Tag Archives: spiritual disciplines

Saint Benedict’s Toolbox

What do Baptists and Benedictines have in common? Not much other than they both start with the same letter. On second thought, that’s not true. Both movements began as radical attempts to get back to first-century Christianity. Benedictines remained within the established Church but withdrew from the world. Baptists remained in the world but withdrew from the established Church. Only by the early seventeenth century when the first Baptist churches formed, the established Church in England was no longer Roman Catholic but Anglican.

I, a Baptist, find myself drawn to the Rule of St. Benedict as a practical guide to Christian living. Even though it was written specifically for silent monks a millennium and a half ago, it still speaks to anyone who will “incline the ear of [their] heart.” In fact, Benedict offered his “little rule for beginners” as a gift to all, addressing it to “whoever you may be.”

In chapter 4, the Rule enumerates seventy-two “tools” of spiritual craftsmanship. Among these are some usual suspects such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, as well as some of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shalt not covet.” Others are more monastic in flavor: “Love fasting,” “Love not much talking,” and “Love chastity.” My favorite is number twenty-one: “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” In chapter 43, the Rule says, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” referring to the Liturgy of the Hours, the set times of communal prayer in a monastery. Thus, the Rule equates prayer and loving Christ, since both are identified as the pinnacle of Christian spiritual practice—that to which nothing should be preferred.

One thing that strikes me is how Benedict begins and ends his list of spiritual tools. He begins where Jesus began, telling his hearers “to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.” That’s number one, and it’s a positive command. He ends with a negative command. Number seventy-two says, “And never despair of God’s mercy.” These two form the bookends of spiritual disciplines. I believe Benedict positioned them intentionally. Those who attempt to love God by obeying his commands and living a good life ultimately fail. No one can love God perfectly, keep the commandments continually, or practice spiritual disciplines consistently, even in a monastery. The temptation then is to wallow in self-pity. Self-pity makes you want to give up, feeling you’re not good enough for God. That’s why Benedict ends by telling us what not to do: never despair of God’s mercy. No one is so far gone they can’t be forgiven and restored. No one.

A monk was once asked, “What do you do there in the monastery?” He replied: “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.” That’s a picture of the Christian life outside the monastery too.

The tools in St. Benedict’s ancient toolbox for monks can help anyone live a healthy spiritual life today. Even a Baptist.

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The Way Up Is Down

Rembrandt Ascension

Today is Ascension Sunday when many Christians celebrate Jesus’ miraculous return to Heaven. It has inspired great Christian art like the Rembrandt painting above and musical masterpieces such as Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”

If it weren’t for Luke, we’d know almost nothing about the ascension. He gives us a brief description at the end of his Gospel and an extended one at the beginning of the Book of Acts (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:9-11). Matthew and John don’t mention the ascension at all, and Mark simply says that Jesus “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19b). But this verse is in the disputed longer ending that’s not in several of the oldest manuscripts of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). There’s even a difference between the way Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts describe the event. The Gospel identifies the location as Bethany; Acts implies that it was on the Mount of Olives “about a Sabbath day’s journey away” from Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). (Why did the disciples leave Jerusalem after Jesus had ordered them not to? Acts 1:4, cf. 1:12). Acts suggests the ascension took place forty days after Jesus was raised from the dead (Acts 1:3); Luke’s Gospel makes no mention of this forty-day period and gives the impression that it took place at the end of the first Easter Day. I hope you won’t let these facts trouble you or cause you to doubt the importance of Jesus’ ascension.

The ascension completed Jesus’ journey from heaven and back again. He descended from heaven to earth and from earth to the grave – down, down, down. Then he ascended from the grave to the earth and back to heaven – up, up, up. The Apostle Paul says, “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). In his descent and ascent, Jesus demonstrated the paradoxical truth that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, 18:14). Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Through humility you may ascend to sublimity.” The way up is down!

The ascension can be seen as a metaphor for spiritual progress. Ascent was easy for Jesus because he wasn’t weighed down by sin. It’s difficult for us because our sins weigh us down like an anchor. Jesus floated up to heaven like a helium-filled balloon. We have to climb Mount Everest. Spiritual maturity doesn’t come suddenly and unexpectedly like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. It comes from years and years of hard work, through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, spiritual reading, fasting, and Christian service. How will we know when we’ve arrived? When we come to that perfect love of God that casts out fear. Love is the hallmark of spiritual ascent, because God is love (1 John 4:8b). The closer we get to God, the more the love of God is perfected in us.

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