Living By A Rule of Life
The Rule of Saint Benedict:
Prologue, Verses 4-7
Beg of Him With Most Earnest Prayer
Photo by Winnie Southworth
In the first place, whenever you begin any good work, beg of him with most earnest prayer to perfect it; so that he who has now granted us the dignity of being counted in the number of his children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds. For we must always so serve him with the good things he has given us, that not only may he never, as an angry father, disinherit his children; but may never as a dread Lord, incensed by our sins, deliver us to everlasting punishment as most wicked servants who would not follow him to glory.
The Rule of Saint Benedict
Ultimately our lives consist of a series of events and encounters with the people and things in our surroundings. These events and encounters follow one after the other as we go through our day and our life. Suppose at the beginning of each event and encounter we were to "beg of him with most earnest prayer to perfect it?" Beyond even that, suppose we consciously chose as our life work to "follow him to glory?" What kind of change and transformation and conversion of heart might that require and bring about? Benedict challenges us to answer these questions, and he suggests that our answers have the direst of consequences for our life. At the same time he seems to accept those consequences as an inevitable result of the choices we make in our life. Like much on the spiritual journey these ideas may strike us as extreme, and sometimes even frightening. We want an easier answer that does not require so much of us.
It is not all that hard to ask the Divine Mystery we call God to perfect each of the events that make up our lives. It can be as simple as saying quietly to ourselves "Lord God, come to my assistance" as we move from one event to another, or "Come with me Lord as I take on this work." It is not really the difficulty of "beg(ging) of him with most earnest prayer" that causes us to resist or avoid this call from Benedict. It is the consequences of the practice that challenges and frightens us at the same time.
The first thing that is required is that we accept fully that The Mysterious Divine Presence we call God is available to us personally and will respond to our “most earnest prayer” in a way that will actually make a difference in our lives. Without that real expectation Benedict’s imperative is at best an empty calling and at worst some kind of veiled threat. We would like to think that this is a given for us, but for most of us it is not quite that simple. Belief is not enough here. The requirement is that we know in the very depths of our soul that if we engage in this practice it will make a real difference in the way we actually experience and interact with the people, events, and things that make up our lives. When we consider Benedict’s call seriously this question rises up in us and makes us uncomfortable. It challenges us to consider our relationship with The Mysterious Other more deeply and more honestly.
But this raises an even deeper and more unsettling question. If we grant even the possibility that this practice would actually change us and transform us we wonder what it would ultimately look like for us and for our lives. Intuitively we know that there is much that would be required of us. In quiet moments we have heard the calling of the Sacred Inner Voice, and we know that much would have to change were we to grant that voice the central place in our lives that Benedict suggests. We are not at all sure that we want God to be quite that real and quite that involved in the events of our lives. In the end the call that Benedict makes to us here is the call to what the monastics call conversion of heart. It is the call to continually shape and form the reality of our lives in response to that Sacred Inner Voice of The Mystery that guides us and gives us strength and courage. Said another way, it is the call to become in the most profound way, who we are created to be as unique spiritual people. In these simple words, “ask in most earnest prayer” Benedict calls us to allow The Divine Mystery to work in us and change us in ways that both call us and make us uncomfortable. Even beyond that it calls us to participate and cooperate in the process, and we would rather for the conversion not to require so much of us. If we take this simple but challenging call seriously it will take us places we can only imagine. We know that this is the calling of our very soul, but if we are really honest, we also have to acknowledge a deep fear of just what might be required of us.
This brings us to Benedict’s call to “follow him to glory.” Benedict uses that phrase in a number of places in The Rule, and it is strange to our contemporary ears. What does it mean to follow God to Glory? It is clear from the context that this calling is not a reference to some “pie in the sky when I die” idea of glory. He has positioned it squarely as the goal of the way we approach “any good work” in the reality of our day to day lives. Here again Benedict wants to take us somewhere we fear to go. Yet if we are honest, and if we listen carefully to The Sacred Inner Voice, we know that this call to “follow him to glory” in the reality of our daily encounters with the people, events, and things that make up our lives is our deepest and most profound longing. This is nothing less than a call to holiness—a call to actually live a holy life, in the midst of all of the beauty, the joy, the busyness and even the ugliness and pain of this life, in this world, and in this time. Benedict presents this profound calling in a simple way that makes it very clear that he not only believes it is possible, but he sees it as essential to the spiritual journey.
This imperative to begin any good work with prayer and to actually live a holy life also challenges us in another way. It calls us to consider much more carefully the “works” we actually choose to even begin. If I have developed the practice of beginning each event or encounter in my day by “asking him to perfect it,” how many of the normal events of my day would cause that prayer to stick in my throat? If I say this prayer as I walk into the next business meeting, can I then treat the other party unfairly? If my goal is to live a holy life can I then give an obscene gesture to the driver that cuts me off in traffic? It is right here that the rubber meets the road in the spiritual journey. If I take Benedict’s call really seriously I will have to consciously change the way I am actually present in each of the individual events and encounters that make up my life. In this call conversion becomes a profound transformation process that requires hard work and difficult choices, and that will change us in ways that are both fascinating and frightening. It will change our thoughts, and our emotions, and our impulses, and it will change the way we actually experience and live our lives. Benedict makes it very clear that there are consequences if we fail to follow this call. We know that it is our deepest longing to “follow him to glory,” but we still pull back in fear. Like Bur Bear when he found himself hanging upside down in a tree, “First I ‘fraid I go fall. Then I ‘fraid I won’t go fall!”
As I have struggled to be consistent in my spiritual practice I have seen an interesting pattern. I know that when I engage in The Practice regularly I am constantly growing, and my life is changing. While I cannot say at any point that I am living a truly holy life, I can say during those times that to an increasing degree I am “following him to glory.” When I am consistently “asking him to perfect” each event I begin during my day the way I am present in those events changes and becomes more and more holy. I have seen that work in my life over and over again, and I have gotten feedback from others confirming that ongoing transformation.
But I have also noticed that I periodically pull back from my practice. I find all kinds of reasons for not taking my time apart, and I become too busy to center myself before beginning the next event in my day. What is fascinating to me is that when I reflect on those times I consistently discover that the Sacred Inner Voice is calling me to change in some way that is uncomfortable and even frightening. It is not that I don’t have time for my practice, and it is not that I am too busy to center myself before that next meeting. It is because I am being called to grow in a way that I resist, and those practices push me to go where I fear to go. More and more I am learning to return to my practice when I discover myself pulling back.