Monday, May 30, 2016

Nilling and Willing: The Spiritual Challenge

I ran into an apt but unusual word in a fresh translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions by Garry Wills.  The word is, “nill” for “will not”, or for “negate.”  Here is the sentence that I find so remarkable:

“This is all I wanted, to nill my own will, will yours.”[1]

            How difficult that is!  For Augustine it was as painful a process as it is for us.  He says, “But where I was going no ship or carriage or walking could take me … Not only going but arriving there was simply a matter of willing it—but willing it with a strong and unified will, not a partial and wounded will, one jerking and lunging, part of it surging, part of it sinking,”[2]

On this side of the decision to surrender there is uncertainty; we cannot see the way before us, and looking at ourselves we cannot see how we can possibly take the next step.  What Augustine discovered with much despair and tears was that “there is a sickness of the soul, weighed down by compulsions that impede its response to the truth.  In that sense there are two wills, each halfhearted, each lacking what the other has.”[3] Within each one of us there are those same two wills struggling against each other.  With Augustine we cry out, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

            But this was neither academic nor impersonal.  He says, “But I, in my hesitation over whether to serve the Lord at last, as I had long been disposed to do, was the same man willing as was nilling, both were me.  For my willing was as halfhearted as my nilling.  I was at war within, was exiled from myself.”[4]

            What was it that held him back?  “The triflingest things, the very hollowest things of the hollow-headed, had stalled me – my entrenched lusts, plucking me back by my fleshly clothing, whispering low: Can you cast us off? And: From this moment, never more to be with us!  And: From this moment, never to do this! … they no longer flaunted themselves before me on my way, but were tittering behind me, as if furtively picking at me while I pulled away from them, trying to make me look back.”[5]  

We may think that we do not struggle with the same things that Augustine was struggling with, but we have our own interior conflicts.  One of the problems with making up our minds to actually diet is our difficulty with accepting that what is called for is a surrender to a new pattern of living, not just doing without a few things until we get our weight down to a more comfortable level.  With Augustine hear the voice of our favourite temptations saying, “Can you cast us off? And: From this moment, never more to be with us!  And: From this moment, never to do this!”  Temporary dieting is one thing, surrendering to a new way of living is another.

There is in Augustine’s Confession the pain of abandonment of long fondled lusts and desires that tugs at the human soul (psyche – soul, self).  This is not easy stuff to endure, but the warning of St. Benedict sounds in my ear, “death lies close by the gate of pleasure.”[6]  Augustine then hears Lady Self-Control teasing with smiling insistence, “Why do you stand alone, which is no standing at all?  Throw yourself on him!  Do you think he will not stay your fall?  Give up fear, and throw yourself—he will catch you, and will heal you.”[7]

            The surrender when it comes, comes with sweet relief.  He picks up the book in the garden and reads, ‘“Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ the Lord, leaving no further allowance for fleshly desires.’  The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced.”[8]  It is at this point that he finally is able to declare, “This is all I wanted, to nill my own will, will yours.”[9]

            The conflict of St. Augustine is the conflict of everyman.  That is the crunch point … willing and nilling, that calls us all to renewed surrenders.  Letting go is scary, because, after all it is the self that we are letting go.  It is Jesus who said, “Whoever would save his life (psyche – soul, or self) will lose it, but whoever loses his life (soul, or self) for my sake will find it.”[10]  We are hard learners and often must reach the point of utter helplessness before we let go, be still, let drop, relax, and know that he is God.[11]  Then, O the blessed relief of being out from under.

Willing and Nilling and the Bondservant

            I have long been drawn to an image of commitment in Exodus, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out for nothing … But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the door or the door post.  And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”[12] Forever is a very long time.  Lord, I would be your slave, your bondservant forever.

            I note the mixed, very human motives.  The master has given the servant a wife and she has born him children in his servitude.  He loves his master, and he also loves his wife and children.  I can’t help reading this with a little “upstairs, downstairs” overtone from my own cultural background.  To be downstairs in that context is not to be in a place of disgrace, but in a place where one’s service gives positive shape and meaning to one’s life. That is a far cry from the abusive slavery of the American South.  Take for instance the character of Bunter, Valet to Lord Peter Wimsey, in the Dorothy Sayers novels.  Bunter is an honourable and admirable man.  As for me, I am the bondservant of the King and it is my delight to serve Him!

I am drawn particularly to the finality of the decision; one bears visibly the mark of his slavery by wearing an ear ring.  The New International Version translation of Psalm 40 picks the theme up with clarity, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.  Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll.  I desire to do your will, O my God, your law is written in my heart.”[13]

In effect, with Augustine, I pray, “This is all I wanted, to nill my own will, will yours.”  You, Jesus, my Lord, give my life the only meaning I have.  My life is hidden with you in God, [14] You, are in your Father, and you are in me, and I in you.[15]  

            There is implicit suffering both in the Surrender of the Christ to his bond service to the Father, and in my own humanity and weakness.  From time to time I shrink from suffering, but with Paul, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”[16]

The surrender to your will, O my God, and the sufferings you endured are reflected in the Letter to the Hebrews where Psalm 40:6-8 is directly applied to you.  You lived your earthly life in perfect surrender to the will of your own Father, you taking the form of a servant [17], nilling your own will, and praying for us and in us, “Remove this cup from me.  Yet not what I will but what you will.”[18]

You in me, and I in you; you make for me the perfect surrender that I cannot make but only desire, but desire it I do, and strive for it ‘I will’ to do, praying my own prayer in your words, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  You bid me follow you, and then you give me the grace to do so, saying, “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.[19] My Lord, “This is all I wanted, to nill my own will, will yours.”[20]

[1]          Garry Wills, Saint Augustine: Confessions, (London:Penguin Classics, 2006), IX, 1:7.
[2]          Ibid. VIII, 5.
[3]          Ibid.
[4]         Ibid.
[5]         Ibid.
[6]         The Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 7, On Humility
[7]         Ibid.
[8]         Ibid.
[9]         Ibid. IX, 1:7
[10]       Matthew 16:25
[11]       Psalm 46:10
[12]       Exodus 21:2, 5-6
[13]       Psalm 40:6-8
[14]       Colossians 3:3
[15]       John 14:20
[16]       Colossians 1:24
[17]       Philippians 2:7
[18]       Mark 14:36
[19]       Philippians 2:12b-13

[20]       Garry Wills, IX, 1:7.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


It is impossible to read the Rule of St. Benedict without noting St. Benedict’s constant appeal to Holy Scripture as the primary source for his formulation of the Rule itself. Benedict makes this clear in his prologue:

That is why the Lord says in the Gospel: Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; the floods came and the wind blew and beat against this house, but it did not fall: it was founded on the rock (Matthew 7:24).

With this conclusion, the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teaching.[i]

In many places Benedict refers to Holy Scripture as the source of his teaching, notably, and in this order, and starting with a strong predominance of verses from the Psalms, then the Gospels, Proverbs, and the Epistles, and then many of the Old Testament Scriptures. Of the Psalms Benedict says,  

For monks, who in a week’s time say less than the full psalter with the customary canticles betray extreme indolence and lack of devotion in their service. We read, after all, that our holy Fathers, energetic as they were, did all this in a single day. Let us hope that we, lukewarm as we are, can achieve it in a whole week.[ii]

In doing so, Benedict in his teaching sets a model for us in our own pursuit of God. The teaching is not just Benedict’s teaching, it is the Lord’s teaching, and this teaching of the Lord is brought from a wide variety of verses in Holy Scripture, and if we would follow St. Benedict we will also follow the teachings of Holy Scripture. But this teaching of the Lord runs cross-grain against our fundamental rebellion protecting our own autonomy and our lordship over ourselves. That is why Benedict places such a strong emphasis on obedience, saying,

“The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience, which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all. Because of the holy service they have professed, or because of the dread of hell and for the glory of everlasting life, they carry out the superior’s order as promptly as if the command came from God himself. The Lord says of men like this: No sooner did he hear than he obeyed me (Psalm 18:45); again, he tells teachers: Whoever listens to you, listens to me (Luke 10:16). Such people as these immediately put aside their own concerns, abandon their own will, and lay down whatever they have in hand, leaving it unfinished. With the ready step of obedience, they follow the voice of authority in their actions.”[iii]

It is through surrender and obedience that we pass through the gate where the angel with the flaming sword bars the way before us.[iv]

Benedict says of the Abbot, “The Abbot must never teach or decree anything that would deviate from the Lord’s instructions.”[v] Neither psychology nor any other human wisdom ought to be the source for the Abbot’s guidance for his monks. For Benedict, the revelation of God in Holy Scripture, and its witness to the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, is his source for his Rule. For Benedict it is the Incarnate Word to whom ultimately we all must bow, whether or not we like it; “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet,”[vi] and, every tongue must “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[vii]

Benedict was thoroughly Catholic in his treatment of Holy Scripture and his instructions to his monks came at a time when the great Ecumenical Councils were hammering out the nature of that orthodox faith. Benedict would have been in thorough agreement with Vincent of Lerins in the 5th Century who said,

Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’[viii] as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.[ix]

We on our part live in an age where the ancient heresies are being re-played as though Church History did not exist. As a result, we need to revisit the nature of false teaching so that we may plant our feet solidly on Holy Scripture. Today we do have false prophets and teachers, and well as prophets and teachers who are true to the Word of God; and sometimes these false prophets rise to leadership in the Church.

This becomes important on a personal level because through the media, and especially through the social media, there is a constant hammering against the notion that Jesus Christ is Lord. But this is an illusion fostered by the principalities and powers; the rulers of this present age.[x] Pre-eminently in all of the media, from television programming and news, to internet media, to social media, to movies, and to books, the principalities and powers are hammering us about human sexuality, seeking to break down the nature of marriage. We should remember that marriage, the union of one man and one woman is the very model, in our flesh, of Christ and his Church.[xi] It is not a matter of the liberation and dignity of those with other sexual orientations as we are constantly told, but it is a matter of the bondage and indignity of all the world under the ‘rulers of this present age’[xii].

Is this pertinent to our walk as Oblates of St. Benedict? Remember what Benedict said, “We must then be on guard against any base desire, because death is stationed near the gateway of pleasure.”[xiii] It should be clear from a reading of The Rule of St. Benedict that for us there should be no bowing down to the morality of the world around us.

In the 1st Epistle of John we have a caution about the false prophets who would declare something contrary to the Word of God. In his First Epistle St. John says,

1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.  2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.  4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.  5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.  6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.  7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.[xiv]

Karl Barth remarks, “The spirit of the false prophet is known by the fact that it answers to what is demanded by men; the God-given spirit of the true prophet on the contrary by the fact that it does not answer to anything but speaks on its own, if and whatever it is commanded to speak. Thus the former has no power—just as a stone or drip of water hurled at the sky certainly will not reach the sky, whereas a hailstone or a drop of water falling from the sky will reach the earth” [xv] Here Barth is drawing from a mid-second century Apostolic Father,

The Shepherd of Hermas: Commandment Eleventh

Try by his deeds and his life the man who says that he is inspired. But as for you, trust the Spirit which comes from God, and has power; but the spirit which is earthly and empty trust not at all, for there is no power in it: it comes from the devil. Hear, then, the parable which I am to tell you. Take a stone, and throw it to the sky, and see if you can touch it. Or again, take a squirt of water and squirt into the sky, and see if you can penetrate the sky." "How, sir," say I, "can these things take place? for both of them are impossible." "As these things," says he, "are impossible, so also are the earthly spirits powerless and pithless[xvi]. But look, on the other hand, at the power which comes from above. Hail is of the size of a very small grain, yet when it falls on a man's head how much annoyance it gives him! Or, again, take the drop which falls from a pitcher to the ground, and yet it hollows a stone. You see, then, that the smallest things coming from above have great power when they fall upon the earth. Thus also is the Divine Spirit, which comes from above, powerful. Trust, then, that Spirit, but have nothing to do with the other."[xvii]

            An Old Testament account of King Ahab and the False Prophets that illustrates this principle is found in the footnotes. [xviii]

Current Progressive theological reflection begins with the needs of the world and from them attempts to understand God’s ways among men. The method is upside down. It is not that the needs of humankind and of the world are unimportant; but rather that God has already addressed them in His Word and it behooves us to listen first to what God has said in His word. By the way, I carefully used the words “progressive theological reflection” instead of Progressive Theology, because the word “theology” [Theo-Logos] refers to the knowledge of God, but revelation begins with what God has already said, not what men try to deduce on the basis of their own preconceptions. There is as a result no such thing as “progressive theology” for you cannot reach the knowledge of God starting from the bottom up.[xix]

St. Benedict would agree thoroughly with John Donne, the 17th Century Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral who makes the point very clear when he says, “The Scriptures are God’s voyce; the Church is His eccho.”  The same might be said of the Rule of St. Benedict, “The Scriptures are God’s voyce; and the Rule is his eccho.” When Benedict wrote his Rule he made it clear that the Word of God was the source for his teaching; as Jesus said, “It stands written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"[xx] In the temptation in the wilderness Jesus three times answers the devil saying, ge,graptai – “it stands written,” and that sensibility is also true of the use of Holy Scripture in The Rule of St. Benedict.

At the very end of his Rule St. Benedict writes, “What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator?”[xxi] To be a Benedictine is to follow the ways and teaching of St. Benedict, and Benedict himself clearly followed the teachings of Holy Scripture and the traditions of the early Catholic Fathers. In the midst of all the vagaries and uncertainty of our contemporary world Benedict’s Rule provides for us firm foundation as we hasten to our heavenly home.[xxii]

[i] The Rule of St. Benedict [RB], The Prologue 33-34
[ii] RB, Ch. 19: 24, 25
[iii] Ibid, Ch. 5:1-8
[iv] Genesis 3:24
[v] Ibid, Ch. 2:4
[vi] Psalm 8:6  
[vii] Philippians 2:11  
[viii] Catholic means Universal
[ix] Vincent of Lerins 5th C :  The Vincentian Canon
[x] Ephesians 6:10
[xi] Ephesians 5:25-33
[xii] Ephesians 6:12
[xiii] RB Ch. 7, v 24
[xiv] 1 John 4:1-8 
[xv] Barth, “God’s Time and Our Time”, The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 60
[xvi] Pithless: having no substance or significance
[xvii] “The Pastor of Hermas”, The Ante-Nicene Library, Vol. 1, trans. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, n.d.), p. 368
[xviii] 2 Chronicles 18:4-17 [I Kings 22 & II Chronicles 18 ].

Ahab and the False Prophets
4 And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, "Inquire first for the word of the LORD."  5 Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, four hundred men, and said to them, "Shall we go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?" And they said, "Go up, for God will give it into the hand of the king."  6 But Jehoshaphat said, "Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?"  7 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, "There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the LORD, Micaiah the son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil." And Jehoshaphat said, "Let not the king say so."  8 Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, "Bring quickly Micaiah the son of Imlah."  9 Now the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes. And they were sitting at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria, and all the prophets were prophesying before them.  10 And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron and said, "Thus says the LORD, 'With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed.'"  11 And all the prophets prophesied so and said, "Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph. The LORD will give it into the hand of the king." 
12 And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, "Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably."  13 But Micaiah said, "As the LORD lives, what my God says, that I will speak."  14 And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, "Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall I refrain?" And he answered, "Go up and triumph; they will be given into your hand."  15 But the king said to him, "How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?"  16 And he said, "I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the LORD said, 'These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.'"  17 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, "Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?"[xviii]

[xix] Alexander Pope 18th C, was wrong when he wrote “Presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.” Contrary to this, “It is not for us to know in advance what we are on the ground of a general anthropology. We are what the Word of God tells us we are. We are flesh. And that is what God’s Word Himself becomes in His revelation. Right in the decisive passage Jn. 1:14, it does not say generally “man,” but concretely “flesh.” [Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, The Word of God, Chapter II, 13].
[xx] Matthew 4:4
[xxi] RB Ch. 73:3-4
[xxii] RB Ch. 73:8