The book of Numbers offers us an imporant lesson: an admonition against grumbling. We see that the Lord becomes angry at the Israelites because of their grumbling and complaining. This admonition comes up often throughout the Rule of St. Benedict.
But the problem goes deeper than grumbling, which is a symptom and not the problem itself, leading to a deeper lesson: What were they grumbling about?
They missed the leeks and onions of Egypt. They forgot the God who rescued them from bitter slavery. They forgot the oppressive burdens of slavery in the place associated with sin and idolatry. They spurned the care of a Provident God by turning their nose at the austerity of a food like manna.
Does monastic life make you yearn for the leeks and onions of a previous life or of a life that “could have been” for you? “So what if I go out to eat, have a good pizza and beer?”—despite chapter 51 of the Rule. “So what if I accept this gift from family and friends?”—despite chapter 54 of the Rule? “So what if I spend some time being idle, looking at useless things on the internet?”—despite St. Benedict saying that idleness is the enemy of the soul (RB 48). Or with respect to our readings, “So what if I desire cucumbers and fish, leeks, garlic, and onions”—one could even mention the fleshpots of Exodus 16:3— “from the place that oppressed me? Who really cares? Does God care? So what if I’m looking back to where I left? Let’s face it, this place here, well, doesn’t have everything I want!”
Abbot Jean-Charles Nault, OSB, in his book The Noonday Devil: Acedia, The Unnamed Evil of Our Times (Ignatius Press, 2015, pg. 155), quotes another author saying: “
There is a temptation, for each one of us, to take back our marbles, to reclaim, openly or more subtly, what we renounced in becoming monks. For St. Benedict, things are our worst enemies, because, in offering us a certain autonomy, they invite us to abandon the “difficult, harsh” things that lead to God. That is why St. Benedict chose to cut off temptations at the root, by forbidding any return to the “onions of Egypt” (see Num 11:5), for our freedom consists, not in always being able to turn back, but rather in being able to weather the storms.
Monastic life is a desert with a lot of storms, a place where this noonday devil attacks, knowing it is full of monks who are “doing battle from the true king, Christ the Lord” (RB Prol 1). And we monks only have five loaves and two fish—or sometimes it feels like we only have a handful of bread crumbs and fish bones! At those times, if we start complaining about missing the leeks and onions, we will miss out on witnessing to the God whose heart is moved with pity for us, who gives us manna, which fulfills all of our needs, each to his own taste (Wisdom 16:20).
We don’t know how good we have it here. This place may not have everything we want—because our wants are disordered due to the lifelong sloth of disobedience (RB Prol 2)—but it has exactly what we need: our loving Lord and Savior in the Holy Eucharist that can bring us to heaven. My brothers, what else do we need?