Chapter 4: What Are the Instruments of Good Works

January 18, 2010

  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.

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.

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