It is important, however, to realize that the change willed by God is not the change that indicates nonacceptance of us as we are but that change foreseen by a creative vision that can perceive as-yet unrealized potentialities in us. In God’s eyes there is no limit to what we can become… We often think of conversion as being a change from a life of sin to a life of virtue; more often it is a matter of being called forth from our harmless comfort zone to take a less-traveled road into strange and unfamiliar territory.
— Michael Casey OCSO, The Road to Eternal Life: Reflections on the
Prologue of Benedict’s Rule
Michael Casey is not only my favorite living Cistercian author, he is one of my favorite contemplative authors of any tradition. Deeply rooted both in scripture and in the Cistercian classics, his writing is nevertheless contemporary, relevant, and accessible, even to us who live outside of the walls of a cloister. Casey’s book on lectio divina, Sacred Reading, is the most-recommended book on the topics by the monks of Holy Spirit Monastery; while his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Fully Human Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology, lays out the most succinct exploration of deification I know of, not as some arcane theological theory but as a real-world principle of Christian discipleship, relevant to ordinary followers of Jesus like you and me.
A few years ago Casey created a podcast devoted to the Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict. Over the course of a year, he strolled leisurely through the fifty verses of the prologue, offering his insightful reflections on Benedict’s teachings, literally word by word. The podcast itself seems to be no longer available online, which is a shame — hopefully at some point Casey’s abbey will re-publish it. But for now, the transcript of those podcasts have been made available in Casey’s The Road to Eternal Life: Reflections on the Prologue of Benedict’s Rule. And while reading the text lacks the immediacy of the monk’s voice, it’s a wonderful tool for reflection and study: indeed, this book could (and should) be read in the lectio divina method, that is to say, slowly, prayerfully, as a way to seek wisdom to illuminate your own journey into the heart of God.
Virtually every verse, in Casey’s hands, becomes a doorway into considering how Saint Benedict, writing in the sixth century, made the wisdom of the Gospel relevant and immediate for the monks under his care — and how his insights remain useful and inspiring after nearly 1500 years. Along the way, Casey muses on the deleterious effects of Cartesian dualism, the nature of true humility and its surprising relationship to sin, the relationship between choice, commitment, and true freedom; why a juridical understanding of sin probably is far less effective than a therapeutic understanding (in other words, sin is less a crime that merits punishment, than a sickness from which we long to be healed).
Although Benedict’s prologue could easily be misunderstood as a dualistic document, heavily emphasizing the chasm between those who submit to God versus those who don’t, Casey adeptly keeps his commentary trained on the sophistication with which Benedict understood the dynamics of divine grace, human longing, and human resistance, as intricately woven together in each person: we are all sinners and we are all potential saints. This unitive vision is, frankly, more terrifying than the easier dualistic way of thinking about sin and grace as carefully managed forces in the universe that separate out the sheep from the goats. But perhaps when we try to read the Gospel (or St. Benedict) through such a dualistic lens, it is driven by our need/desire to manage and control the circumstances of our lives — even if that means attempting to manage/control God and God’s grace! But through Casey’s thoughtful reflections, we can see that Benedict’s understanding of both human nature and Divine grace was much more nuanced than that.
Toward the end of The Road to Eternal Life, Casey notes:
Many people are surprised and even disappointed that the way mapped out by Saint Benedict is not more mystical. There are no tricks on the way to contemplative prayer; it is simply a matter of learning from the One who is meek and humble of heart not to pay back evil with evil, nor harsh words with reproaches or withdrawal.
Casey makes it sound easy, doesn’t he? And yet, he knows as well as Benedict did that even these tasks remain elusive, beyond us. Hence the finality of our dependence on God’s grace. Such grace, operating in hidden ways within us, is really as mystical as it gets. The only “mysticism” lacking from Benedict (or Casey’s interpretation of the prologue) is the flashy mysticism that is anchored in gee-whiz experiences rather than in the slow, unglamorous, but life-transforming journey toward compassion, forgiveness, and mind-and-heart-expanding metanoia. I think I’ll stick with that kind of mystical life, thank you very much. For at the end of the day, love is better than the coolest of experiences. Thankfully, Saint Benedict is a brilliant teacher of love — and Michael Casey a luminous interpreter of his teaching.