O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you.
A spiritual colleague of mine told me that he can’t get through saying the Rosary without some kind of distraction. I confessed that this happens to me very often at Eucharist or Liturgy of the Hours. Sometimes I have terrible distractions of a sexual nature and what would I do if I won 300 Million in the Lottery. Of course, I would never tell anyone about this because it would embarrass me in front of anyone and they think less of me because I am trying to follow the Rule of St. Benedict. It does point out that all of us, at least while we live, are subject to a struggle to choose our true self over our false self. It is important to note that our nature, which we call the World, is our default, not the spiritual universe. We must not only choose the spiritual universe, or our true self, we must constantly struggle to maintain our center each day (Phil 2:5 for me). Why is it so difficult to keep focused on Christ? If all I need is faith, why do I need to work to maintain my true self through silence and solitude in prayer? Why do I fail to have in me the mind of Christ Jesus as much as I want?
The more I read Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict, the more I am very impressed by his awareness of human nature and the difficulty that it takes to convert my self to true self instead of false self. We know that we must take up our cross daily and follow Christ. Christ termed it a cross for a ready: it is heavy, very heavy. Here are some of the tools to help us in our struggle to choose our true self (adopted sons and daughters) rather than our false self (followers of Satan and evil practices). We can’t control what pops into our minds from the World. What we can prepare for is to dash our evil thoughts that arise in our hearts against Christ, the rock. It is spiritual warfare on a daily basis, one we can only win with the help of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
GOD’S THOUGHTS ARE NOT OUR THOUGHTS
Genesis is an archetypal story of how humans not only make choices based on their emotions and intellect but how they need to make correct decisions, ones based on God’s will, one that will lead us to Heaven rather than Hell. In Genesis we read how God created everything that is and embedded Himself in everything that is. God wanted someone to tend what he had made so he created Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve did not create anything, except children. They are caretakers, gardeners of the Garden of Eden. God told them how to act and they thought they could do it better and wanted to be God. This is the very epicenter of what St. Benedict is trying to instil into his monks and nuns that follow the Rule. There are rules, but they come from God, not humans. We must deny ourselves if we are to prefer nothing to the love of Christ. That denial is turning away from what the World says and do what God says. The Decalog (Ten Commandments) helps us by focusing us on what we should be doing to be in covenant with God. Two of those commands that are often overlooked but are critical to doing God’s will are: Exodus 20:17, “you shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” and ” you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his servant, man or women, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is his.” These two commands are principles that keep us from falling into being an animal. If you do covet these things and do not dispel that temptation, you may be a monk or a nun, or even a Lay Cistercian, but you are standing on a floor made of Jell-O. St. Benedict says, if you want to deny yourself, if you want to prefer nothing to the love of Christ, then you must love as Christ loved us. It has to do with banishing evil thoughts. We will have evil thoughts come into our mind and can’t stop it, due to Original Sin. What St. Benedict says is get rid of these evil thoughts in your heart by dashing them against Christ. Christ tells us in Matthew 11:29-30. to come to him if we labor and are overburdened and he will give us rest. He goes on to say, shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls.
Just because you are in a monastery does not shield one from distracting and sinful thoughts, even though you are in a place where you can focus entirely on having in you the mind of Christ Jesus. There was a time, not too long ago, when monks used physical distractions such as flagellation and punishing the body to push away evil thoughts. I can related to that because I used to pinch myself and turn up the air conditioning to freezing when driving a car, whenever I got sleepy, so that I could keep awake. Thank goodness, times have changed, as has our appreciation of the power of the Holy Spirit to help us stay awake in prayer and dispel temptations that distract me. What is the same are those elements of Chapter 4 to help us as we move from our false self to our true self.
Jesus won’t let this cup pass from us but he will give us the strength to join with him in doing God’s will rather than our own. We pray in the Lord’s prayer not to be led into temptation.
Evil thoughts are those which lead away from Christ. They can be of a sexual nature, our most dominant and difficult to control emotion. Other temptations are power, self-indulgence (See Galatians 5), pride and idolatry. The following elements in Chapter 4 are meant for all of us to help us from giving in to evil thoughts. Here are my reflections on these elements and how it affects me as a Lay Cistercian living in the World and not in a monastery.
44) To fear the day of judgment. — What are the implications of this statement from St. Benedict? To fear the day of judgement is the recognition that there will be a time when everything we do will be on display for everyone else. The day of judgement is the day on which we stand before the Father and answer the question: What have to done to love others as Christ loved you? Matthew 25:31-46. This caution is an incentive for me to dash my evil thoughts against Christ. That doesn’t mean I will always succeed, but it is an incentive for me to pause and think about it. There is no automatic pass to get into Heaven. Each of will be judged according to our works.
(45) To be in dread of hell. –Hell must be a hell of a place to get so much press. Some people so there is no fire there, some say there is, but one thing is for sure, God is not there. Whatever that means, I don’t want to go there. Cistercian spirituality is a way for me to focus on love and positive living rather than being Hell-centered. It is healthy for us to be in dread of Hell. It is not healthy to be so fixed on it that you don’t love others as Christ loved us.
(46) To desire eternal life with all spiritual longing. That word “longing” is an interesting one. Psalms tell us
Longing, as it happens to me, while I am sitting on a park bench on a cold day waiting for Christ to come by, is real. It is like taking my wife to Costco store, and waiting for her to come out. I strain to see her walking out pushing that grocery cart, I long for her to be the next one in line out the door, I anticipate what it would be like to put groceries in the trunk, especially after waiting forty-five minutes. I think I can say I long for eternal life, more so now that ten years ago. When a parishioner walked up to me, after weekday Eucharist and told me that she had to have a heart transplant, I was speechless. What I did say was, Hope is the light at the end of the tunnel. The light at the end of this tunnel does not end with death, but shines from Heaven on us. When we die, Jesus tells us, “Don’t be afraid! I am the Light of the World.” That is Hope. It is also longing for something beyond death. We are not quite sure what that is, but it is with Christ, so our longing is not in vain.
(47) To keep death before one’s eyes daily. All of these elements help us gain perspective about the next life, the Kingdom of Heaven. I have been keen to think about death every day (I am 78 years old), but it is more and more looking forward to the trip and packing my suitcase for the trip. I am to the point where I think beyond death daily.
(48) To keep a constant watch over the actions of our life. If you have a bit of age on you, you probably have said, “I wish I knew ten years ago what I know now.” I have certainly said that as it related to being a Lay Cistercian. My background is steeped in Benedictine spirituality, I even say I have it in my DNA, but all this pales when measured against what I have learned and loved as a Lay Cistercian. Quite imperceptibly, I have grown in ways I never imagined to depths I could not even describe before. Daily reading of Chapter 4, adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, reception of the Eucharist, Making All Things New in Christ, meditating on the life of Christ in the Rosary, trying for daily recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours at the parish, have left their mark on me. I don’t think I am making any progress until I relax and just sit on that park bench in the dead of Winter and seek to sit next to Christ. You can’t imagine the power and transformation that takes place because of resignation to the love of Christ. This love is available to everyone who seeks it.
(49) To hold as certain that God sees us everywhere. If God is watching me, even in the silence of my heart, where no one can tell what I am thinking, I must be true not to my human weaknesses and failing but true to God’s will. St, Benedict writes:
(42) To refer what good one sees in himself, not to self, but to God.
(43) But as to any evil in himself, let him be convinced that it is his own and charge it to himself.
God sees all and knows all. The lesson here is, we can fool others by saying one thing and doing another, but we can’t fool God. God is truth. God is the way. God is the life. One of the reasons we have reconciliation with another person is that we can’t fool that person by fooling ourself. When I have to confess not only my sins, but my need to make all things new in me again and again, it is very easy to say God forgives me. I can fool myself into thinking that I can sin without any consequences. Sin is public, not private. My behaviors may be affected by the perspective that I know God is watching. God is watching if I sin, say I am sorry and then do nothing to sin no more.
(50) To dash at once against Christ the evil thoughts which rise in one’s heart. St. Benedict knew that monks and nuns would have temptations, some of them leading to sin, but also realized that dashing these thoughts against Christ will destroying them in favor of thoughts from Christ. This is not easy and one of the reasons I caution people who are new to contemplative prayer that having temptations is not evil, but what is evil in not banishing them against Christ, our rock. A reminder: sin is not just breaking a law of the Church, although it is that, but also missing the mark, not hitting the target of Christ, falling short of doing God’s will. Each time we dash evil thoughts which rise in our hearts, we make all things new again, and again, and again. We won’t be free from the struggle between the Spirit and the Flesh (World) until we die.
(51) And to disclose them to our spiritual father. One of the ways St. Benedict suggests to move from self to God is disclosing our failings to God, our spiritual father. We do that in the Sacrament of Reconciliation where we ask for the grace to convert our hearts once more to be like Christ. We can also do that with our spiritual director, a man or woman we choose to share some of the challenges of our journey to Forever.
A LAY CISTERCIAN REFLECTIONS ON TEMPTATIONS AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
I am not a good one to hold up as a model of anything for anyone, like St. Peter, I fall on my face a lot when it comes to trying to love God with all my heart. I am sometimes at 50% on a good day. I ask God to make up in me that which I lack in my human weakness. Christ is my example and Saints and saints are inspirations of how they had in them the mind of Christ Jesus. I keep trying to do the Cistercian practices each day and placing the charisms of humility and obedience to God’s will on top of my wish list of what I want to be transformed into by having in me the mind of Christ Jesus.
Temptations are not sins. They only provide choices, typically between God’s will and our will. Humanity is esstentially good but prone to choose false self instead of true self.
Christ gives us what is needed for true self, i.e., love of others as He has loved us. The Church is a group of people selected by God to help us choose Christ rather than the World.
The Holy Spirit gives enlightenment on what is true and what is evil.
True discernment is needed because not all who call themselves by the name of Christ or profess to speak for God are authentic. We have reason to be able to detect what is good from what is bad.
We are tempted all the time because of the effects of Original Sin.
No one is forced to commit sin (missing the mark). God tells us what that mark is and we try to make it, like an archer shooting at a target. If we miss the mark, we sin. If we make the mark, we win. If we don’t even know there is a mark, we can’t play in God’s playground. He makes the rules, we follow them or not, with the help of Christ with the Holy Spirit.
RULE OF ST. BENEDICT: CHAPTER IV
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 one’s self (cf Mt 22:37-39; Mk 12:30-31; Lk 10:27).
(3) Then, not to kill…
(4) Not to commit adultery…
(5) Not to steal…
(6) Not to covet (cf Rom 13:9).
(7) Not to bear false witness (cf Mt 19:18; Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20).
(8) To honor all men (cf 1 Pt 2:17). (9) And what one would not have done to himself, not to do to another (cf Tob 4:16; Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31).
(10) To deny one’s self in order to follow Christ (cf Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23).
(11) To chastise the body (cf 1 Cor 9:27).
(12) Not to seek after pleasures.
(13) To love fasting.
(14) To relieve the poor.
(15) To clothe the naked…
(16) To visit the sick (cf Mt 25:36).
(17) To bury the dead.
(18) To help in trouble.
(19) To console the sorrowing.
(20) To hold one’s self aloof from worldly ways.
(21) To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
(22) Not to give way to anger.
(23) Not to foster a desire for revenge.
(24) Not to entertain deceit in the heart.
(25) Not to make a false peace.
(26) Not to forsake charity.
(27) Not to swear, lest perchance one swear falsely.
(28) To speak the truth with heart and tongue.
(29) Not to return evil for evil (cf 1 Thes 5:15; 1 Pt 3:9).
(30) To do no injury, yea, even patiently to bear the injury done us.
(31) To love one’s enemies (cf Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27).
(32) Not to curse them that curse us, but rather to bless them.
(33) To bear persecution for justice sake (cf Mt 5:10).
(34) Not to be proud…
(35) Not to be given to wine (cf Ti 1:7; 1 Tm 3:3).
(36) Not to be a great eater.
(37) Not to be drowsy.
(38) Not to be slothful (cf Rom 12:11).
(39) Not to be a murmurer.
(40) Not to be a detractor.
(41) To put one’s trust in God.
(42) To refer what good one sees in himself, not to self, but to God.
(43) But as to any evil in himself, let him be convinced that it is his own and charge it to himself.
(44) To fear the day of judgment.
(45) To be in dread of hell.
(46) To desire eternal life with all spiritual longing.
(47) To keep death before one’s eyes daily.
(48) To keep a constant watch over the actions of our life.
(49) To hold as certain that God sees us everywhere.
(50) To dash at once against Christ the evil thoughts which rise in one’s heart.
(51) And to disclose them to our spiritual father.
(52) To guard one’s tongue against bad and wicked speech.
(53) Not to love much speaking.
(54) Not to speak useless words and such as provoke laughter.
(55) Not to love much or boisterous laughter.
(56) To listen willingly to holy reading.
(57) To apply one’s self often to prayer.
(58) To confess one’s past sins to God daily in prayer with sighs and tears, and to amend them for the future.
(59) Not to fulfil the desires of the flesh (cf Gal 5:16).
(60) To hate one’s own will.
(61) To obey the commands of the Abbot in all things, even though he himself (which Heaven forbid) act otherwise, mindful of that precept of the Lord: “What they say, do ye; what they do, do ye not” (Mt 23:3).
(62) Not to desire to be called holy before one is; but to be holy first, that one may be truly so called.
(63) To fulfil daily the commandments of God by works.
(64) To love chastity.
(65) To hate no one.
(66) Not to be jealous; not to entertain envy.
(67) Not to love strife.
(68) Not to love pride.
(69) To honor the aged.
(70) To love the younger.
(71) To pray for one’s enemies in the love of Christ.
(72) To make peace with an adversary before the setting of the sun.
(73) And never to despair of God’s mercy.
Behold, these are the instruments of the spiritual art, which, if they have been applied without ceasing day and night and approved on judgment day, will merit for us from the Lord that reward which He hath promised: “The eye hath not seen, nor the ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him” (1 Cor 2:9). But the workshop in which we perform all these works with diligence is the enclosure of the monastery, and stability in the community.”