RULE OF ST. BENEDICT: Reflections on Zeal
Of the good zeal which monks ought to have
As there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and life everlasting. Let monks, therefore, practice this latter zeal with most fervent love: that is, let them in honor anticipate one another; let them bear most patiently one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; let them endeavor to surpass one another in the practice of mutual obedience; let no one seek that which he accounts useful for himself, but rather what is profitable to another; let them practice fraternal charity with a chaste love; let them fear God; let them love their Abbot with a sincere and humble affection; let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ; and may He bring us all alike to life everlasting. Amen.
Every time I attend Gathering Day at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery (Trappist), which is usually once a month, I come away amazed at how much there is to know and love about God and how much I have left to learn.
This lesson, taught by Brother Cassian, O.SC.O., deals with Chapter 72 of the Rule of Benedict (RB) which you have just read. I offer my insights from this session with other Lay Cistercians as my own ideas, not those of any Cistercian organization or the Lay Cistercians.
My thoughts on bad zeal When you think of it, most of life is either good or evil are we are left with the struggle to choose what is good for us or will lead to bad things happening. Merriam-webster defines zeal as “great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective.” St. Benedict says there is good zeal and bad zeal, which he terms the evil zeal of bitterness. We all brought up examples of this bitterness. ISIS, the fallen angels, those who have not transformed their lives from hatred to love in their divorce, relationships with parents, work bitterness, and outright blind activism to a cause theat promotes hatred and disrespect of people. All of these people, including all of us for maybe a short time, all experience hatred and bad zeal. We want revenge, getting even with others who have hurt us. The zeal comes in when we enthusiastically set out to calumniate or detract from others. Read Galatians 5. This is the zeal that separates from God and leads to Hell. Truly, the wages of sin are death.
My thoughts on good zeal. There is much duality in Scriptures, i.e., you can’t serve two Masters, or, in this case, you choose good zeal or bad zeal. Her is what St. Benedict says about monks, who must struggle to keep good zeal in place of bad zeal. There is a choice here: bad zeal is not the default here because human nature is not evil just prone to evil, if there is no alternative. Notice that monks must choose something that is not automatic, as would be the case if you got on the conveyor belt of grace without any temptation or struggle. Monks do this in the context of a monastery where can can be focused on Christ, but also because the other monks or nuns can help them prefer nothing whatever to Christ.
- Let monks, therefore, practice this latter zeal with most fervent love:
- that is, let them in honor anticipate one another;
- let them bear most patiently one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character;
- let them endeavor to surpass one another in the practice of mutual obedience;
- let no one seek that which he accounts useful for himself, but rather what is profitable to another;
- let them practice fraternal charity with a chaste love;
- let them fear God;
- let them love their Abbot with a sincere and humble affection;
- let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ;
- and may He bring us all alike to life everlasting.
Lay Cistercian spirituality, as I have begun to practice it, means that zeal is be productive or destructive. Destructive zeal that says, everyone should do what I do because I have the ear of God and am trying sincerely to do God’s will so everyone else should do what I do. Of course, this is a veiled reference to idolatry, the number one sin humans commit. St. Benedict reminds monks and nuns, and thus Lay Cistercians, that zeal must be seen in terms of how you treat other people, anticipating the needs of others because of love. Everything that happens after Pentecost, the Spirit descending not only on the Apostles but on the whole down through the centuries, is based on the one command of Christ: love one another as I have loved you. Just as Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, the Holy Spirit is the energy, the enthusiasm and zeal God has for us as adopted sons and daughters.
If you are a new member of the Body of Christ, there is zeal there for your Father’s house. This zeal doesn’t mean you go to Africa to tell those poor Christians there what Christ means (a veiled referenced to idolatry), but that you transform your own heart with the zeal of the Holy Spirit to have in you the mind of Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5). Remember, the Devil uses zeal to seduce prideful Christians that have zeal without showing it to those around them.
Romans 10:1-3 New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)
10 Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. (emphases mine)