A Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery of men

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Good zeal

Although we described Benedictine balance on the previous page, still some questions might be raised about it. For instance, if balance means moderation, couldn’t some take that to mean being neither too hot nor too cold, and thus lukewarm? Yet Christ does not have kind words about being lukewarm (see Rev 3:16)!

St. Benedict does not want lukewarm monks. Rather, he exhorts monks to be zealous when he writes: “Just as there is a bad zeal of bitterness that separates from God and leads to hell, so too there is a good zeal that separates from vices and leads to God and to eternal life. Let monks, then, exercise this latter kind of zeal with most fervent love” (chap. 72, vv.1-3). Interestingly, there is a bad zeal that needs to be avoided. But there is also a good zeal that we must put into practice. By it, we advance toward God and eternal life.

Elsewhere, St. Benedict writes: “If we want to dwell in the tent of His kingdom, then unless we run to it by good actions, we will simply not reach it” (prologue, v. 22). Here he says that we go to God through good works, whereas above he said that we advance toward God through good zeal. But it is easy to see the connection, for good zeal leads to good works. Good zeal is the spirit within that prompts us to do the good works by which we go to God. We need good zeal, therefore, and this zeal needs to be put into practice by doing good works.

Here’s another question about Benedictine balance. If Benedictine balance requires, as we said on the previous page, keeping different elements in balance, then how do we discern the right balance of these elements? That is, how much work and how much prayer should I have in my day? Or how much rest or time for socializing should be allowed, along with time for work, prayer, and other things?

The right arrangement can be discerned in terms of what was just said above. We need to advance along the path that leads to God and His kingdom; therefore, the right balance so arranges things that we do advance on the path to God. As noted, we will not move forward on this path without good works, which spring from good zeal. Therefore, to put the matter succinctly: the right balance arranges things so that good zeal is alive and active. We can consider this a definition of Benedictine balance in terms of its purpose.

According to this definition, we have not achieved balance if we combine things in a way that stifles good zeal, or leads to bad zeal with its bitterness. Immoderation, for example, stifles good zeal, and is thus unbalanced. If we are too rigorous with ourselves, then we become exhausted. Good zeal dies for want of energy, as do good works. Or if we are too easy on ourselves, then good zeal also dies because, given to comforts, we become complacent rather than zealous for good works. In other words, immoderation takes us off the path that leads to God by making us veer off to one side due to rigorism or to the other due to laxity. Instead, we must arrange things so that good zeal is alive and active, for by good zeal and the works that flow from it we go to God.

Thus, true balance serves good zeal. Much more could be said about good zeal, since it is that interior spirit which results from the important virtues of faith, hope, and love as well as of humility, gratitude, and obedience. In a way, good zeal is the opposite of self-will, which we discussed as our main spiritual hindrance on the page, St. Benedict's teaching. Self-will holds us back from God (see prologue, vv. 2-3), while good zeal leads us to God. The two are opposed. 

Quote from the Rule of St. Benedict

"See, out of His devotion the Lord shows us the way to life! Therefore, having girded our loins with faith and the observance of good deeds, and following the gospel’s guidance, may we continue on its path, so that we may merit to see Him 'who has called us into His kingdom' (1 Thess 2:12)."

- Rule of St. Benedict prol. 20-21


Further reading

For deeper reading in this subject, one might read the Conferences of John Cassian, particularly the first two conferences. Cassian was a monastic author who preceded St. Benedict and whose works St. Benedict wanted his monks to know.

Following an ancient monastic tradition, Cassian says that monks strive for purity of heart as their goal in the monastic life. If they do, then they will reach the end of seeing God in His kingdom (cf. "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God").  In a way, the path of good zeal described here is the way that leads to purity of heart and continues in it.