T he Lord seeking in the multitude of people his workman to whom he calls out these words, says again: "Who is the person who desires life?" St. Benedict announces this message in the Prologue to his Rule for Monks. He had found them already in an earlier monastic Rule, that of the Master. Though he saw fit to exclude a great deal of section introducing that earlier document, yet he obviously considered it important to preserve this reference to the Lord's voice as a source of the monastic vocation. He goes on to include the observation, also taken from the Master that by this call the Lord points out to us, in his loving concern, the way of life. What could be sweeter than this voice of the Lord who invites us, dearest brothers?
That each individual human being is assigned a special task in this world that he or she alone is called to carry out is surely one of the most fundamental characteristics of the person as such. This sense of a call or of destiny or fate or whatever name might be assigned to this sense of a unique purpose for existence has long been recognized by the great teachers of our race to be a primordial feature of our human condition in this world. Only those obey this call or follow this destiny can find happiness and achieve their purpose for existing. Some persons have an explicit awareness that they are following such a call, others do not identify consciously what it is or who it is they obey in following their ground plan, as it were. Many have only the vaguest notion that their life has any significance that transcends the immediate needs and concerns of the material world of which they are but an minute portion. Still there are the most solid reasons to maintain that everyone has a particular and unique vocation in life that is assigned as a task to work out so long as that life continues in this world.
Without some conviction, expressed in whatever form, that life has a meaning that transcends the immediate requirements of biological existence the human person finds existence not only burdensome but even intolerable. Sickness, melancholy, depression, anti-social behavior, even suicide result when such personal conviction weakens or is felt as altogether lacking. The clearer the awareness of one's call, the sharper the focus on the task assigned by the Lord who made us, the fuller and more complete and satisfying is our life. From early times various gifted men have sought to articulate this truth. Many peoples have myths that provide explanations for their purpose in life and which provide a framework within which their individual members can locate their distinct role in the whole, and so be better equipped to work out their own destiny with purpose and satisfaction.
Plato as he ended his Republic elaborated such a myth in considerable detail. He stated that he considered it to be of the utmost importance for a person to devote his attention to the serious task assigned him by a fate that, according to this version, he had chosen for himself in a prior existence. Character, Plato maintained, results from choices made in the eternal world prior to birth in this world. Learning to discern properly and being convinced that the soul is immortal and carries with it into the next world the character that results from choice is the chief hazard of man's condition. Understanding the right way to go about living in a world where good is mingled with evil and finding someone to teach us how to discern the good from the bad is the key successfully to pass through the great hazard of human life. "This is the chief reason", he writes, " why it should be our main concern that each of us, neglecting all other studies, should seek after and study this art.... so that always and everywhere to choose the best that the conditions allow. (Book X, 618C Loeb 1956, p 509)." Understanding this myth, he goes on to explain as he concludes this work, "will save us if we believe it, and we shall safely cross the River of Lethe, and keep our soul unspotted from the world." Having a clearly focused concept of the purpose of life and knowing how to discern the proper measure of things appropriate to one's particular destiny provide a strong support for making the right choices day by day.
The revelation brought by Christ, the Word of God made man, brought with it the conviction that the task assigned each person in the world is not one chosen in a previous existence but rather a plan devised by God from all eternity in view of the salvation and sanctification of that individual. In the Apocalypse, Jesus is presented as assigning each of the faithful "a shining stone on which a new name is written that nobody knows save the one who receives it (2:17)." At the same time, it is by discerning and responding to this personal plan which is, as it were, heard as a call, that the individual contributes to the welfare of others. This is further revealed also in the Apocalypse where the Lord states that "He who overcomes I will make him a column in the temple of my God, for he will no longer go outside. And I will write upon him the name of my God and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem that descends from heaven from my God, and my new name (3: 12)."
The actual realization of God's plan, then, includes what is most personal and unique in each and at the same time, establishes each in an organic relation with all those who are called to complete the fullness of his great work. Once a man recognizes God's voice, as it were, speaking within, he understands that he addresses him with his true name, known only to God and only dimly known at first by the subject himself. Our true identity is so closely associated with being called that the call awakens the self. In knowing what we are meant to do we grasp dimly what we are to become. We are given a certitude based on a vision of the whole of life as we are to live it. The vision that arises from the gift of a call is seen in a glance, as it were, but understanding it in detail comes only gradually; indeed, it is the work of a lifetime.
The task assigned once a person hears and answers his call, becomes that of discerning the requirements of our vocation as they manifest themselves to us one day at a time. This necessitates an ongoing discrimination that decides what I am capable of in practice, with my gifts, opportunities and limits. At the same time, fidelity to my call entails a focusing on the vision it imparts so that I might discover what I am expected to carry out in the concrete circumstances of daily life. It often happens that only in light of what my call demands can I come to see what I am capable of. In many instances these are but two aspects of the same specific reality being dealt with, for it is the very nature of a vocation to create in us the desire to give our best. We wish to do all we are capable of in the service of the God who has revealed his will to us. The sense of being called is a force that supplies the energy needed to carry out the various undertakings required for the performance of the duties and requirements of the task assigned us.
We usually think of growing up into the world where we live out our particular mission in life. This is certainly appropriate, for we must train our body and senses and mental faculties appropriately if we are to carry out effectually the demands imposed by the duties we assume in answering our call. But growing up and developing new skills and habits of mind and body represent only one aspect of the requirements of a vocation. There are other requirements of fidelity to this invisible world in which we receive the light and motive force imparted by hearing God's invitation. They can be considered to form the back of the vision and cultivating these requirements is more like growing down from the heights of the ideal into the dark and damp earth. James Hillman has pointed up this neglected aspect of human development and the cycle of life in his study of modern man's soul in his work "The Soul's Code" (New York 1996, 41-62). A study of the lives of some celebrities who were propelled into sudden success and wide popularity early on in their careers revealed the need for this complementary side of personality. It proved disastrous for their final years that they had so assiduously cultivated only certain talents they possessed to a high degree while neglecting the more humble virtues and practices which are no less essential to human felicity.
In Plato's myth I referred to earlier, the human person chooses his or herlot in life and is assigned the daimon, a kind of good angel, prior to coming into this world. This fate will determine the vision that sets the goals to be achieved in the course of life. The Greek word for happiness, eudaemonia, means literally having a pleasing angel. This is the lot of those who have made an appropriate choice, that is to say one that accords with the nature of the immortal soul, which demands purity and virtuous dispositions. Plato brings his Republic to an end having made this point concerning destiny and the endowment of the individual. He does not examine the effect of birth and its symbolic significance. Hillman gives attention to this event. He sees birth, a head-first descent into the world, as initiating the separation from the higher world and introduction into a world that is felt as distant from the one from which the infant has come. This is suggested, among other things, by the strength of the grip reflex: the new born does not let go once it grabs on to some object. The infant must grow down into the world that is so new to his or her daimon at the same time that it begins the process of growing up.
Saint Benedict also had a sensitive appreciation for this truth. In his Rule for Monks the chapter treating of humility is generally considered fundamental for his teaching on the spiritual life. There he teaches that true progress consists not in climbing up higher, but in descending. He would probably approve of the psychologist's emphasis on the human need to grow down in order to become whole. Here are his words.
And so, brothers, if we wish to attain to the height of humility and arrive quickly at that heavenly exaltation to which one ascends through humility in this present life we should raise up that ladder which appeared to Jacob in his dream and ascend it by our actions. There angels ascending and descending were shown him. That ascent and descent is without doubt to be understood by us as nothing else than that by exaltation we descend and by humility we ascend (Ch. 7).
St. Benedict's perspective is obviously spiritual and moral, not psychological and social. Yet these levels of our life are not separated by watertight compartments; on the contrary, they reinforce one another, as Benedict himself knew very well. This monastic teaching on humility is simply an application of the Gospel to the situation in which a monk lives. All Christians who seriously live their faith are bound by the Gospels to cultivate lowliness of spirit and humility of heart. Jesus made it clear he had a preference for those who are lowly in their own eyes and who welcome the poor, the unimportant and the marginal in his name. Dealing with difficult characters is, according to the Rule, one of the skills an abbot should cultivate; so should every monk demonstrate the utmost patience with the moral and psychological defects of others. Learning to come to terms with one's own weaknesses and defects is surely one of the major responsibilities of every human person and is a primary concern for any one who strives to draw near to God.
Benedict seems to have realized quite distinctly that it is in light of God's holiness that we come to know our own lowliness. Thus his first degree of humility consists in walking before God with all respect and showing him the honor that takes seriously all his commands. He calls this attitude "fear of the Lord". To cut off all sin and overcome his vices, he advises: "Let a man consider that he is always observed by God every hour and that his deeds are seen by the Divine eyes in every place." Only when we realize what we are made for and to what we are called can we know our self and evaluate our acts. As we respond to this presence of God which is made known to us through his love for us and his desire to unite us with himself, we grow in faith and confidence based on his fidelity.
A critical step in the ladder of humility is the fourth for to practice this measure of humility we call upon God to make of our faith a source of strength so that we might embrace patience with a quiet conscience when difficult and contrary matters are imposed upon us, or even injuries are inflicted upon us. In this kind of patience we learn by experience that humility is a form of moral strength, a force that overcomes suffering and even injustice. Benedict quotes St. Paul in this connection, for he understands that humility of this kind represents a victory over evil. In all these things we are victorius because of him who loves us (Romans 8:37). Later on in his life, in the additional pages he decided to append to his Rule, Benedict dealt with this subject again in connection with a particularly trying situation.
If to some brother some commands are given that are perhaps burdensome or even impossible let him accept the charge of the one commanding him with all meekness and obedience. If the weight of this burden seems to him to exceed his strength altogether, he should explain the reasons for this impossibility at an opportune time with patience avoiding any show of pride, resistance or contradiction. And if the superior should persist in his view after having received this suggestion, let the subject know that it is in his own interest to obey out of charity and confidence in God's help (Ch. 68).
An important point to note here is that it is the subject who thinks the command to be too much, not the one who give the order. St. Benedict does not favor that tradition which is found in Cassian and which sets out to exercise the monk's obedience by deliberately assigning meaningless or useless tasks. The intent, which Benedict certainly also has in mind, is to increase the man's faith and humility. But that is not the kind of obedience he wishes to inculcate. He wants the superior to be reasonable and not over-exacting. Even so, he is aware that what seems to the Abbot to be quite appropriate and suited to the capacity of his subject may at times be viewed otherwise by the one expected to obey. One need not be a superior too long before having such reactions to what had seemed to him a reasonable order. Here Benedict indicates the proper way for a monk to react.
The same approach applies to an analogous situation that many of us have known or will know before long. Probably it happens to everyone who has some position of authority to find himself faced with a duty that he feels is quite beyond his powers to master. Any of us may even occasionally experience that some situations that arise in the course of fulfilling his obligations surpass his endurance as well as his capability. Yet it is clear that duty requires that we carry out our obligations and learn to endure the consequences. We can grow in our capacity for endurance if we set our whole heart on it and seek with faith the grace of God. To experience such help is one of the most formative experiences of the spiritual life and strengthens us greatly for continuing faithfully on the way to God.
The conviction that one is called by God and gifted with a personal vocation that engages what is most personal, most one's very self, is a source of strength at such times of testing. It would seem that such testings of trust are necessary for the human person to give of himself fully in life. That is why courage is such a fundamental virtue, for the person who is faithful to the deepest truth in himself will at times encounter resistance and opposition that he experiences as overwhelming. Remaining faithful to his truth and conscience requires that he find a force that he is not in control of, that he cannot dispose of readily by his own limited powers. Often enough at such times one feels very much alone, even abandoned by those whose support he had been able to count on in the past. Possibly even abandoned by God, as our Lord himself felt on the cross. But through adhering to the inner truth that he is conscious of having received in his call from the God who is faithful to his promises, the monk, and indeed every Christian, who acts in faith in his creator and redeemer, can be certain that he will be given the grace he needs for perseverance. May we, then, find in the voice of God speaking in our heart and inviting us to follow his son through the passion to the resurrection, the conviction and the strength to prove faithful to our vocation and to persevere in fidelity to the end.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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