“First things first” is a common slogan that challenges us to keep our priorities in order. It reminds us to make sure that the most important things in our lives are given “first place,” that is, given priority over other aspects of our lives that are less important.
In the Rule of St. Benedict, we find elements of this same conventional wisdom: “nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God” (43.3) and “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (72:11). However, a careful reading of the text reveals an uncommon teaching. St. Benedict impresses upon his disciples that the “first things” in the life of monks are to be “last things.” Say what?!
The Rule tells monks that one of the tools for good works is: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die” (4:47). Like St. Paul and other first Christians, St. Benedict regarded all things in the realm of creation as straining forward to their fulfillment in Christ’s Second Coming. Whether one calls it the eschaton, the “Day of the Lord,” or simply “the end of the world,” there will be an end to life as we know it. We do not know the day or the hour; but it will come. In the meantime, we vigilantly wait in joyful hope, living according to the way Christ has shown us. For Christians, our ultimate purpose and destination is eternal life in Christ, so we are to act as if this reality is already present. We live as citizens in God’s Kingdom, according to God’s law of love for both neighbor and enemies. Everything else pales in comparison.
The life of a monk, that is, one who is monos and lives for God alone, is to give radical witness to the core Christian belief of eternal life. By forsaking all else—money, family, career, social status, personal freedoms, etc.—the monk steps out of conventional life in society to proclaim the primacy of a much greater reality. It isn’t that monks, or any other vowed religious, are significantly holier than anyone else; rather, it is that everlasting life in Christ is intentionally regarded as first and foremost in one’s daily living. And, as much as ever, this is a very difficult task to undertake when seemingly endless, pressing needs and the flood of information coming at us from all directions seek to deter us from our life’s intentional focus.
The various forms of monastic discipline described in the Rule of St. Benedict, are tools to assist us in remaining focused, attentive, vigilant, and ready for meeting Christ—in silence, in the neighbor, in the guest, in the stranger, in the poor, in the sick, in the young, and in the old alike. Stopping all other activities for common prayer throughout the day speaks to the limited relevance of all other matters. Monastic obedience, common ownership, reverent use of monastery items, moderate consumption of food and drink, and established times for silence and holy leisure are undertaken for the same purpose—remaining focused, attentive, vigilant, and ready for meeting Christ. St. Benedict writes, “We must run and do now what will profit us forever” (Prol. 44).
During this 34th Week in Ordinary Time on the liturgical calendar, when the end of one liturgical year is tethered to the beginning of another, it is appropriate to consider that the things which last forever—love, peace, hope, etc.—are the “first things” we are to put into our lives each day. With these priorities securely situated in our mind and heart, everything else seems to fall into place naturally. When God is first, even in community and in families, we shall all arrive together at everlasting life with “hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” (RB Prol. 49)
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB
Photo above is of the Pantocrator apse mosaic at the Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. The Pantocrator image is a Byzantine image of Christ as the ruler of the universe, blessing with his right hand and holding a book of the Gospels in his left. See image source here.