Living by A Rule of Life
The Rule of Saint Benedict: Prologue, Verses 14-18 I Am The One!
Image by Irene Furr Henshaw
And the Lord, seeking his own workman in the multitude of the people to whom he cries out, says again: Who is it who longs for life, and desires to see good days (Psalm 34:12)? And if you, hearing him, answer, “I am the one!” God says to you: If you long for true and everlasting life, keep you tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn aside from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:13-14). And when you have done these things, my eyes will be upon you, and my ears will be open to your prayers; and before you call upon me, I will say unto you, Behold, I am here (Isaiah 58:9). 1
The Rule of Saint Benedict
In this short passage Benedict calls us again to the spiritual life, tells us succinctly what our initial response must be, and presents us with a promise should we take up the challenge. The call, the response, and the promise are laid out very simply, so simply in fact that we could easily miss the profound nature of his message.
Yet, before he even makes the call Benedict reminds us that the call is both personal and difficult. The call is for “a workman out of the multitude.” The call is not just to the “multitude of people,” but to each of us personally and individually. In the same few words he reminds us that the spiritual life is hard work and that work is specific to each of us individually. Right up front we are reminded that it is not enough for us to just say “yes” to this call and continue to live our lives as we have before. What is required here is for us to say “yes” to the very real work of actually living our lives spiritually.
Benedict’s call is to those of us who long “for life and to see good days.” Who among us would not want to say immediately, “I am the one!” to that call. Just as clearly all of us “long for true and everlasting life.” Yet it is clear from the context that Benedict does not expect everyone to respond. If we are paying close attention we will suspect that the simplicity of this calling is something of a set up. There is something in the very simplicity of the calling that makes us hesitate. Our “I am the one!” becomes more hesitant. We wonder if saying “Yes” to this simple calling might not take us where we would rather not go.
In his typical direct style Benedict does not keep us guessing. In a very few words he tells us what response will be required of us to say “Yes” to this calling. If we listen obediently to his words we will recognize that it will not be enough for us to just say the words, “I am the one!” Something much more profound and much more challenging is required. If we listen carefully to Benedict’s calling here we will recognize that the only way we can really say, “I am the one!” is to actually begin living the things Benedict calls us to. We have to say “I am the one!” through our actions rather than just our words.
If we are expecting some really “spiritual” requirements here we will be sorely disappointed with Benedict’s next words. “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.” “Turn aside from evil and do good.” “Seek peace and pursue it.” These responses have to do with the way we actually live our daily lives, and they are presented almost as a prerequisite to the spiritual life. It is not through spiritual reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation that we say, “I am the one!” It is by speaking morally and honestly, doing good, and pursuing peace that we say “Yes!” to Benedict’s calling to “the true and everlasting life.”
Deep inside of us we know that this is our deepest longing, and yet we still hesitate. Again we find the very simplicity of the calling disturbing. It is disturbing because what we really want is some belief system we can accept, some ritual we can participate in, or some spiritual practice we can engage in that will make us right with the Divine Mystery we call God. We want to be able to say “I am the one!” without that “Yes!” interfering all that much with the rest of our lives. To the extent that we accept the calling to actually living our lives differently, we want that to be a gift of our belief, our participation in ritual, and/or our spiritual practice. In the end we want to avoid the real work of discovery and incarnation that is the very essence of the spiritual life. Benedict makes us hesitate when he makes that work the essence of our response.
The underlying message here is that the spiritual life is, at its heart, about transforming the way we actually live our lives. Our beliefs, our participation in ritual, and the spiritual practices we engage in are all to be in service of this deep and personal conversion of heart as the monastics call it. Our spiritual reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation, however profound those experiences may be for us, are ultimately not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. When we say, “I am the one!” to Benedict’s call we are saying “Yes!” to being changed in ways we cannot even imagine. The first steps are laid out for us here. “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.” “Turn aside from evil and do good.” “Seek peace and pursue it.” Benedict will expand on both the required response and the practices that support that response later in The Rule, but for most of us this seems like challenge enough.
Again in typical Benedict style the promise is laid out in a few simple but profound words from scripture: “And when you have done these things, my eyes will be upon you, and my ears will be open to your prayers; and before you call upon me, I will say unto you, Behold, I am here.” If we listen to these words carefully we will recognize that for Benedict this promise flows naturally from our response. It is not some kind of tit for tat promise – if you do this I will do that. The fulfillment of the promise is very simply the natural result of our response.
Essentially the message is that if we want to say “Yes!” to the spiritual life we must begin to live our lives with integrity and care, and if we do that, the Divine Presence we call God will provide us with the guidance and support that we need for the journey.
1. From a translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict by Fr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B. of St. Andrew’s Priory, Valyermo, California, published in Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary & Workbook on the Rule of Saint Benedict by Norvene Vest, Oblate O.S.B. (Trabuco Canyon, California: Source Books, 1990), p. 8