April 30, August 30, December 30
Chapter 72: On the Good Zeal Which They Ought to Have
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 sisters should practice
with the most fervent love.
Thus they should anticipate one another in honor (Rom. 12:10);
most patiently endure one another's infirmities,
whether of body or of character;
vie in paying obedience one to another --
no one following what she considers useful for herself,
but rather what benefits another;
tender the charity of sisterhood chastely;
fear God in love;
love their Abbess with a sincere and humble charity;
prefer nothing whatever to Christ.
And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!
This chapter, full of self-evident and beautiful prose should serve
as a short rule of life, a summary of all that has gone before it.
Live this one, and you're all right: the details from the other
chapters will take care of themselves. Little wonder then that its
principal points are love, obedience and humility, practiced in the
chastity of wholeness. (Chastity, it must be recalled, is proper to
every state in life. It is the well-ordered, balanced and whole use
of sexuality.) Even less wonder that, to call Scripture in to witness
here, "the greatest of these is love." Merton's one-line Holy Rule
summary also applies: "Love is the Rule."
The beauty here is so great that we often do not spend enough time
looking at its converse: "the evil zeal of bitterness." What a great
turn of phrase! Like many of us, St. Benedict seems to have known
some whose bitterness turned into an energetic zeal, a way of life, a
broken power line in a windy world that could strike others or
themselves without warning.
And "zeal" is precisely the word! People can put such frighteningly
zealous levels of effort into self-loathing bitterness. It becomes a
full-time job, one which requires so much energy that it's a marvel
that they continue.
Bitter anger, self-hatred, unforgiving ill-will towards all or most,
these are viciously involuted cycles. They turn on the self,
malignantly. They injure and alienate others to make one's twisted
world view remain correct. They never rest, the fist is always
clenched, the hand never open.
Someone years ago wrote a book about suicide titled "The Savage God."
The premise was that the illness which caused suicide was like some
pagan deity that destroyed its adherents, an apt enough assessment.
But evil zeal is a savage god, too. Unlike suicide which leads to
death, this one insists on a long and horrible end in prison.
I have known two monks with this dreadful problem, both now long
dead. Thank heavens, they both persevered to the end and one hopes
that was enough, because, frankly, little else could be said for
them. They both guaranteed that their own lives were hell and pretty
much ensured smaller doses of hell for the rest of us living with
When I was much younger and living with those embittered monks, it
was hard to look at them with much pity or calm. It isn't now, thank
God, and I have spent considerable time praying for both of them, as
well as for a few of their "runners-up"! While all things are
possible with God, the terrible thing is that this self-hatred never
gets fixed in some people. It is a life sentence. Then, prayer is the
In any situation, but perhaps worse when the sufferer is one's spouse
or parent or child, this bitterness is a terrible cross, for both the
sufferer and those around her. It might seem cold comfort to say that
it can make all involved saints, but it truly is not cold comfort at
all. Being saints is the only thing, ultimately, that matters. I hope
by now some of my crosses of the past are praying for me, protecting
me, by their prayers, from what once ailed them!
Love and prayers,