties to murmuring, sinning against charity, etc. And this is not even when the conversation has started off maliciously! On those occasions where one happens to be caught in a situation of gossip, I have found that if one doesn’t extract oneself immediately then one is easily sucked into a whirlpool of complaint, detraction, etc., even if one was initially unwilling to join in at all.

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What Are the Instruments of Good Works (4)

62. To fulfill God’s commandments daily in one’s deeds.
63. To love chastity.
64. To hate no one.
65. Not to be jealous, not to harbor envy.
66. Not to love contention.
67. To beware of haughtiness.
68. And to respect the seniors.
69. To love the juniors.
70. To pray for one’s enemies in the love of Christ.
71. To make peace with one’s adversary before the sun sets.
72. And never to despair of God’s mercy.

These, then, are the tools of the spiritual craft. If we employ them unceasingly day and night, and return them on the Day of Judgment, our compensation from the Lord will be that wage He has promised: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).

Now the workshop in which we shall diligently execute all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.

And so we come to the end of the Instruments as laid out by our holy father. It is quite interesting that today’s reading should fall on the feast of St. Agnes. (St. Agnes is one of the most well known Roman martyrs of the early Church. She was held in such esteem that she is one of the saints mentioned in the Canon of the Mass; for nearly 1500 years at least she has been invoked daily at Holy Mass!) Agnes – either “purity” or “lamb”, depending on the etymology one prefers. Agnes – the pure lamb; the spotless victim; another christ, martyr (witness) of Christ. Though centuries before St. Benedict, can we not hear echoes of St. Agnes in these instruments? How is it that? He did not invent these instruments, they aren’t the product of his imagination; no, he looked to the example of the saints, of those who trod the via crucis, the way of holiness, before him. The tried way is the true way, and there can be no other.

As I prayed Sext today it was St. Agnes I heard praying those Psalms:

Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us: for we are greatly filled with contempt.

Blessed be the Lord, who hath not given us to be a prey to their teeth. Our soul hath been delivered as a sparrow out of the snare of the fowlers.

They that trust in the Lord shall be as mount Sion: he shall not be moved for ever that dwelleth in Jerusalem. Mountains are round about it: so the Lord is round about his people from henceforth now and for ever.

These are the Gradual Psalms, the Psalms of Ascent, sung by pilgrims as they approached the Temple in Jerusalem. And could not have St. Agnes prayed these as she made her way to her martyrdom, ascending to the “altar” where she would be presented as a victim and sacrificed?

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My Lord Jesus Christ has espoused me with a ring, and as a bride He has adorned me with a crown.”- Antiphon of Sext, Feast of St. Agnes (Monastic Diurnal)

In the whole Rule, all St. Benedict has to say about chastity is this: love chastity. No long list of commands on how to remain chaste; simply, to love chastity. Chastity permits one to see with a pure heart, and when it pertains to seeing others of the opposite sex, to see them as persons. Even within the married life chastity is applicable; the sexual appetite, while legitimate, must be chastised, must be brought under control, so that it may be used properly, with charity, that I may see my wife as a person and not someone there to satisfy my urges and lusts. Chastity, I dare say, is a very underrated and forgotten virtue these days.
“And never to despair of God’s mercy.” Everytime I read this, or remember it, I am reminded of one of Father Prior’s homilies, where he mentioned that this instrument is last as though to say “even if you are unable to do any of the things set down before; if you are unable to pray; unable to remain chaste; unable to dread Hell; unable to relieve the needy… Even if you are unable to do any of this, if you find you are too weak for any of it, even then do not dispair of God’s mercy.”

“Now the workshop in which we shall diligently execute all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.” I think one can replace “monastery” with “home” and “community” with “family” and it will still be applicable. That, at least, is what we are trying to do as married oblates; that is the point of this blog.

What Are the Instruments of Good Works (3)

44. To fear the Day of Judgment.
45. To be in dread of hell.
46. To desire eternal life with all the passion of the spirit.
47. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.
48. To keep constant guard over the actions of one’s life.
49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.
50. When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.
51. And to manifest them to one’s spiritual guardian.
52. To guard one’s tongue against evil and depraved speech.
53. Not to love much talking.
54. Not to speak useless words or words that move to laughter.
55. Not to love much or boisterous laughter.
56. To listen willingly to holy reading.
57. To devote oneself frequently to prayer.
58. Daily in one’s prayers, with tears and sighs, to confess one’s past sins to God, and to amend them for the future.
59. Not to fulfill the desires of the flesh; to hate one’s own will.
60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot even though they (which God forbid) should act otherwise, mindful of the Lord’s precept, “Do what they say, but not what they do.”
61. Not to wish to be called holy before one is holy; but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called.

Instrument 47 caught my attention today. Keeping death daily before one’s eyes is something not very “popular” these day (if it ever was). Mention it to someone and you most assuredly will hear the word “morbid” brought up. There can be (and is) an obsessive – morbid – thinking about death. But that is not what our holy father is talking about here. Saint Benedict wants us to consider our own mortality, plain and simple. Death awaits us all, yet we shy away from thinking about it. Is it because we don’t believe in an afterlife? Is it because if we do think about it we will have to take stock of our life, and in doing that be afraid that perhaps the life we lived was not a life well lived? Maybe we’re afraid of leaving things behind?

Yet the day will come.  The day will come when this mortal frame expires, returning to the dust from which it was fashioned (Memento, homo, quia pulvis es…)  and we are brought before our Lord to give account of the life we have lived. Since returning to the Church I have always held the conviction (and I may be mistaken, so I accept correction) that upon death He will ask us only one question: How much did you love?

 

The day will come. When? In 50 years? In 10? Maybe tomorrow, even? The Lord will come like a thief in the night, so let us keep our lamps full of oil, keeping watch with the wise virgins awaiting the bridegroom. I haven’t the power to add even a day to my life; my days are as grass. How much have I loved up to this moment?

Since becoming a parent thinking about my own end has been on my mind more often quite naturally. I see the years pass reflected in my chidlren’s growth. I look at them and think “you will not always be this small and delicate child; I will not always be as young and as strong as I am.” We have helped to give them the greatest gift parents can give to their children – Faith. We have helped to bring them into the Church, and we pray that we will be up to the task to help them grow in their love of the Mystical Body of Christ, for we will be held accountable of these sheep intrusted to us.

What Are the Instruments of Good Works (2)

22. Not to give way to anger.
23. Not to nurse a grudge.
24. Not to entertain deceit in one’s heart.
25. Not to give a false peace.
26. Not to forsake charity.
27. Not to swear, for fear of perjuring oneself.
28. To utter truth from heart and mouth.
29. Not to return evil for evil.
30. To do no wrong to anyone, and to bear patiently wrongs done to oneself.
31. To love one’s enemies.
32. Not to curse those who curse us, but rather to bless them.
33. To bear persecution for justice’s sake.
34. Not to be proud.
35. Not addicted to wine.
36. Not a great eater.
37. Not drowsy.
38. Not lazy.
39. Not a grumbler.
40. Not a detractor.
41. To put one’s hope in God.
42. To attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself.
43. But to recognize always that the evil is one’s own doing, and to impute it to oneself.

Continuing with the list of instruments, it seems that a good many are related to anger. If one lets the sun go down on one’s anger, it can grow inside, festering and lead to a number of sins. I’m not a person easily roused to anger, but when I am it’s not a pretty sight. And how many times if I pay attention, if I catch myself in the moment, does it not seem like the anger wants to  be “fed”, as if there is a needling inciting one to stoke the flames.

The home, especially when one falls on hard times, may be a battlefield. Nerves may be wracked, tiredness may be taking its toll, a sickness or indisposition… Then suddenly the noise the children are making is unbearable; a word the spouse says is interpreted in the wrong way; the noise coming from the neighbors is purposely to annoy us… Small things are blown out of proportion and the more one fans the flames, the more distorted they become.

One thing I have tried to do since the beginning of the relationship with my wife is to not let the sun go down on our anger. I was very aware of the effects of not addressing anger from my home growing up as a child, where problems were ignored, swept under the rug where they festered until they finally blew up. The more one gives way to anger, the more one is inclined to act out of spite, to repay evil for perceived evil, to be uncharitable, to bear grudges…

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Angel with Temperance and Humility versus Devil with Rage and Anger (Bulgaria)

St. Benedict mentions grumbling. He will return to murmuring several times over the course of the Rule. Murmuring is infectious; it spreads easily, and causes havoc. What springs most to mind as I write this is the workplace, where murmuring can always be heard. And even if one is not inclined to it, after hearing it so often and from so many fronts one is is caught up in it in the moment if one is not on guard. It makes for a bad atmosphere, of mistrust, of laziness, of cynicism.

Over the years since my return to the Church, after fighting with what I thought were my main sins I have gone on to discover others which I was not aware of, sins which I ignored and seemed new to me until I looked back and realized that they had always been there in one form or another and I just hadn’t really considered them. I have come to do good things over the years, taken steps to walk down the straight and narrow, and these steps I know are not of my own doing because I am aware of my weaknesses (though they aren’t always before my eyes as often as they should be).

 

What Are the Instruments of Good Works

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?”

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Each instrument in this reading will give us more than enough to meditate over, to look at our life through them.