“Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ” says St. Benedict in Chapter 72 of his Rule, the chapter entitled “The Good Zeal of Monks.” I have been reflecting on this phrase repeatedly in the last several weeks trying to unearth not only what our Holy Father Benedict meant for the monks of his day but also what this means for monks (both men and women) today.
The Latin verb praepono used by St. Benedict in his text is translated as “to prefer” in English; however, something is lost in translation. The original meaning of the Latin verb is “to place in command in front of or before” in reference to a level of authority or power. The English word “prefer” lacks this emphasis. (Preferring Christ to all else is not in the same league as preferring one’s favorite ice cream flavor to all others.) So, St. Benedict’s vision of good zeal for monks is that Christ be for them the highest command or authority over everything else in their lives. Every student and disciple of St. Benedict and his Rule would nod their head at this interpretation.
Putting this into practice in the concrete reality of life in today’s world is far more challenging than it sounds. When it comes to ordinary day-to-day decisions about mundane things, how does “preferring nothing whatever to Christ” look? For example, choosing where to sit in the dining room for supper. We do not sit by rank or any other specified arrangement in our monastic dining room. This allows the opportunity for everyone to mix and mingle and visit with one another like a regular family would. Surely Christ doesn’t care where we sit? Or, does he?
The new commandment of Christ to his disciples is, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). Thus, no matter how insignificant, every choice is to be guided by a spirit of love. In this way, my choice of seating ought not be an occasion of exercising self-will—sitting only with the Sisters that I like to converse with at table, sitting always at the tables that go through the food line first or skipping out on supper altogether because I do not like the meal that was prepared by the staff. Rather, I recognize that Christ has called me to this place at this time to live a common life with these others whom he has called to this monastery. Sharing the common table is an exercise of our communion. Being present is a priority. Being present to each and to all members equally with a true sisterly love is the ideal we are called to live out each day. Perhaps Christ would have me choose to sit with the last and the least among us as freely as anywhere else.
The good zeal of monks is to be shaped and determined by the mind of Christ. This good zeal is to be applied to any and all circumstances so that with regular repetition it becomes a natural habit. “May [Christ] bring us all together to everlasting life.” RB 72:12
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB