Good Zeal and Life Together

Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting. This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honor; most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another–no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another; tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; fear God in love; love their abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!
The Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 72, On that Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have

M. Scott Peck has said, “Marriage is a monastery of two,” and the genius of the Rule of St. Benedict is that it is a layman’s rule for monks, which in so many ways translates so readily–or so it seems to me–to life lived non-monastically, that is to say, “in the world” (as opposed to “the desert”). One example of this felicitous translation is the above, chapter seventy-two of the rule.

The exhortations of the chapter–honoring another before oneself, patiently enduring another’s infirmities, considering what is good for and helpful to another before oneself (that gift of mutual obedience, etymologically, to listen to or hear from another), chaste love for another, the loving fear of God, and the preference for nothing else ahead of Christ–all are simply put the Gospel. The last shall be first. Forgive your brother seventy-times-seven, each time he repents. Serve rather than be served. Take up your cross and follow me. And so forth.

What is interesting, to me, however, is that these exhortations are by way of preserving good zeal, the zeal which rids us of our vices (infirmities of body and soul), and which unites us to God (life everlasting), the zeal which we are to practice with fervent love. (I do not have the Latin near to hand, but note how often love and charity occur in this short chapter.) That is to say, it is not that we have zeal and then fulfill these exhortations. Rather, these exhortations engender that good zeal within us.

This is how it has always been in classic Christianity. We do before (or even if we do not) feel. We do before we know. Classical Christianity knew little of what we think of today when we speak of “authenticity.” In today’s world, led by romanticism, feelings “authenticate” actions, and hypocrisy is a lack of feeling more than it is anything else. But for Christians authenticity has little if indeed anything to do with feelings. Words are authenticated by actions. That is classical authenticity. Feelings are more often than not a temptation rather than a blessing.

In the ancient Church, catechumens went through the initiatory rites of the Church–Baptism, Chrismation and then Holy Communion–and then had these mysteries explained to them. During their catechumenate–traditionally lasting for three years–they were schooled in the basics, but were not given classes in theology and the history of the Liturgy. Their paedagogy was moral: practice the virtues, avoid the vices, fast, say the Lord’s prayer at the three (or five) hours of prayer, hear the Scriptures (they did not have their own personal copies, you understand) and so on. They did not–if you’ll pardon the anachronisms–read St. Gregory Palamas, the Philokalia and the Ladder of Divine Ascent, or contemplate the energy/essences distinction. Doing first. Understanding later.

So, too, with zeal. Consider others before yourself–what is useful to them, what maintains fidelity and loyalty to them, patiently loving them with all their weaknesses and failures. This what makes a good marriage. It is what makes for good friendships. It is what makes for a good parish. It is, of course, simply the constitution of the practical life of the Kingdom. It is what Christians do.

May God enable us to do these things, and in his mercy provide the zeal to carry us forward in these very same things, and into greater union with him, and so also with one another.

Holy Father Saint Benedict, pray for us.

4 thoughts on “Good Zeal and Life Together

  1. Very nice post! It’s good to see other Orthodox out there blogging about St Benedict from time to time. Are you following the traditional daily readings from the Rule?

    By the way, I would just add that the ‘Ladder’ is traditionally considered a book on the ‘active’ life (see St Ignatius Brianchaninov, ‘The Arena’, p. 22) and in fact WOULD constitute proper reading for those who are learning to practice the virtues. But I think you are largely right about the ‘Philokalia’ and St Gregory Palamas (except for his homilies).

  2. Thank you.

    Yes, I do follow the daily readings–and as you no doubt guessed, read the above chapter yesterday. I’ve got two or three other posts on the Rule in the hopper and have a few items already posted in the past few years (search the blog with St Benedict should yield some results).

    Thanks for the correction regarding the Ladder. My priest has in the past cautioned me against it (being newly Orthodox), so I was going more from my personal experience than anything else.

    I have a copy of St. Gregory’s homilies on the Mother of God which I’ve dipped my toe into but haven’t read slowly. I look forward to it.

  3. Well, your priest is right in that it’s probably too overwhelming for most recent converts. Either you will throw up your hands in despair, or you will fall into complete delusion thinking you can attain to the lofty heights of asceticism St John extols!

    I had to think for a second to realise that might have been yesterday’s reading from the RB for you. I follow the dates according to the Old Calendar, so you’re thirteen days ahead of me!

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