Chapter 4: The Tools for Good Works

1 First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your wholesoul and all your strength, 2 and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27).

3 Then the following: You are not to kill,
4 not to commit adultery;
5 you are not to steal
6 nor to covet (Rom 13:9);
7 you are not to bear false witness (Matt 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20).
8 You must honor everyone (1 Pet 2:17),
9 and never do to another what you do not want done to yourself (Tob 4:16; Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31).

10 Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ (Matt 16:24; Luke 9:23);
11 discipline your body (1 Cor 9:27);
12 do not pamper yourself,
13 but love fasting.
14 You must relieve the lot of the poor,
15 clothe the naked,
16 visit the sick (Matt 25:36),
17 and bury the dead.
18 Go to help the troubled
19 and console the sorrowing.

20 Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way;
21 the love of Christ must come before all else.
22 You are not to act in anger
23 or nurse a grudge.
24 Rid your heart of all deceit.
25 Never give a hollow greeting of peace
26 or turn away when someone needs your love.
27 Bind yourself to no oath lest it prove false,
28 but speak the truth with heart and tongue.

29 Do not repay one bad turn with another (1 Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9).
30 Do not injure anyone, but bear injuries patiently.
31 Love your enemies (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27).
32 If people curse you, do not curse them back but bless them instead.
33 Endure persecution for the sake of justice (Matt 5:10).

34 You must not be proud,
35 nor be given to wine (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim 3:3).
36 Refrain from too much eating
37 or sleeping,
38 and from laziness (Rom 12:11).
39 Do not grumble
40 or speak ill of others.

41 Place your hope in God alone.
42 If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself,
43 but be certain that the evil you commit is always your own and yours to acknowledge.

44 Live in fear of judgment day
45 and have a great horror of hell.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

The tools for good works are short statements of how we are to live our lives as Christians, and therefore as monks. There is nothing in these first 45 verses that the normal Christian should not strive to live–and if the normal Christian strives to live this way, then we monks must also strive. Verses 1 through 9 are simply the Ten Commandments seen in the eyes of the Gospel. Verse 10 begins to speak of renouncing our selves in order to follow Christ and this is the heart of the good works.

We come to the Monastery to follow Christ in the monastic way and we must renounce all other ways and all other gods. Verse 11 speaks of bodily discipline. This is not popular today because it brings to mind all kinds of physical penance of the past. Discipline your body, do not pamper yourself, but love fasting–all of this goes together in our tradition. Our tradition says that to be a Christian or a monk is very difficult and hard work and basically has nothing to do with how we feel about ourselves, but has to do with how we live. To attain the inner freedom that is necessary to love everyone else and to accomplish the will of God in all circumstances, bodily discipline is necessary. While most of us would not aspire to be weight-lifters, we can recognize easily that a weight-lifter cannot just start off pressing 500 pounds. Rather, the weight-lifter must train in order to be able to lift such a weight without bodily injury. The same is true of monastic life and of the spiritual life. We must do the small tasks first so that we can be able to live more deeply.

In some Zen centers, it is said that the novice Zen monk or Zen practitioner must first learn to close doors and to cook before there can be any thought of a deep spiritual life. The tools for good works are like that also: simple advice that is difficult to follow in our lives because we want to get on to that which feels good and makes us feel good about ourselves. Our approach must be simply to do the small and apparently easy things until we do them truly well.

Verses 14 through 19 are the corporal works of mercy. Verses 20 and 21 remind us that the wisdom of the Gospel is not in accord with the wisdom of the world. This is a necessary reminder today when there is such an impulse to try to make everyone happy by changing the teachings of the Church. We need to be aware in this context of the difference between the teachings of the Church as objective realities, and the pastoral approach that is so often necessary to help persons understand the teachings. The love of Christ that comes before all else keeps us from judging others and helps us find ways to speak of the Gospel that do not dilute its strength yet at the same time show forth its wisdom for our human lives.

Verses 23 through 41 are again practical advice for a strong spiritual life that is lived in our actions. In verse 25 we have the admonition never to give a hollow greeting of peace. We must be cautious with this advice because in the present time we judge the hollowness of a thing by how we feel about it. This is certainly not the intention of the Rule. Rather, the Rule is asking us to choose the good of the other, even when I feel total animosity toward the other. As Christians we are not to follow our feelings–and yet we must acknowledge them. Thus, a person must be able to acknowledge the dislike of another person, even anger towards another person, and yet still choose in Christ to act in a manner that is truly a reflection of Christ’s love for us.

Verse 41 reminds us of the importance of placing our trust in God alone. Once again we encounter advice that is very simple and very difficult. We want to place all our hope in God, but often we do so only when there is no other possibility! We are invited to learn how to place this hope in God before we get to a situation when we have no other choice.

We end this half of the Chapter on the Tools for Good Works with a recognition that all good comes from God and that all we have that is good comes from God. We are capable of doing evil and that comes from us, not from God. This should remind us of the tradition that we must always offer our sins to God, since that really is all we have to offer that is singularly our own. We offer our sins to God with the hope that God will transform our evil into good and transform us also into beings who do His will.

To live in fear of judgment day is only to be aware of the need for conversion in our lives. The reality of our lives–at least for most of us–is that we want to serve God, but have not yet begun to do so in a complete manner. We are still in the “active life” of purgation from our sinfulness, rather than in the “contemplative life” where our whole focus is simply on loving more.

We must strive to develop in ourselves a deep horror of offending God, a deep repulsion towards sinfulness, a sensitivity towards the awfulness and ugliness of sin in our lives. We do this not to denigrate ourselves, but to see reality as it truly is and to help us desire to change our ways and to love God more and more deeply.

May God help us all grow in the awareness of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. May we come to live more and more fully in the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may give glory to God our Father.

Chapter 4: Verses 46-end

46 Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire.
47 Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.
48 Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do,
49 aware that God’s gaze is upon you, wherever you may be.
50 As soon as wrongful thoughts come into your heart, dash them against Christ and disclose them to your spiritual father. 51Guard your lips from harmful or deceptive speech.
52 Prefer moderation in speech
53 and speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter;
54 do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter.

55 Listen readily to holy reading,
56 and devote yourself often to prayer.
57 Every day with tears and sighs confess your past sins to God in prayer
58 and change from these evil ways in the future.

59 Do not gratify the promptings of the flesh (Gal 5:16);
60 hate the urgings of self-will.
61 Obey the orders of the abbot unreservedly, even if his own conduct–which God forbid–be at odds with what he says. Remember the teaching of the Lord: Do what they say, not what they do (Matt 23:3).

62 Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so.
63 Live by God’s commandments every day;
64 treasure chastity,
65 harbor neither hatred
66 nor jealousy of anyone,
67 and do nothing out of envy.
68 Do not love quarreling;
69 shun arrogance.
70 Respect the elders
71 and love the young.
72 Pray for your enemies out of love for Christ.
73 If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with him before the sun goes down.

74 And finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy.

75 These, then are the tools of the spiritual craft. 76When we have used them without ceasing day and night and have returned them on judgment day, our wages will be the reward the Lord has promised: 77 What the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9).

78 The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Do we regularly take the time to yearn for everlasting life? Or are we caught up yet in the love of this life? It is a challenge for us to truly desire everlasting life. And one of the ways to remind ourselves of this desire is to remind ourselves that we are going to die. It seems to straightforward, and yet we do not want to remember it too often!! Especially while we are young we are normally not interested in thinking about dying. As we get older, at least for some of us, dying is a very pleasant thought because we trust that we shall be with God finally and without the sometimes bitter struggles of this life.

One of the most ancient methods of the spiritual life is that of watching the thoughts and struggling with them. Today not many persons practice this form of spirituality. Saint Benedict suggests it to us and perhaps we need to accept the challenge to at least try this form of spirituality some time in our life. It is so simple. Watch your thoughts. Take all the thoughts that are not in Christ and throw them on Christ. We will spend a lot of time at the beginning throwing thoughts on Christ, but eventually there can be a deep peace and tranquillity. We are much more comfortable today accepting all of our thoughts and acting as if they were from God. Our tradition asks us instead to place our thoughts in the light of Christ and throw out all those that do not reflect his love and his light.

Another important and tried way of the spiritual life is to listen to holy reading and allow our lives to be formed by that holy reading. In this reading God often calls us to pray. We must be prudent in what we read, and we must be committed to reading Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, the early monastic writers and the writers approved by the Church. We can read other theologies and other ways of thinking that will lead us out of the Church and out of monastic life. We are invited to use real wisdom in choosing what we shall read.

When Benedict asks us to obey the orders of the abbot unreservedly, he also gives a method of spirituality. There is a deep and sure form of growth in truly accepting the obedience that we profess in our vows. We can spend a lot of our life trying to make our own decisions and doing things our own way. There is peace and tranquillity when we finally hand ourselves over. It does not take away the pain of living nor the struggle of making mature decisions, but it is done in an entirely different manner than before we accepted obedience. Benedict obviously recognizes that we can have bad superiors, but this does not make him shy away from asking for obedience.

Harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone and do nothing out of envy. This advice is again quite strong. We all have our bouts of anger, hatred, jealousy and envy. We are invited to accept them and not act from them. The same with quarreling and with arrogance. How strong we shall become when we begin to take these tasks of the spiritual craft seriously. When we are young we do not like them so well, but normally, even in Monasteries, we are less interested in spiritual growth when we are young. Our passions are stronger and reactions are in some sense more “primitive.” The challenge is to grow and to mature and to put on Christ and his way of acting and living.

We must recognize that these tools are given to us as challenges to incorporate in our lives. It can never be said enough in formation and throughout our lives: if we are unhappy or angry or resentful, then we must recognize that all of those feelings and attitudes come from us. We must battle them. When we have achieved some peace and tranquillity, then we are finally approaching a point in our life when we can make more adult decisions. We want to be adults and yet often we act as children.

Saint Benedict tells us to stay in the Monastery and work at all these aspects of our lives. So often we think that life will be easier if we just leave. If we are called by God to leave, then life will be different, but not necessarily easier. So many monks leave monastic life when they are upset with something, when they are angry, when they are resentful, when they are depressed, etc. Such leavings are not the leavings of someone seeking God’s will, generally, but the leavings of someone who no longer wants to stay and fight for that inner freedom that will allow a strong decision in Christ.

Our whole world is infected with this running from place to place looking for that place where I will have no problems. It is as though the whole world has gone insane and no longer recognizes that my happiness comes from within me and no external situation can take it away as long as it is firmly anchored in God. There can be much sadness and sorrow in my life, but always there is this foundation of seeking God’s will.

There are many stories of the saints who have suffered incredible hardships and difficulties and who remained steadfast in their joy and contentment because they were seeking God’s will. And there are plenty of stories also of saints who spent a lot of their life fighting against God’s will and not accepting what was given to them in their lives until a more advanced age.

Monks have chosen a monastic way of life. Benedictines have chosen a life under the Rule of Benedict. How foolish for monks not to live as monks or for Benedictines not to follow the wise spiritual direction of Saint Benedict!

May the Lord our God give us the wisdom of His Holy Spirit to guide us in our lives. May that Holy Spirit strengthen us in the path of a virtuous monastic life.