Diving into the Thorns

A reflection by Abbot James Albers, OSB

A reflection by Abbot James Albers, OSB

A passage from the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict by Pope St. Gregory the Great:

One day while [St. Benedict] was alone, the tempter came in the form of a little blackbird, which began to flutter in front of his face. It kept so close that he could easily have caught it in his hand. Instead he made the sign of the Cross and the bird flew away. The moment it left, he was seized with an unusually violent temptation. The evil spirit recalled to his mind a woman he had once see, and before he realized it his emotions were carrying him away. Almost overcome in the struggle, he was on the point of abandoning the lonely wilderness, when suddenly with the help of God’s grace he came to himself.

Just then he noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him. Throwing his garment aside he flung himself naked in to the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed util his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain off the poison of temptation from his body. Before long the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart. It was by exchanging these two fires that he gained the victory over sin. So complete was his triumph that from then on, as he later told his disciples, he never experienced another temptation of this kind.

Soon after, man forsook the world to place themselves under his guidance, for now that he was free from these temptations he was ready to instruct others in the practice of virtue. That is why Moses commanded the Levites to begin their service when they were twenty-five years old and to become guardians of the sacred vessels only at the age of fifty.

What can we take from this story of St. Benedict and the thorn bush? –  The path to sainthood is not for the faint of heart.

For whenever the Cross is involved there will be trials. There will be trials and challenges that might seem impossible to overcome. Yet where there is temptation there will be grace and virtue all the more to accompany us. How our human condition, our human heart so easily leads us down the path away from goodness.

Jesus is clear in the gospels that these foul manifestations of our human nature are the vices we find in our hearts. It is not the food or drink or images that profane; the source is not some external unmentionable that has caused the violation, but what comes forth from the human heart.

To confront a struggle in sin is not to heap pleasantries of faith, one on top of the other, to make us feel good. Rather we need a conversion to reality to see that it demands of us a more radical and internal battle in our heart. We must acknowledge that we don’t always have control of the passion or thought in our heart, but we do have the freedom to choose whether to entertain those thoughts or to do battle against them.

The desert father Evagrius wrote:  “Whether or not we are troubled by all these [thoughts] does not depend on us.  We may, however, be able to choose whether to prolong them and whether they move us or not.”

A passion, an unprompted feeling, a thought that comes out of the blue is not always culpable, we are not always culpable for them; they are burdens we must bear – they become sin only when our free choice gives to assent; when anger becomes an act of aggression, or lust gives birth to unchastity.

St. Benedict is an example of temptation entangling even the most holy of people, yet also the example of one who directs his desire toward conversion. In our human nature we will encounter struggle – whether we choose to be realistic about it or not, it will determine our ability to experience victory over those struggles. We all must be prepared, in whatever vocational journey God calls us, for that temptation which will surely come. Down whichever vocational path God calls us there will be this inner struggle.

To be quite frank, and hopefully not too brash, whether we are called to the priesthood or consecrated life, or to the married state, the vows we take do not cause the flip of some switch within us that will take all of our passions away – they continue to be present. St. Benedict calls it a battle, a battle to be fought with the holy weapons of obedience. We all need to be prepared for temptation whether at the beginning of our journey or at the end; the struggle will be present.

St. Aelred, the Cistercian monk warned is brothers:  “It is written, however, ‘Son you have come to the service of God.  Stand bravely and prepare your soul for temptation’ (Sir. 2:1).  Immediately the affection for sins, the memory of delights, and long-lasting habit attack the poor soul from every side and cause it trouble.”

Denial of this struggle, denial of this battle that is going on within us, this interior division, will only lead us eventually to a hardness of heart. So, what actions can we take to do this holy battle short of throwing ourselves into a thorn bush?

We monks in the Abbey are reading for Lent the book by the monk Fr. Michael Casey entitled, Grace; On the Journey to God – I highly recommend it.

In his chapter entitled “The Grace of Temptation” – I didn’t misread that, it is entitled “The Grace of Temptation” – Fr. Michael points to St. Aelred, again, with these points:

  • First, we need to actively detest the vice and to call it by its name instead of hiding behind denial and rationalization.

  • Second, we need to accuse ourselves honestly, at least in the privacy of our conscience.

  • Third, we need to act as our own prosecutors and make a case against the vice, to think through our situation honestly and try to construct a reasoned argument for improvement.

  • Fourth, we need to listen to the reproaches of others, including those nearest and dearest to us.

  • Finally, we need to ask God to extinguish the vice, so as to come before God in all simplicity, recognizing our inability to combat it, and our need for his grace.

St. Benedict’s disciples raised him up so he could spend his final moments on earth offering thanks to God.

St. Benedict’s disciples raised him up so he could spend his final moments on earth offering thanks to God.

As we celebrate the transitus – the death of St. Benedict – we are given another important example by our holy patron. At the end, as he approached death, St. Benedict asked his brothers to carry him into the chapel so that he could praise God his Father.

He didn’t keep his relationship with God for himself, rather through the grace of a battle well fought he enters in with his brothers – he makes himself vulnerable to them and allows them to hold him accountable. They carry him to the Eucharist so that he might travel the final road.

And so, we too must resolve, monk and lay person alike – we who call St. Benedict our patron – we must resolve to take that same road. It is the road St. Benedict speaks of in Chapter 7 of his Rule, “On Humility.”

It is there that he speaks of the vision Jacob had of a road leading from where he prayed all the way to heaven. St. Benedict says that we ascend that road to heaven by descending; descending in humility.

Jesus tells us, “He who humbles himself will be exalted” – “Amen, amen, I say to you… everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.”

And so, on this path, let us eat and drink now the same Body and Blood of our Lord that made St. Benedict a saint. Let us eat and drink now the same Body and Blood of our Lord that brought St. Benedict to heaven.

Let us seek the things that are above, and do now what will profit us for eternity.