“There is only one sadness, not to be a saint.” -Quoted in The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain
There is a very interesting and instructive progression documented in the Rule of Benedict (RB). The final admonition in Chapter 4: 72, “never lose hope in God’s mercy,” feeds quite nicely into the final words of the RB in Chapter 73 — some 69 Chapters later. In this last Chapter, which in practice is a beginning, Benedict says that these words were written so that those who hear and heed his words will come to “loftier heights of doctrine and virtue” (emphasis mine). That is, Benedict has written his Rule as precepts of perfection.
But Benedict is also a realist. He recognizes that between the intention and the reality “falls the shadow” (T. S. Eliot). Every one of us has experienced the “shadow” falling between what we intend and what we actually accomplish. Although we have often “wept and fasted” and “wept and prayed” (T.S. Eliot), we have often found ourselves mired in failure and frustration. On some very painful level we know that “there is only one sadness, not to be a saint.”
The reminder that Benedict issues in Chapter 4: 72, “never lose hope in God’s mercy,” is therefore quite encouraging. While Christians should be concerned about and invested in holiness of life, loftier virtue, we must remember that it is only an appreciation of God’s great mercy that encourages the pursuit of Christian perfection. As the Psalmist has written, “But there is forgiveness with Thee / That Thou may be feared.” God’s forgiveness leads to celebratory fear!
When I read and reflect upon the RB I am both refreshed and rebuked. My ongoing reflections highlight how very much I need to learn and apply. And yet, as well, the RB also teaches me that growth in grace, community and God is a process. What God and Benedict want is not “rigorous or burdensome” (RB, “Prologue”), but a “school of the Lord’s service” that is intended as an “unspeakable sweetness of his love” (RB, “Prologue”).
May we all come to know such love so that the disciplines of our schooling may result in greater perfection.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.
Image above, right: War. “Nothing Harsh.” Cartoon. Don Richmond.