St Benedict, Stability, Discontentedness and the Goodness of God

Fourth and finally, there are the monks called gyrovagues, who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites. In every way they are worse than the sarabaites. The Rule of St Benedict, 1.10-11

Thus, we have become acquainted with the coenobitic monks, or monks who live in community, the hermits or anchorites, those blameworthy sarabaites (who live in twos and threes and follow their own wills and desires calling holy whatever they want), and the gyrovagues. St Benedict* will spend the entirety of his “rule for beginners” on the cenoebitic monks. But at the outset he gives this warning. In contrast to the gyrovagues, the Benedictine monk will vow stability: “from this day [of his monastic vows] he is no longer free to leave the monastery . . .” (Rule 58.15).

Why is stability so important for the Benedictine monk? Because it is the external constraint on the monk’s will–which has been freely given in oath–which provides humility. And from humility the monk will learn contentedness.

Not a few times, St Benedict warns the monks against grumbling. In the chapters on excommunication, one of the first faults listed (the others are stubbornness, disobedience and pride) is grumbling. And back of grumbling is discontentedness. Indeed, discontentedness is such a poison upon the soul, that St Benedict proscribes that the beds of the older and senior monks be interspersed in the dormitory among the younger monks, so that on arising, “they will quietly encourage one another, for the sleepy like to make excuses” (The Rule of St Benedict 22.8). I do not think there is any more time of day more conducive to grumbling than awakening at the beginning of the day. (This despite the fact that the psalmist speaks of the noonday demon, which the monks name acedia.)

Discontentedness may arise from faintheartedness. We may be confronted with struggles larger than we have ever imagined, or lasting so long, we grow weary and lose courage. Our eyes begin to wander and look elsewhere. St Benedict is quite strict with monastics who travel from the monastery. If their journey is short, they are not even to eat outside the monastery. But if their journey is long, they are to observe the hours of prayer where they are. And when these journeying brothers return,

they should, on the very day of their return, lie face down on the floor of the oratory at the conclusion of each of the customary hours of the Work of God They ask the prayers of all for their faults, in case they have been caught off guard on the way by seeing some evil thing or hearing some idle talk. (The Rule of St Benedict 67.3-4)

To this faintheartedness, St Benedict does not offer coddling. He is pragmatic and realistic. At the outset he gently warns:

Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road the leads to salvation It is bound to be narrow at the outset. The Rule of St Benedict, Prologue 48

Fundamentally, however, both grumbling and faintheartedness are results of the failure to remember the goodness of God. Grumbling is that pride of heart that says implicitly, I deserve better than this. If God were good to me, or more good to me, I’d get thus and so. It is a failure to see that God is absolutely good and that all that we have are good and perfect gifts from above. The only remedy for grumbling is, I have been told, constant and unrelenting thanksgiving.

Faintheartedness is the failure to remember that God is good now, in this time of struggle. The fainthearted may affirm the goodness of God in the future, may believe that God will bring blessing, that things will get better. But the fainthearted fails to remember that God is always good, even and especially now in this moment of testing. It may well be that one remedy for faintheartedness is to see what is sometimes hard to see: that this struggle one is facing is not a surprise to God, it has not caught him flatfooted. He well knew it long before the world was made. And therefore that he has allowed it means and can only mean that his goodness is in it. This is not calling evil good. It is calling God, Lord. And if Lord, Christ is Victor, and in him we are more than victors.

It may seem impossible to remember that God is good and all that he allows us is for good. More than the seeming impossibility to remember, even more to actually cultivate this state of heart. In the face of these illnesses of the soul, grumbling and faintheartedness, St Benedict reminds us

We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for the battle of holy obedience to his instructions. What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace. The Rule of St Benedict, Prologue 40-41

*There is no need for my purposes to discern between critical understandings of the relation between the Rule of the Master and the Rule of St Benedict.