From Reflections On The Prologue Of Benedict’s Rule
In the same way, Paul the Apostle did not attribute anything of his preaching
to himself but said, “It is by God’s grace that I am what I am.”
There is a growing trend these days for authors to include a lengthy list of acknowledgements at the beginning or end of their books. I am often bemused by these, especially when they include those who were simply hired for their services. Cynic that I am, I often wonder whether this is not just an elaborate form of political correctness rather than a sincere admission of indebtedness. The same holds for winners of Academy Awards and other forms of social recognition. Am I really expected to be gushingly grateful to the obstetrician who delivered me? In the event that I had not been successful, would these people whom I now acknowledge still have been the recipients of my thanks? Do I feel grateful only when things go well?
Gratitude is a beautiful human quality but it can easily be counterfeited. The most genuine form of gratitude is, it seems to me, not merely saying, “Thank you.” It is a matter of mentally recomposing the whole narrative of my life to show more clearly the positive role that my benefactor has had in its evolution. I am truly grateful when the other person is an integral part of my self-image. If I were to speak about myself I could not but also speak about those to whom I am grateful – and this in hard times as well as when all runs smoothly. I would want to recount, with specifics, what they have been for me. I would understand these people to be an essential part of my story. This is why in the psalms one form of praise (so-called descriptive praise) is to describe what God has done in detail. God has created the world in all its beauty and intervened in the history of his people; God has made known to us the way to eternal life and has promised support and sustenance on our journey. This is why we praise God.
When it comes to my own life, it is easy to say, with Saint Paul, “It is by God’s grace that I am what I am,” without much more than a casual nod in God’s direction. It is the kind of thing that good people are expected to say. It can have no more meaning than the jubilant sign of the cross soccer players from traditionally Catholic countries make when they score a goal. Words and gestures are one thing; inner conviction is something else.
Are we to limit our gratitude to those occasions when life seems to fulfill our expectations? When we see ourselves as winners it is easy to be generous in our praise of others and in our recognition of the gifts given by God. How is it at other times? It takes an extraordinary person to wake up each morning grateful for the gift of a new day, for the challenges, the sacrifices, the failures, and even the sins that it will bring. Our day-to-day life is mostly a mixed bag of blessings and burdens. To God be all praise for the blessings, but what about the moments when life is hard and no prospect of improvement is likely?
Gratitude to God is the fruit of faith, not the result of success, a sunny temperament, or the approval of others. We are grateful to God even when things go wrong because we have given assent to the proposition that “all things work together unto good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:28) We admit that our judgment is not always right; when it seems to us that things have gone wrong, our faith asks us to believe that in God’s sight there is a purpose. Saint Benedict quotes the psalm: “It is good for me that you have laid me low. . . so that I may learn your commandments.” (Psalm 118:71-73) God reveals himself to us just as much through failure as through success. Surely it is our experience that it is often easier to find God in hard times than when everything is brilliant. As Bishop Helder Camara wrote, “The Lord is there. He is far less likely to abandon us in hardship than in times of ease.”
Praise of God walks or runs on two legs – the recognition of the magnanimity of God and the acknowledgement of our own difficulties and failures. The Latin word confessio, as used by Saint Benedict, spans both meanings. In the same way the Confessions of Saint Augustine and the Confession of Saint Patrick are not just the listing of sins committed, but the joyful recognition of the God who has delivered from the burden of guilt and sin and who is worthy of all thanks and praise.
“It is by God’s grace that I am what I am” – warts and all. When I survey the landscape of my giftedness, it is not hard to praise God as its origin. There is, however, another side to my life that I hope will never intrude into public awareness. This is the shameful history of my selfishness and hardheartedness. For this I alone seem responsible. Indeed, this appears to be what Saint Benedict is saying in the fourth chapter of his Rule: “If he sees anything good in himself, let him refer it to God and not to himself. But let him know that the evil is always from himself and take responsibility for it.” (Rule of Benedict 4:42-43) That makes sense at one level, but is it the whole story?
I do not want to appear to be ascribing to God the ugliness that is entirely my own creation. What I am saying is that the aspects of my life that are displeasing to me are not outside God’s plan; they are designed to bring me to fuller realization of the unconditional character of God’s love. If I were all sunshine and light I could easily believe that God loves me because of my inherent goodness and that, in some way, I have made myself eminently worthy of that love. That seems to be a harmless enough delusion, but it is not. What do you think will happen when eventually I fall into some action that even I cannot deny, excuse, or rationalize? The logical conclusion will be that because of my misconduct God no longer loves me. My shame will quickly lead me to despair, as though God could be surprised and disgusted by the way human beings act.
Here’s what the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich has to say about this situation:
For, in truth, we shall see in Heaven for all eternity that though we have sinned grievously in this life, we were never hurt in God’s love, nor were we ever of less value in God’s sight. This falling is a test by which we shall have a high and marvelous knowing of love in God forever. That love [of God] is hard and marvelous that cannot and will not be broken for our trespasses.
In love mercy allows us to fail somewhat, and in failing we fall, and in falling we die. Our failing is full of fear; our falling is marked by sin; our dying is sorrowful. Yet in all this the sweet eye of pity never departs from us and the working of mercy never ceases. (Revelation 14, chapters 61, 48)
It is true that it is by God’s grace that we are what we are and by God’s grace we have been preserved from countless calamities of our own making. Even though we fall short of our own hopes and expectations, it is by God’s grace that we are what we are. God has a plan for us, of which we have only the sketchiest knowledge. Let us allow God to get on with the work and not delay its outcome either by taking credit for what meets with our approval or by becoming downcast when we are plunged into the mystery of our own resistance. “It is by God’s grace that I am what I am.” Whatever I have I have received from God, and whatever I have become, it is part of the mystery of Providence. As always, the bottom line is this: I can never be beyond the pale of divine mercy.