Chapter Talk – Solemnity of St. Benedict – July 11, 2020
To honor St. Benedict, I like to focus this talk on Chapter 72 of the Rule. The title of this chapter is “Of the Good Zeal Which Monks Ought To Have”. My reason for choosing this chapter is that no scholar of the Rule of St. Benedict debates the fact that St. Benedict penned this chapter. It is unique to him and offers us a window into his heart and soul as well as the horizon through which he viewed monastic life. We all know that Benedict in his Rule copied large sections from the Master’s Rule, while omitting other sections, adding his own words or phrases, all to give a framework and edifice of a monastic life that is rich both humanly and spiritually, one that has endured the turmoil of history to this day. Sr. Aquinata Bockmann sees chapter 72 as “the climax to the Rule” and one that “opens to us the depths of his Rule and lets us see his innermost concerns” (Perspectives On the Rule of Saint Benedict, p.52).
There are those ‘eternal questions’ that we need to ask over and over again. And the following is one: What separates us, what cuts us off from God, ourselves, and one another? Right at the beginning of chapter 72 the choice between two ways is laid out: “Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell (vs:1), there is also a good zeal which separates from sins and leads to God and ever lasting life (vs:2).” A parallel to these two ways we find in the Sermon of the Mount: where we hear of the wide and the narrow ways, and we are exhorted by Jesus to choose the ‘narrow way’ that leads to life (Mt 7:13-14). Also, in Deuteronomy, the Divine voice says: “Today I place before you, life or death. Choose life that you may live” (Dt 30:15,19). Each day dear sisters and brother is ‘today’. Indubitably, ‘bitterness’ or ‘evil zeal’ separates us from the Divine life, from love, from forgiveness. If we do nothing but linger in this dark mood, we become the victim of our emotional reactions, and we linger with such things as a murmuring heart, a complaining heart, a critical self-righteous heart. In this state we are susceptible to lash out to our neighbor…and make poor choices, ones that we will regret later on when we return to ourselves. Indeed, when we are in the state of the evil zeal of bitterness, we have lost our true self, we are no longer free, we are in the throes of those negative pulls that keep us cut-off from God. All we know of the ‘evil zeal’ in this chapter is that it is qualified as ‘bitterness’. The rest of the chapter, beginning with verse 3, speaks only of the ‘good zeal’. However, by dwelling on the ‘good zeal’ we can learn as well something about the nature of the ‘evil zeal’.
Benedict will be very strong in emphasizing how we are to cultivate the ‘good zeal’ in our behavior and implicitly in our inner attitude. Sr. Aquinata points out the use of ‘superlatives’ in this short chapter…Superlatives in grammar are adjectives or adverbs that exaggerate a quality in order to emphasize its importance. There are two examples. The first follows the introduction of the two kinds of zeal: “This zeal the monks are to practice with a most fervent love” (p.57). ‘Most’ is the superlative. Zeal and love go together and Benedict stresses that it must be practiced in a radical way….in other words, we have to live our love for Christ with a most fervent love, and this most fervent love for Christ is practiced towards our sisters and brothers. We need the superlatives….we need the over emphasis to counter the strong pull of the evil zeal. This radical love stretches us further; here is the second use of superlatives by Benedict: “They are to bear each other’s weaknesses of body and character with the utmost (the greatest) patience” (p.60). Our love of God as expressed in this chapter is not just some lofty spiritual ideal. It is grounded in every- day life and every-day relationships. In other words, show me your love of Christ through your concrete love for one another.
In commenting on the “concretization of love for Christ”, Bockmann points out that in this chapter “nearly every sentence stresses ‘how’ one is to act” (p.51). Benedict is thus concerned not just with the interior attitude but the action that flows from the attitude, of how mutual obedience and fraternal love are to be lived daily in the common life. Bockmann further notes that “All three Latin words for love are used (caritas, amor, diligere) as well as expressions of mutuality of behavior (for example, ‘with each other’…, ‘vie with one another’…, ‘brotherly love’…, ‘all together’…” (p.51). Benedict is intense in his exposé here and for good reason. He does not underestimate the power of the evil zeal of bitterness.
Do I choose life each day? Or, do I linger in negative attitudes? By beginning each day as a new beginning (“Every day Abba Poeman made a new beginning”), we are reaffirming that we prefer nothing to Christ, that we commit to live as he lived with the same magnanimity of heart, of unconditional love and forgiveness, of the readiness to be changed from inside so that heart and action are an authentic reflection of a Christ-centered life. When we choose ‘life’, it is a choice that puts Christ at the center, and thus lets Christ lead and guide our actions: “They are to prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ (vs:11), and may he lead us all to everlasting life (vs:12)”.
Sr. Kathy DeVico, Abbess