“It is easy to recognize the bitter spirit of wickedness which creates a barrier to God’s grace and opens the way to the evil of hell. But equally there is a good spirit which frees us from evil ways and brings us closer to God and eternal life. It is this latter spirit that all who follow the monastic way of life should strive to cultivate, spurred on by fervent love. By following this path they try to be first to show respect to one another with the greatest patience in tolerating weaknesses of body or character. They should even be ready to outdo each other in mutual obedience so that no one in the monastery aims at personal advantage but is rather concerned for the good of others. Thus the pure love of one another as of one family should be their ideal. As for God they should have a profound and loving reverence for him. They should love their abbot or abbess with sincere and unassuming affection. They should value nothing whatever above Christ himself and may he bring us all together to eternal life.”
-The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 72 (emphasis mine)
“It is easy to recognize the bitter spirit” because it always creates barriers. It creates barriers between me and my kids when I’m too busy to listen, when I’m too impatient to notice their needs. It creates barriers between me and the cashier when I’m too harried, too frustrated, too distracted to recognize that she needs a stranger to simply look her in the eye, recognize her value. It creates barriers between me and my husband because I forget he had a day of demands and excitement and frustration and wasn’t just away frolicking in grown-up land.
Mostly, the bitter spirit creates barriers between me and God because he is always in the work of giving and I am only able to notice when the walls are down between us. If I build up the barrier of bitterness, I can’t see anything. That’s when I miss the joy, that’s when I’m stuck in my own head and forget to notice that the world around me is on fire with goodness.
So, how do I fight the bitter spirit? What is St. Benedict saying to his monks about what it means to “cultivate” the “good spirit” that frees us from evil, that brings us to God? I love the image of cultivating. It’s so simple, so agrarian.
To cultivate, we break up the soil. We prepare our souls for God’s presence. I used to think that in order to prepare myself for God I had to confess every indiscretion I had possibly committed. I used to think there was no room in my messed up soul for God until I had worked hard to remove every fallacy. Then, I realized my sin was much deeper and more complicated than I ever could have understood. My bad motives were all mixed up with the good, my conscience was braided into my guilt. I couldn’t work hard enough to fix myself to make room for God. I needed grace.
So, if making space for God doesn’t mean doing surgery on my own sin, what does it mean? What does it mean to see myself as I really am and let grace work itself out in me?
I think maybe Benedict works backward here. It might be helpful for me to turn this around for us. Think of this as a cycle:
Valuing “nothing whatever above Christ himself” leads to having the “good spirit.” The good spirit leads to the possibility of “outdo[ing] each other in mutual obedience.” That leads patience in tolerating each other’s weaknesses, which leads to fervent love. Fervent love leads to “sincere and unassuming affection” for the one in authority over us. That sincerity and affection is a sign of the good spirit, a sign that Christ is valued above all else. And it goes around and around in a cycle.
Cultivating isn’t just breaking up the ground, making space. It’s offering attention to the plant. It’s weeding out the things that want to take over the ground, bring destruction. It’s removing the pests who plan to eat from the fruit before it’s ready. It’s watering daily, pruning, waiting on the plant to absorb the sun’s good nutrition.
If we are to cultivate the “good spirit” in our lives. We cannot sit idly. We must make space. We must weed. We must battle it out with the pests. We must accept water, wait on the sunshine. All of that cultivation is work; but it is not lifeless striving. There is a difference between working to shape our souls into people who value nothing above Christ and living with great guilt over our failures, beating ourselves up and missing out on the joy of letting the sun soak in and change us.
The way of grace begins with Love. The way of guilt begins with shame.
How do we value nothing above Christ himself? We recognize daily in greater and greater amounts the dearnesss of Christ’s love for us. That love is our motivation to the hard work of weeding out what’s broken within us. That love is the motivation that allows us to tolerate first our own weaknesses and (once we have seen them and know how desperate we are for grace) tolerate the weaknesses of others in our lives. Then we can love fervently. Then we can care for the ones in authority over us. And then the cycle starts again.
We only have one more chapter of Benedict’s Rule to cover next week. For eight months we’ve been working our way through this centuries old manual for communal living and life-giving faith. And I feel like this is the question it comes down to: What are you cultivating? (What are you giving your time to? What are you making space for? What are you loving?)
God is calling us to cultivate: We make space for God through prayer, through intentionally paying attention to God at work around us. We allow God to show us our weaknesses and remove the brokenness from our lives. And we sit under God’s instruction in the scripture, in the mundane, in the community of people we’ve been given. We learn the sweetness of time and patience as God’s work plays itself out—as we grow into Christ: “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith…abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 1:7).
That’s when the “good spirit” begins to hover in our heads. That’s when we live more and more deeply into The Great Commandment. We love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength and out of that overflow; we love each other fervently, with sincerity, with affection.
Maybe someday I’ll arrive in that sweet spot of faith. And if you beat me there, will you be sure to show me the “greatest patience”?