One of my favourite chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict is titled, “If a Brother Is Commanded to Do Impossible Things.” There are times in our experience when our perceived responsibilities seem to extend far beyond what we think we can reasonably accomplish.
“If it happens that difficult or impossible tasks are laid on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of the one in authority with all meekness and obedience. But if he sees that the weight of the burden altogether exceeds the limit of his strength, let him submit the reasons for his inability to the one who is over him in a quiet way and at an opportune time, without pride, resistance, or contradiction. And if after these representations the Superior still persists in his decision and command, let the subject know that this is for his good, and let him obey out of love, trusting in the help of God” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 68).
There are times when the burden of the day seems more than I can bear; the difficulty being twofold. First, two or three tasks are pressing and foremost in my mind, but I have not objectified the “Do List,” and what I end up doing is fretting over them instead of strategizing what needs to be done. Second, I don’t recognize the limit of what ought to be done in a day. Yesterday’s tasks, done, or not done, are past. A few of them migrate onto today’s Do List. Some of them, it turns out, didn’t really need to be done, or at least, not by me. Tomorrow’s tasks cannot be accomplished today; they perhaps can be scheduled, and at best organized. The latter, if done too soon, may be a useless spinning of wheels; when tomorrows task becomes today’s task, the organization is often more effective.
There is another important element that needs to be recognized. It is important to live with a mixture of courage and forgiveness. Benedict allows for our weakness by allowing us to acknowledge what we think are our reasons for not being able to accomplish a task. The recognition of personal limitations is after all a basic principle in spirituality. The psalmist says, “I am a man who has no strength. I am shut in so that I cannot escape. I am helpless” (Psalm 88:4, 8, 15 ESV, RSV).
We, however, have a tendency to be very hard on ourselves, and even though personal limitations are not sin, we need to hold ourselves in forgiveness; forgiveness for the vaguer guilt of not being able to live up to our own expectations of ourselves, or the expectations of others. This must be balanced by the recognition that God gives strength above and far beyond our limited abilities. The psalmist also says, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Psalm 144:1).
Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, calls us to respond to the challenge of each day with courage. Benedict recommends that we meet the challenge of the day out of love, trusting in the help of God. Hear the word of the Lord, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9). Be clear about this simple reality, the Lord is with you; take courage as you go forth to meet the labours of the day.