PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE STRAIGHT HIS PATHS (Mark 1:3). With this citation from the prophet Isaiah the evangelist, Mark, opens his Gospel. Since, as the large majority of scholars agree, his is the earliest Gospel account of our Lord’s life and teaching, it represents an orientation taken by the primitive Church as she sought to transmit the meaning of Christ’s message and the mysteries of his life. The first point Mark makes and wants his readers to keep in mind is that there is a work to be done by men who desire to seek God. We must prepare for God’s coming if we are to be ready for him. Just what this preparation consists in is proclaimed in the following lines as the mission of John the Baptist is described. ‘And John was in the desert baptizing and preaching a baptism of penance for the remission of sins.’ 

As the Gospel continues it unfolds a variety of situations that reinforce this fundamental requirement of salvation. Men like St. Peter, who are ready to acknowledge their unworthiness, even though they remain imperfect, accept the Gospel and become friends of the Lord. Those who consider themselves righteous already and remain unaware of their need for repentance and for change miss the call to life. They failed to prepare the way of the Lord or to make straight his paths.  In the Gospel of St. Matthew when Jesus delivers his first public sermon, he does not begin with the pure of heart or the peacemakers, but with the poor of spirit. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).’ The poor to whom he refers are those who recognize their need for mercy; they admit their failings and take responsibility for them. These persons are willing to learn from God’s messengers, and to learn means to change. The poor in spirit are those who strive to change the dispositions of their heart and soul so as to bring them into conformity with God’s will and plan. Such obedience is the opposite of passive submission; it requires a resolutely active determination to confront the defects and evil inclinations within one self. 

St. Benedict understood this attitude very well indeed. He brings out in his prologue already that his Rule is written for persons who accept that they have wandered far from the path that leads to God and so are resolved to make of life a return journey to the Father.    

Thus you will return by the labor of obedience to the one from whom you drifted through the inertia of disobedience. . Now then I address my words to you: whoever is willing to renounce self-will, and take up the powerful and shining weapons of obedience to fight for the Lord Christ, the true king. [Kardong, Terrence G., Benedict’s Rule: A Translation, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press) 1996]. 

The Rule evidently gives prominence to humility as the path that leads to union with God; to prepare the way of the Lord for Benedict is to advance actively up each of the steps of the ladder of humility. He surprisingly insists near the end of this chapter where we would expect some mention of closeness to the Lord, that the monk should always remember his sins. It was in the first step on this way that he spoke of always walking in the presence of God. Actually these two are functionally related in that anyone who walks in the presence of God develops a sharp awareness of his holiness and, as a consequence, will become highly conscious of his sinfulness. In this line of logic it is understandable that Benedict writes 

Constantly aware of his guilt for sins, he should consider himself to be already standing before the terrifying judgment of God. 65. He should always repeat in his heart what the publican said in the gospel, his eyes cast downward: “Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to raise my eyes to heaven” (Luke 18:13). 66. And also with the prophet: “I am bowed down and totally humbled” (Pss 38:7–9; 119:107).  {Kardong, The Rule) 

This is, to be sure, not the last word on the subject of change as a result of a serious dedication to the practice of obedience and humility and the following of the monastic regime he sets out in his Rule. In the final paragraph of this chapter Benedict speaks less as our monastic legislator than as a teacher of spirituality. These are his words. 

67. Therefore, when he has climbed all these steps of humility, the monk will soon arrive at that “perfect love” of God which “drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). 68. Due to this love, he can now begin to accomplish effortlessly, as if spontaneously, everything that he previously did out of fear. 69. He will do this no longer out of fear of hell but out of love for Christ, good habit itself and a delight in virtue (Kardong, The Rule). 

Such a thorough inner transformation obviously requires a very active effort on the part of the monk; it represents his response to the invitation of the prophet cited by St. Mark: PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE STRAIGHT HIS PATHS. This prophetic utterance that opens the Gospel message and states condition for becoming receptive to the Messiah and Savior can serve also to orient the monk, directing his efforts to the personal encounter with Christ who comes to the poor in spirit. 

This way of the Lord leads through the heart. This human heart that is more tortuous than can be mapped out by any man is the place of transformation. Jeremiah describes it challenges with the passion of one who had experienced the resistance to God’s call and struggled nonetheless to respond as best he might. ‘The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse- who can understand it?’ He had learned that such understanding is essential to healing and to holiness. By painful experience he had come to discover the answer to this question that arose from his struggles with his own deeper dispositions and hidden emotions.  The heart ‘who can understand it?’ he exclaimed. He received his answer in prayer and declared it for all to hear, speaking it in God’s name: ‘I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, in keeping with the fruit of their doings.”(Jeremiah 17:11)  Only from God and by his grace can the most intimate places of our heart become known to us, and being known, be brought before him in confession of our need. 

Such confession is crucial in the process of conversion and sanctification which is essential for all those who would be united with God and so live the truly happy life. Scripture taught this already in the time of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others even before the coming of John the Baptist who himself made confession the chief theme of his preaching. The people who listened to him recognized this message as prophetic, that is to say, as a directive from God the all holy One. Confession is first of all, John taught, acknowledgment of sin and of a felt need for forgiveness. Implied in such recognition of wrongdoing is a sense of God’s goodness and sovereignty. To acknowledge that my acts have not been worthy of God, that they have displeased him is to accept his right to our obedience and so represents an unexpressed, largely unconscious, act of praise; it is a tribute paid to his majestic glory. 

This close association of confession of sin and the need for pardon with praise of God makes of confession a highly positive and dynamic feature of the spiritual life. For acknowledgement of failure and of sin of any kind, as St. Benedict suggests in his treatment of this question, is a first major step toward the life of praise of the highest of all possible good, the persons of the Blessed Trinity. For one of the immediate effects of admitting our failure to act in keeping with God’s plan for us is to put us in touch with our actual truth; it is to perceive our self as we appear in God’s sight.  

This being the case, such acknowledgement of sin is the first step taken on the path that leads to union with our Creator. To admit where we have erred is to return to the right path. It is to begin to walk in the light supplied by the wisdom and glory of God as reflected in our person and the use we have made of the faculties of our soul and body. Self-delusion hides our sins and faults from us without changing their nature; as a consequence, such delusion enhances the detrimental effect of our sins and faults rather than removing their harmful consequences. The most detrimental is perhaps the fatal defect of inner vision that leads us to call good evil and evil good.  

Another, closely related result of failure to confront and admit our selfishness and willfulness, which is at the bottom of every sin, is loss of contact with our true self and so a weakened relationship to a large portion of reality.  This state of consciousness has not only spiritual but also social and psychological consequences that are disturbing proportionately to the seriousness of our faults. The well-known psychiatrist, Scott Peck, has defined his concept of emotional and mental health in terms of reality. He viewed the personality of a healthy individual not in static terms, as a state arrived at once for all, but as a continuing achievement. “Mental health,” he writes, “is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”[‘People of the Lie’ (Simon and Schuster: N.Y., 1983) 162] While I find this definition lacking in a number of respects, what it affirms is true enough and is distilled from a broad experience with people who have lost the sense of the objective truth and even of their own reality. 

Dr. Peck drew further conclusions concerning one of the topics we are considering, namely the role of obedience in the healing of the person. It is pertinent to note that he understood that the boundary between psychology and religious belief and practice was not a sharp demarcation but that there exerted mutual influence upon one another. This is nowhere more marked than in the domain of authority and obedience. Here are his comments, made in the course of discussing the cause of his inability to help a self-absorbed woman who proved to be the most frustrating patient he ever attempted to treat. 

Mental health requires that the human will submit itself to something higher than itself. To function decently in this world we must submit ourselves to some principle that take precedence over what we might want at any given moment. For the religious this principle is God, and so they will say, “They will, not mine, be done.” But if they are sane even the nonreligious submit themselves, whether they know it or not to some “higher power”. . . (Scott, ‘People’, 162)  

After these considerations concerning the acknowledgement of sins and faults and its bearing upon the relation a person has to the true self, to society and to God, it is more comprehensible that St. Benedict associates the admission of sins with the process of purification and arriving at perfect love. For love affirms the value of the beloved; it does not terminate in its own feeling of virtue but in the good of the other. That other has existence in his own right. This is another way of saying that in order to love anyone must be open to reality. That is a minimal requirement of loving. Since sin and selfishness in all its forms remove us from our truth and the actual truth of others, the first step towards pure love is to acknowledge our sins to our self and to confess our need for forgiveness. 

There is another kind of process we must enter upon if we would complete this beginning of conversion so as to arrive at perfect love.  That is to seek out and alter the root dispositions that bind us to the sinful and selfish habits that destroy love or renders it imperfect. This effort is a daunting challenge that entails a great labor. The early monastic teachers called it ‘the work of the heart.’ For they well understood that it is in the heart that a person’s true worth is determined. Jesus, to be sure, had already taught the importance of the thoughts of the heart; the desert fathers followed up on his words and developed a spirituality based on watchfulness so as to cleanse the heart from all evil thoughts and impulses.

 Father Romano Guardini possessed a singular appreciation of what such a spirituality entailed.  He was at pains to show the spiritual significance of the heart, distinguishing it from the sentimental and romantic ways of conceiving the relation of emotions and sentiment to this faculty of the human being that is at once spiritual and affective. He observes that  

The heart is love’s vital organ. From love issues the human being. Everything in him which falls out of the range of love’s radiance falls into inhumanity, bestiality. It loses its loftiness and inwardness, the two poles of the axis on which humanity is spanned. . . . Because the humanizing of both the intellect and the senses takes place in the heart, t is largely here that it is decided whether and to what extend the intellectual and sensual powers are to merge with the religious: whether they are to be constructive or destructive, pure or sullied, genuinely transformed (for both must be: the instinct elevated and the intellect dissolved in humility) or only piously masked. [‘The Conversion of Augustine’, tr. Elinor Briefs  (The Newman Press: Maryland 1960) 44]    

This work St. Benedict does not describe in detail; that was not his gift. St. Augustine had done it before him, in any case, and, others, less gifted but profiting from Augustine’s insights have added to our understanding of the process. To this labor each Christian is called, some to devote themselves to it more directly, others through their active ministry and their daily duties which, rightly undertaken, serve to contribute to alter the dispositions of the heart. Guardini, who studied carefully the writings of Augustine, meditated at length on the specific tasks to be achieved by this work of the heart. No one has put the case better. 

To a very large extend it is in the heart that religious existence is rendered either genuine, pure, pleasing- or violent, unnatural, and ambiguous. The initial task of piety is to clear the decks, to locate life’s center, take love’s power firmly in hand. The, warmed by its proximity to the blood, the mind can become soul. Leavened by the mind, corporeity becomes body: body enlightened and transformed. Now both, humanized, are ready for the religious life.  (Guardini, 44, 45) 

For Augustine this process of purification and transformation required all his strength and more beside, as he indicates in vivid detail. Man cannot achieve this laborious work except by the grace of God. Even the preparation for the Lord’s coming is a work of grace, as he taught after his conversion. He discovered that the purification of the heart is the work of a lifetime. Guardini puts it eloquently. 

The long, slow process of experience, of growth, unfolding, seizure and struggle, action and suffering by which the young man with his unfree sensuality on the one hand, his abstract, idealistic-aesthetic intellectuality on the other, pries open the realm of the heart; the manner is which that realm, strengthened, purified, and instructed, gains power and knowledge and certainty- all this forms the central skein of Augustine’s rich and complicated development. (Guardini, 45) 

Each of us in his own measure must make the same discovery and no one can do it for us. A very large part of the energy needed to respond to the call to the contemplative life must be devoted to this struggle of confronting the deep-seated selfish tendencies of our character where they conflict with the aspirations of our spirit. This is what monastic prayer involves if it would be genuine and achieve its end. This is a work of faith and of a loving desire that refuses to be satisfied with less than God himself. Benedict has pointed out to us that fidelity to the Rule by the works of prayer and self denial we will arrive at that love which alone renders our heart pure and ready to encounter the Lord of glory at the end of our journey.&

 Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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